Tight 2nd District race features two candidates with state experience

The Polk County Election Office provided stickers to early voters on Oct. 5, 2020. (Photo By Perry Beeman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Iowa state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks ran and lost three campaigns for a U.S. House seat representing southeastern Iowa. This year, on her fourth attempt and with the seat open, the Republican is hoping she has her best shot yet.

Republican congressional candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks, right, tours Weiler Products in Knoxville with company President Pat Weiler. (Photo courtesy of The Concept Works Inc.)

But Miller-Meeks faces a formidable opponent in Democrat Rita Hart, a former state senator who unsuccessfully ran for lieutenant governor in 2018. 

Each time Miller-Meeks ran before, she lost to U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, a Democrat who first won the seat in 2006 in a close defeat of longtime moderate Republican Jim Leach. 

Now Loebsack is retiring, and there are signs that voters in the district might look more favorably on Republicans again despite Loebsack’s string of victories.

While President Barack Obama beat Sen. Mitt Romney there in 2012, President Donald Trump won the district in 2016. An Iowa Poll published on Sept. 22 found Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden locked in a tie statewide.

“It’s a competitive district in a competitive state in a competitive year,” said Eric Woolson, a spokesperson for the Miller-Meeks campaign. “The fact that this is an open district and that the voters know her and respect her certainly enhances her prospects on Nov. 3.”

Rita Hart, Democratic candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat, campaigns Saturday outside a school in Bennett, where she once taught. (Photo courtesy of Rita Hart campaign)

Hart has amassed $3.3 million in campaign funds compared to $1.4 million for Miller-Meeks. Outside groups, including national party organizations, are also running ads and weighing in on the race. 

Both candidates have compelling biographies outside of their electoral histories: Miller-Meeks is an Army veteran, physician and former director of the state Department of Public Health, while Hart is a farmer and former teacher. 

A late September poll by the Des Moines Register found that likely voters in the district preferred a Democrat over a Republican representative in Congress by a 50-46 split, well within the margin of error of 8.7 percentage points for the district.

Jacob Rubashkin, a reporter and analyst with Inside Elections, a political forecasting firm, said with such a close race, Hart has the edge, because Biden has outperformed expectations in Iowa. 

The Democratic presidential nominee “has really shored up support among white people in the northern part of the country, not just in the suburbs, but in the rural parts as well,” he said. In Iowa, that means that places like the 2nd Congressional District would be more friendly territory for Democrats, Rubashkin added.

As with most competitive congressional races this year, health insurance has been a divisive issue in the southeastern Iowa contest. 

During her previous runs for Congress, Miller-Meeks has criticized the Affordable Care Act signed into law by Obama. One of the law’s signature components was prohibiting health insurance companies from discriminating against patients with preexisting conditions. But now the fate of the entire law is up in the air, thanks to a legal challenge that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a week after the election.

Miller-Meeks said in a September debate that Congress should prepare for the possibility that the high court will strike the law down. “We need to start working on that provision now, and make sure people continue to have coverage, and preexisting conditions are covered as well,” she said.

But Hart said the focus should be on improving the existing law, rather than starting from scratch. “It just doesn’t make sense that we’re going to jerk this away from people without a plan in place,” she said.

The National Republican Congressional Committee has run TV ads that criticized Hart for voting for a measure as a state senator that would allow insurers to deny coverage for preexisting conditions. But the bill was designed to help people who could not qualify for insurance subsidies under the ACA. It allowed the Iowa Farm Bureau to sell insurance-like coverage to its members.

“It was an option proposed by Republicans. Literally every single Republican in the state legislature supported it. It was signed by Gov. (Kim) Reynolds,” said Zachary Meunier, Hart’s campaign manager. “Rita crossed party lines because it was a solution that did not take away insurance from a single person, and she listened to her constituents who said we need something.”

Miller-Meeks, during the September debate, also brought up the possibility of charging wealthier retirees more for Medicare health coverage, something that Hart has opposed.

