Oh, the choices: Get the rundown on candidates looking to represent Iowa in federal office

Bruce and Joni <3
Meet the opponents: U.S. Senate candidates Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst want your vote! — illustration by Mark Vollenweider

With the November election fast approaching, a number of Iowa politicians have their eyes on Washington D.C. Here’s where they stand.

U.S. Senate

There’s no escaping this U.S. Senate race.

You can hardly use your television, radio or web browser without hearing about Democrat Bruce Braley or Republican Joni Ernst. An open U.S. Senate race doesn’t come along often and interest groups aren’t letting this one go to waste—when the dust settles on the evening of Nov. 4, over $30 million will have been spent on the contest.

Braley, a lawyer and U.S. representative, and Ernst, a military veteran and Iowa Senator, have plenty to disagree about, particularly on some politically-charged social issues.

Braley is part of the movement to ban certain firearms and keep closer tabs on who’s buying guns; Ernst carries a gun herself and has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

Braley says he’s pro-choice; Ernst supported a “personhood amendment” to Iowa’s constitution, which would give legal protection to zygotes and embryos.

Braley was tepid on same-sex marriage when Iowa legalized it in 2009, but has since come around to supporting it; Ernst says she opposes gay unions, but would “allow the states to make that decision.”

The two candidates also have a fair share in common, though: Neither is calling for major drug policy reform, both support the new war in Iraq and Syria, neither has presented a plan to cut the federal deficit and both say they’d protect the federal renewable fuel standard, one of Iowa’s sacred cows.

And there’s another thing the two candidates have in common: support from a lot of really rich people.

According to data retrieved from the Federal Elections Commission earlier this month, independent organizations have already spent eight-figure sums on both sides of the race: Outside groups have spent $854,000 supporting Braley and $11.9 million attacking his opponent; outside groups have spent $7.9 million supporting Ernst and $6.7 million attacking her opponent. That’s all in addition to more than $5 million each campaign has already raised itself.

Braley polled ahead of Ernst early in the campaign, but Ernst has now snuck ahead in some polls. However, there appears to be a lack of enthusiasm over the Republican and Democrat candidates, as a chunk of the Iowa electorate remains unattached to either campaign. A Des Moines Register poll last month found 6 percent of those polled plan on voting for one of the four independent or third-party candidates in the race, while Democratic pollster Paul Harstad found that a whole 16 percent of voters were still undecided by the time early voting started in September.

U.S. House

Iowa City voters have a familiar contest on their ballots next month: U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack and thrice challenger Mariannette Miller-Meeks for the 2nd District U.S. House seat.

Loebsack, an Iowa City Democrat, is seeking a fifth term. He won easily in 2008 against Ottumwa Republican Miller-Meeks and narrowly in 2010.

Miller-Meeks left a job as Gov. Terry Branstad’s public health director to run for the U.S. House seat. As a medical doctor, she’s loudly criticized Loebsack’s vote for the Affordable Care Act, which she says is leading to care shortages. Loebsack stands by the law, which has grown somewhat more popular since it was passed, and points out that Miller-Meeks has flip-flopped on whether so-called Obamacare should be repealed.

“Over the years, I’ve heard Dr. Miller-Meeks transform and change her position,” Loebsack said.

Foreign policy has turned out to be another key theme in the campaign, as Miller-Meeks uses her status as a military veteran to question Loebsack’s work on the Armed Services Committee.

During a debate in Iowa City in August, the candidates engaged in several back-and-forth exchanges, once over the insurgency launched by the Islamic State in northern Iraq. Miller-Meeks asked why Loebsack and others in Washington didn’t see it coming.

“You had no information on what was going on in the Middle East?” Miller-Meeks said, chiding President Obama and the Democrats for lacking a strategy for the situation.

“Congress is given the info the White House chooses to give it,” shot back Loebsack, who, like Miller-Meeks, supports some kind of U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria.

During his eight years in Congress, Loebsack has tried, perhaps more than any of his peers from Iowa, to take middle-of-the-road positions. He’s a member of the bipartisan group No Labels and has frequently teamed up with Republicans to sponsor bills.

“I’ve tried to be part of the solution,” Loebsack said.

But the challenger is quick to point out that Loebsack’s bipartisanship has been unfruitful legislatively. A Des Moines Register feature a couple years ago ranked him Iowa’s least effective congressman.

“There’s not a bill that has your name on it that has been introduced and been passed,” Miller-Meeks told Loebsack during the debate.

Elsewhere in Iowa

There’s an open U.S. House race in the 1st District as incumbent Braley is leaving the seat to make his U.S. Senate run. Democrat Pat Murphy, former speaker of the Iowa House, faces Republican Rod Blum, who’s gained support from the so-called liberty movement.

Iowans in the 3rd District also have an open race on their hands, as Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Latham retires. Democrat Staci Appel is competing against Republican David Young, who placed fifth in a crowded GOP primary but earned the nomination at convention.

In the 4th District, U.S. Rep. Steve King, a nationally known and controversial conservative Republican, runs for his seventh term against Democrat Jim Mowrer.

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