In becoming the first sitting U.S. representative from Iowa to voluntarily retire in 26 years, Republican Rep. Tom Latham on Tuesday night set the stage for a highly competitive battle for his Des Moines seat in 2014.
Like the retirement announcement of fellow Republican Rep. Frank Wolf a few hours earlier, Latham's decision has given Democrats fresh hope that his 3rd Congressional District seat can flip to their corner.
Latham, first elected to Congress in 1995, won the just-reapportioned 3rd District last year in a spirited showdown with liberal Democrat and fellow Rep. Leonard Boswell.
With the district now open, there is fresh hope that the likely Democratic nominee, trial lawyer and former state Sen. Staci Appel, can turn it into one of the "magic 17" — that is, the 17 seats that Democrats need to capture control of the House and make Nancy Pelosi speaker again.
Among Republicans in the Hawkeye State, there was a sudden feeling that Latham's departure could lead at least one of candidates in the Republican primary for U.S. senator next year to "drop down" and run instead for Congress in the 3rd District.
Noting that multi-millionaire Mark Jacobs "is dominating the airwaves in the U.S. Senate race" and three of the other six Republicans vying for the Senate nod live in the 3rd District, Craig Robinson of the Iowa Republican.com political blog concluded: "Candidates like state Sen. Joni Ernst, [former U.S. Attorney] Matt Whitaker, and David Young might be wise to turn their attention to a congressional race instead.
"All three of those candidates would be better known in the congressional district than they currently are statewide," Robinson continued. "Not only have they already been campaigning in the district, the money they have raised could be easily switched from a Senate to a House campaign."
The U.S. House today has several members who began as Senate candidates and ended up running for the congressional seat they now hold. Freshman Rep. Roger Williams, R.-Tex., for example, recently recalled to Newsmax, "I started off in the Senate primary along with Ted Cruz, with whom I agreed on everything. Then redistricting created a new district where my home was [Fort Worth]. It just fell in my lap, so I left the Senate race to Ted and he won and I won the House seat."
State GOP sources told Newsmax the likeliest “switcheroo” from Senate race to House race was Young, attorney and former chief of staff to Iowa's Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Other Republican possibilities for Latham's seat being mentioned include Secretary of State Matt Schultz, midwife of the state's voter ID law, former Iowa Speaker of the House Brent Siegrist and West Des Moines Mayor Steve Gaer. All are considered strong conservatives.
The possible "wild card" in a Republican House primary should he choose to run is Bob Vander Plaats, hero of cultural conservatives and head of Mike Huckabee's winning campaign in the Iowa presidential caucuses in 2008.
Vander Plaats gained national attention in 2010 when he led the movement in which voters denied retention to three state Supreme Court justices who had ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. Among them was Justice Brent Appel, husband of front-running Democratic House hopeful Staci Appel.
As promising as the open 3rd District may appear to Democrats, a districtwide poll conducted by Lance Tarrance one month ago indicated they have their work cut out from them.
According to Tarrance’s survey, 46 percent of likely voters in the 3rd District said they would vote for an unnamed Republican for Congress while only 39 percent said they would vote for an unnamed Democrat. A huge 61 percent disapprove of Barack Obama's performance, and only 36 percent approve. On Obamacare, 58 percent disapprove — 49percent express strong disapproval — and only 38 percent support the controversial health care law.
There are cases to be made for both major parties in terms of winning the 3rd District next year. But, as they have in the first-in-the-nation "straw vote" for president every four years, Iowans have a history of surprising polls by doing the unexpected.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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