The two candidates have also taken different approaches in dealing with the onset of COVID-19. Hart said she would support a national mask mandate, while Miller-Meeks said it should be up to individuals to decide. 

Miller-Meeks, of Ottumwa, has stressed her credentials as a physician and her time as the state public health director as preparation for dealing with the pandemic. 

She also ran an ad blaming congressional Democrats for not reaching a deal on coronavirus relief and not protecting the United States from the virus that originated in China. (The ad blamed Hart too, even though Hart is not in Congress.)

Meanwhile, both candidates are emphasizing their life stories as they try to win over voters. 

Miller-Meeks was one of eight children, noted spokesperson Woolson. Her father was an enlisted man in the Air Force. 

When Miller-Meeks was 15, she was badly burned and, during her recovery, she decided she wanted to be a doctor. So she left home and enrolled in community college when she was 16, enlisted in the U.S. Army two years later and eventually became a doctor. 

“Her story of growing up poor and working very hard to become the professional that she is, that is one that a lot of people relate to,” Woolson said.

Hart emphasizes her rural roots. “We’ve got a unique Democratic candidate who is an actual farmer and a teacher who lives outside of a town of 700 people … Literally, most of her neighbors are Republicans,” said Meunier, Hart’s campaign manager. Hart lives just outside Wheatland.

“We want to make sure people know Rita has bipartisan support, Rita is a rural Iowan and Rita is going to protect health care,” he said. “If we continue to talk about that, regardless of what is happening up and down the ticket, that’s going to put us in a good position.”

Candidate bios, fundraising

RITA HART

Former Iowa Sen. Rita Hart is running for Congress in the 2nd District. (Photo courtesy of Hart campaign)

Born in: St. Charles

Lives in: Wheatland

Age: 64

Family: Husband, Paul; five children

Education: Associate degree, North Iowa Area Community College; bachelor’s degree, University of Northern Iowa; master’s degree, University of Iowa.

Professional life: Taught at Bennett Community School and Calamus-Wheatland Community School District. Owns and operates a farm with her husband.

Political life: Former Iowa state senator

Fundraising reported as of Sept. 30

Total raised, $3.3 million 

Total spent: $2.3 million

Cash on hand, $986,396

Top contributors:

University of Iowa (staff, affiliates and families), $73,583

Digidems PAC, $27,400

Emily’s List, $26,023

Essex Meadows, $25,200

Top sectors:

Ideology/single issue, $746,991

Finance/insurance/real estate, $427,108

Labor, $161,514

Health, $148,723

Lawyers and lobbyists, $137,928

Top industries:

Retired $402,327

Democratic/Liberal $305,165

Securities and investment, $265,366

Education, $148,258

Lawyers and law firms, $127,197

Women’s issues, $121,048

MARIANNETTE MILLER-MEEKS

Iowa state Sen. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is running for Congress in District 2. (Photo courtesy of Iowa Senate)

Born in: Herlong, California

Lives in: Ottumwa

Age: 65

Family: Husband, Curt Meeks; two children

Education: Bachelor’s degree, Texas Christian University; master’s degree in education from the University of Southern California; medical degree, University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Professional life: Served 24 years in the U.S. Army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Practicing ophthamologist.

Political experience: Currently a state senator. Previously ran unsuccessfully three times for the 2nd Congressional District seat.

Fundraising as of Sept. 30

Total raised: $1.4 million

Total spent: $993,646

Cash on hand, $383,563

Debt: $95,000

Top contributors: 

Musco Lighting, $11,200

Brownell’s Inc., $10,900

American Academy of Ophthamology, $10,500

Croell Inc., $10,000

Ideology/single issue, $212,917

Finance/Insurance/real estate, $117,534

Misc. business, $100,506

Health, $66,292

Top Industries

Retired, $186,557

Leadership PACs, $117,050

Health professionals, $51,686

Securities and investment, $46,568

Manufacturing and Distributing, $41,052

— Perry Beeman contributed to this report