Southeast Iowa has gone from being the 2nd Congressional District to the 1st since Christina Bohannan began running for its U.S. House seat in August 2021. But the major concerns of its residents have remained the same, she said.
Inflation and the cost of living has been a constant topic, Bohannan told Little Village.
”When you look at this district, the median income here in this district is somewhere around $40 to $45 thousand,” she said. “So these aren’t people with huge 401ks or lots of money lying around, right? People really do need to make ends meet. A lot of people do live paycheck to paycheck. And so those costs are really hurting right now.”
“So we’ve been hearing a lot about that for a long time and rightly so. That’s something I obviously care a lot about, because I, that’s how I grew up.”
Bohannan grew up in a working-class family in a small Florida town. When Bohannan was in high school, her father, a construction worker, fell ill, losing his job and his health insurance, and the family frequently had to choose between spending their limited income on his medicine and all their other expenses.
“I see people in southeast Iowa making those choices all the time,” Bohannan said.
Since June — when the Iowa Supreme Court reversed itself and declared the right to an abortion is not a fundamental right guaranteed by the Iowa Constitution, and then the U.S. Supreme Court overturned almost half-a-century of legal precedents in order to eliminate the rights established by Roe v. Wade — Bohannan has been hearing more about the need to protect reproductive freedom.
“That cuts across party,” she said. “We’re hearing about that from independents, from Democrats, from some moderate Republicans, too.”
It’s a clear point of contrast between Bohannan and Republican incumbent Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who won the 2020 election by six votes. Bohannan still supports the framework created by the Roe decision in 1973. Last year, Miller-Meeks signed on as one of the co-sponsors of the Life at Conception Act, which would have made all abortion illegal under federal law. Miller-Meeks has subsequently said she does support certain exceptions from abortion bans, including in cases of rape and incest, and to save the life of the mother, even though the bill included none of these.
In July, Miller-Meeks voted against a bill that would guarantee a person’s right to access birth control.
Another constant concern Bohannan said she’s heard is the need to “reinvest in public education,” which also hits a personal note for her.
Bohannan was the first member of her family to attend college, earning a degree in environmental engineering from the University of Florida. After working for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, she decided to enroll in the UF College of Law.
Bohannan came to Iowa City in 2000 as a visiting professor at the UI College of Law. Two years later, she joined the faculty full time, and is now the Lauridsen Family Fellow in Law and director of the Master of Studies in Law program.
But she said education encompasses a broader scope than just what goes on in a classroom. Many businesses in the district are looking for a variety of skilled labor, “so we need union apprenticeships.”
“The interesting thing about that is the roadblocks to building up the workforce are education, affordable housing, childcare and healthcare premiums for employees,” she said. “Those are the main issues that we’re hearing about.”
“What is striking to me is that when you look at our Republican legislature now and our Republican governor, they talk a lot about the workforce crisis, and they’re blaming it on all these things and they’re cutting back on unemployment, cutting back on union rights [like] collective bargaining.”
She continued, “They’re talking about childcare, because a lot of women who left the workforce because of COVID aren’t coming back because they don’t have childcare or childcare is too expensive.”
But Bohannan said she’s also been hearing from voters about issues that cut to the heart of politics throughout the campaign.
“They’ve always been concerned about our democracy,” she recounted. “That’s one of the things I hear about the most — people who are worried about voting rights, worried about insurrection, misinformation. I think a lot of people are very concerned about the amount of misinformation that’s out there and what that’s doing to our democracy and how it’s distorting our politics.”
Some of the misinformation circulating in the 1st District comes for sources that peddle it year in and year out, such as Fox News, local news on Sinclair Broadcasting stations and talk radio. But during this campaign, a lot has also come from advertising by Miller-Meeks and PACs supporting her reelection. In particular, the Congressional Leadership Fund (CLF) has aggressively engaged in dishonest ads.
CLF is invariably described as a super PAC “associated” or “affiliated” with Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader who is in line to become speaker if Republicans take control of the chamber in the midterm elections. Those words are used to convey a slight distance between McCarthy and CLF so as not to violate federal law. But McCarthy and the CLF don’t need to coordinate, since both share the same goal and tactics.
