Republican Rep. Tom Latham, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. House, surprised everyone last December when he announced his retirement, leaving Iowa's 3rd Congressional District an open seat.
Limited polling shows Democrat Staci Appel and Republican David Young, neck-and-neck in a district that starts in Des Moines, and spans south and west, to the Missouri and Nebraska borders.
Both are relatively untested. Appel is a mother of six who served a single term in the Iowa Senate from 2007 to 2011. Young worked for two decades as a Congressional staffer, most recently as Sen. Chuck Grassley’s chief of staff.
Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford says at times, the candidates’ lack of experience shows. “They don’t always express themselves as clearly as they might want to express themselves.”
One example of a lack of practiced skill can be seen during the candidates’ first debate on Sept. 11, in Council Bluffs.
Appel was asked if she’d support legislation urging the State Department to seize passports from terrorists.
“I would not be urging taking away their passports,” said Appel. “I think we need to make sure that we work through the system and look through it on a very diligent basis.”
It’s a talking point that seems to have some sticking power. In the second debate, Appel worked to clarify her stance.
“Let me absolutely clear, one more time. I do not support giving terrorists passports.”
Young has since changed his stance on both issues with caveats. He says the topic of retirement age is too contentious to seriously consider and has taken the issue “off the table.”
“They’re not smooth, they’re not polished,” says Dennis Goldford. “The debates between them are a little harder to watch.”
Goldford says a lack of experience, coupled with the composition of Iowa’s Third makes the race very tight.
“The district has a slight Republican plurality, followed by independents and, fairly closely by Democrats…It’s a district that could go either way. “
Since neither candidate has very high name recognition, both are attempting to energize their base, while enticing independents with endorsements from better known surrogates.
Last week Young campaigned with his former boss Sen. Chuck Grassley, arguably Iowa’s most popular politician.
“Because of his experience with me as chief of staff, and knowing how the legislative process works,” says Grassley, “he’s going to be ready to go to work on day one.”
Appel also has high profile friends. She got shout-out from former President Bill Clinton at the Harkin Steak Fry last month.
“Believe you me, anybody who can raise six kids, can run a Fortune 500 corporation; they can certainly handle a seat in Congress and do you justice.”
Family life is a common theme in Appel's commercials and speeches, since emphasizing gender is a way to energize women voters—a democratic stronghold.
For undecided moderate Clare Smith-Larson of Altoona, it might work. She feels Appel shares many of her values, but is more in line with Young on fiscal issues.
“I’m still researching all the possibilities,” says Smith-Larson. “I’m moderate...I vote according to the issues and how a particular candidates stands on those issues.”
For most in the 3rd District, the question isn’t about gender, money, or terrorism, but whether people will vote at all.
Historically, midterm elections have low voter turnout, and even close races fail to pull people to the ballot box.