Iowa elections 2010: An interesting rerun?


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When Iowans go to the polls in 2010, they will have several interesting choices to make. Among them: Who to choose for in the gubernatorial race, incumbent Chet Culver or the GOP challenger, who could be former Gov. Terry Branstad?

But the 2010 political season will be especially compelling if an aging Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is running against a maturing Roxanne Conlin, who ran for governor and lost to Branstad in 1982.

Conlin is a formidable person and could be a powerful adversary. She was admitted to Drake University in 1961 at age 16 and graduated from law school with honors at 21.

From 1969 to 1976, she was an assistant attorney general for the state of Iowa, heading the Iowa Civil Rights section. In 1977, she became one of the first women to serve as a U.S. attorney. She was the first woman president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America.

Conlin has a Des Moines law firm, Roxanne Conlin & Associates, P.C., in which according to her biography, “she exclusively represents people who have been harmed by others, whether by discrimination, products, doctors, or vehicles.”

She is certain to have the following statement from a July 1982 New York Times article thrown at her: “she paid no state income taxes for 1981, in part because she and her husband took advantage of tax shelters that she had denounced.”

Conlin will also be painted as a far-left liberal, politically inexperienced, and the fact that she is a trial lawyer will be held against her. Iowa has also been a tough place for women running for office and remains one of a handful of states never to have elected a woman to Congress or the governorship.

Of course it’s far from certain that Conlin will win the Democratic primary, and there are other well-qualified challengers for that race. Bob Krause of Fairfield, who served in the Iowa House of Representatives and retired in 2008 after a 20-year career with the state’s Department of Transportation, is the leading contender. Tom Fiegen of Clarence and Sal Mohamed of Sioux City have also announced an interest in the Democratic primary, but they are truly unknown statewide.

Grassley was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote in November 2004, but his poll numbers have been falling as Washington politics becomes more brutal and as Iowa becomes more Democratic.

Also, Grassley bought into former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s notion that “death panels” for older Americans would be part of health-care reform, which was roundly criticized.

It is widely accepted that 2010 will be a difficult year for incumbents. In Connecticut, Christopher Dodd and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania — who are Senate cohorts of Grassley from the 1980 freshman class — will also face tough challenges.

The key question, then, is whether Grassley has been so damaged that the almost-certain re-election of an incumbent will fail in his case.

The second question is whether a woman anticipating spending $10 million to run for the Senate can connect with Iowa voters. If younger voters (the Obama brigades that overwhelmed politics in 2008) turn out in numbers, they could sweep a woman into a top office. If they stay at home, as some polls suggest, Conlin will have a difficult time overcoming the more conservative older voters.

Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science at Iowa State University and chief political correspondent for www.insideriowa.com.

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