CLF has worked to help Republicans take or maintain control of the House of Representatives since 2011, when it was associated or affiliated with the then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, an Ohio Republican. The PAC is targeting 42 Democrats this year, including three in Iowa — Bohannan, Cindy Axne and Liz Mathis. It has raised approximately a quarter of a billion dollars during this election cycle.
CLF posts all of its ads on its site, and they all follow the same basic script. Grainy black-and-white photos of a Democratic candidate appear on the screen, intercut with images meant to stoke fear. Grim headline-like graphics appear, and an off-screen narrator warns that electing Democrats, shown in grainy black-and-white photos, would endanger the viewer’s community and family.
In Bohannan’s case, CLF has run different versions of an ad accusing her of wanting to defund the police and abolish prison — positions she’s never endorsed — and of being anti-police by voting against the so-called Back the Blue bill passed by the Iowa Legislature in 2021.
That bill was passed almost entirely on party-line votes. Every Democrat in the Iowa Senate voted against it, and all but three of Bohannan’s fellow Democrats in the Iowa House did as well.
Despite its name, Back the Blue largely focused on protesters and other Iowans rather than on increasing support for law enforcement officers. It increased criminal penalties for offenses that occur during protests, while offering protection to drivers who hit people marching in the street. It also made it a crime not to immediately pull over for any officer flashing a police light, even if the officer is not in uniform and the car is unmarked. That contradicts advice routinely given by police departments to not pull over in such circumstances.
The bill also didn’t attempt to accomplish what law enforcement groups were pushing for.
“One of the absolute biggest priorities that law enforcement wanted was better benefits,” Bohannan said. In particular, groups representing law enforcement officers were looking for increased retirement benefits. That was not included in the bill Republicans brought to the floor.
“We thought that they do a difficult job and this was the main thing that would have made a difference to their quality of life and to their ability to recruit and retain good law enforcement officers,” Bohannan said.
Democrats offered an amendment that would have added the requested benefits to the bill, but Republicans voted it down.
Bohannan has been in the Iowa House representing Iowa City since 2021, after winning a landslide victory against a 20-year incumbent in the 2020 Democratic primary. She was unopposed in that year’s general election. This year she was unopposed in the primary for the seat in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District.
Republicans have had control of both chambers of the Iowa Legislature, as well as the governor’s office, since 2017, and have largely moved in a lockstep. Bohannan thinks her experience as a lawmaker in those circumstances would be useful in Congress, especially if the Republicans win control of the House in the midterm elections.
“I have found a lot of success working with members of the majority party here in the legislature,” she said. “… I think the key is to realize that we have extremes on all sides and in all parties, and we have to realize not everybody is like that. That there are still people who are there in the other party to try to do good things for people, although we may have different ideas about the best way to go about that.
“You seek out those people and you try to form those relationships and you work on things together. And I’ve done that in the Iowa House and I will do that in Congress.”
Bohannan said if she’s elected the committee assignment she’d want the most is a seat on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, as a way of working on two priorities: growing the economy in rural parts of Iowa and addressing climate change. She sees Iowa’s extensive and growing use of renewable energy as creating a strong base to work on both.
“I care a lot about revitalizing our small towns and rural areas with things like new manufacturing jobs, technological jobs,” Bohannan explained. “I think Iowa could be a great place for all kinds of manufacturing, like semiconductors and other things. Also, on the energy side, we get more of our electricity in Iowa from renewable energy than just about any other state. I think that could be a huge growth area for us … a growth area for our economy, while we also take action on climate change.”
All that depends, of course, on Bohannan being elected. Defeating an incumbent is always difficult, especially one backed by the kind of outside spending done by CLF and other pro-Republican groups like Miller-Meeks is. But Bohannan points to the fact that Miller-Meeks won in a year when COVID-19 prevented Democrats from holding in-person events and engaging in door-step-level campaigning. And a sizable number of UI students that would normally be voters in the district were somewhere else; the pandemic had largely shut down the campus. This year is free from those restrictions, and Bohannan said her campaign is putting a lot into their get-out-the-vote efforts.
“We have a great operation for it across the district,” she said. “It’s very impressive, the number of people and volunteers we have who are working on this.”
According to Bohannan, that’s a reflection of Democrats understanding how important this election is.