There’s a battle royale brewing in Iowa, and it doesn’t involve Michele Bachmann or Rick Perry.
Call it Iowa’s other race: Steve King vs. Christie Vilsack.
“It’s a huge race – not just for Iowa, but nationally,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director who edits The Iowa Republican.
It was just last month that Vilsack, a former teacher and the wife of Agriculture Secretary and former Gov. Tom Vilsack, officially launched her campaign for the western Iowa congressional seat King has held for the last decade. But the contest already has all the makings of a classic – mountains of cash, big-name endorsements and engaged outside groups.
Before Vilsack announced her candidacy, Tom Vilsack said the race would be a “holy war” — and King seems to agree.
“I’m not waking up in the morning thinking about it, and I’m not going to sleep at night worried about it. But this will be a big race. It will be a national race,” King told POLITICO.
The bombastic King is determined to steer the race toward a high-profile debate on national issues and a referendum on the Obama White House. He predicted that local issues would play a relatively minor role in the race, and that the agenda items central to his campaign would be health care, the nation’s deficit and taxes.
“This race will mirror the presidential race,” he said.
That, he said, will mean tying Vilsack to the White House.
“I would submit that Obama’s policies are going to be an issue,” he said. “This runs all the way to Obama and her husband.”
National figures are already weighing in. For conservatives, there are few figures more beloved than King, a cable TV-friendly, tea party-aligned congressman who was recently the beneficiary of a fundraiser headlined by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, possibly the GOP’s biggest rock star. Vilsack, meanwhile, has secured support from liberal mainstays like Norman Lear, the veteran Hollywood producer, and Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire financier George Soros – not to mention President Barack Obama allies like David Axelrod.
Democrats are eager to claim the scalp of a conservative who’s turned Obama-bashing into a sport. Republicans want to put a quick end to an up-and-coming pol and the wife of an Obama Cabinet member who’s long been a force on the state’s political scene. During the run-up to the 2004 presidential caucuses, it was Christie Vilsack who delivered a crucial late endorsement to Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry.
“It will be huge for Iowa Republicans because it could be a jumping off point for Christie to run for Senate,” said Robinson. “Iowa has two Senate seats open down the road. People are starting to scratch their heads and wonder who’s going to run. If Christie can run and win in the hard parts of the district, she might turn around and say, ‘I want to do it.’”
GOP-aligned outside groups are starting to pour in resources to boost a suddenly endangered ally. Club for Growth, the deep-pocketed anti-tax organization, has endorsed King and bundled $100,000 for campaign – nearly half the amount the Iowa Republican has raised this year – while Heritage Action has flooded Iowa mailboxes with praise for King’s support of the controversial House GOP plan to reform Medicare.
And American Future Fund, the Iowa-based organization, has endorsed King and has sent him $5,000. Nick Ryan, a onetime top political aide to former Iowa Rep. Jim Nussle who heads up American Future Fund, wouldn’t comment directly on the organization’s future plans to assist King, but said: “It’s the exact type of race that you see liberal and conservative groups get involved in.”
The ideological contrast in the race, Ryan said, makes it irresistible to organizations aligned with both parties.
King, for his part, doesn’t deny that the assistance could come in handy in a race where he’ll be a top Democratic target.
“To the extent that we get outside help, we’ll be grateful for it,” he said.
Vilsack will have backup of her own. EMILY’s List, the influential Washington, D.C.-based organization that boosts Democratic women who support abortion rights, formally endorsed her last week.
The Iowa Democrat is also putting to work a national fundraising network she established over the span of her husband’s long political career, hauling in over $400,000 during her first three months in the race. Over the last several months, she’s held donor events in Chicago, New York City and Washington, D.C.
Her second-quarter fundraising report included top national Democratic donors like the Chicago-based Pritzker family, super-lobbyist Steve Elmendorf and New Hampshire yogurt company CEO Gary Hirshberg. It also included longtime Vilsack family supporters like Greg Abel, who plowed cash into Tom Vilsack’s gubernatorial campaigns and his short-lived 2008 presidential campaign.
Vilsack is no stranger to national fundraising: When Tom Vilsack chaired the Democratic Governors Association in 2004, she played a key role in heading up the organization’s cash-raising push.
“She has a national profile. She met a lot of people when her husband was governor and in the state Senate,” said Jerry Crawford, a Vilsack family ally and former Iowa Democratic Party chairman.
King acknowledges that there’s a deeply personal element to the contest — he and Tom Vilsack are longtime foes, having clashed repeatedly since they served together in the state Senate in the 1990s. King can recite legislative squabbles between the two dating back more than a decade, like the time he and Vilsack faced off in a three-and-a-half hour debate over drug testing laws on the floor of the state Senate.
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