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What's the matter with Iowa?

By Felicia Sonmez

In January 2008, Iowa Democrats churned out record-high turnout in their first-in-the-nation party caucuses. Ten months later, President Obama trounced Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the Hawkeye State by ten points.

Today, the electoral picture for the President and his party has changed drastically. In a new Des Moines Register poll, 55 percent of likely Iowa voters expressed dissatisfaction with the job President Obama has done in office; nearly six in ten (59 percent) expressed disapproval with Obama's handling of the nation's economy.

Obama's struggles are far from unique for his party in the Hawkeye State. Democrats not only appear to have lost their hold on the state's governorship -- Gov. Chet Culver (D) is trailing former Gov. Terry Branstad (R) badly -- but they're also at risk of giving up control of the state House, losing seats in the state Senate, and possibly relinquishing at least one of their three House seats.

Meanwhile, Democrat Roxanne Conlin, who had been touted by national Democrats as a strong challenger to Sen. Charles Grassley (R), is down 31 points in the Register poll.

How did things go so wrong for Democrats in the state that put Obama on the map less than three years ago?

Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn pointed to a number of factors including the state's burgeoning unemployment and the widening budget gap under Culver as reasons for the turnaround. "There's no question the political environment in Iowa has changed dramatically in two short years," he added.

Strawn also noted that Democrats' organization was boosted by competitive presidential contests in 2004 and 2008. This cycle, the attention and organization are on the GOP side -- and that bodes well for 2012, a year in which Republicans will be the ones with the competitive presidential caucuses.

It's also worth remembering that while Iowa trended heavily Democratic in 2006 and 2008, the underlying demographics of the state suggest that it is more swing state than Democratic stronghold.

While on the presidential level, Iowa has voted for the Democratic candidate in every election in the last two decades -- with the exception of 2004, when George W. Bush narrowly beat out Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) -- Republicans have shown a political resilience of their own particularly at the gubernatorial level.

Republicans held the governor's mansion for 30 of the last 42 years, and this June, 227,347 Iowans cast votes in the Republican primary, the highest GOP turnout since 1994. (Democrats, who had fewer competitive contests, saw 72,062 voters turn out for the June primary.)

Republicans now face a 55,000-person deficit in voter registration but that's far narrower than the 115,000-person deficit they faced in early 2009 when the contested presidential caucus fight amped up Democratic registration by leaps and bounds.

It's not that national Democrats have abandoned the state in the wake of Obama's 2008 win. The Democratic Governors Association, which has spent heavily on assisting Culver's bid, says that it expects Culver will win, even while acknowledging the challenge he faces.

"This race is tough, but this is a volatile election, and Governor Culver can win," said DGA communications director Emily Bittner. "A severe national recession -- created by failed Republican economic policies -- takes a toll on all elected officials, and I think that's what we're seeing in these numbers."

Sam Roecker, communications director for the Iowa Democratic Party, noted that Democrats have a three-to-one lead over Republicans in the number of absentee ballots requested. (Democrats have requested about 33,000 so far, compared with less than 12,000 for Republicans.)

Roecker also noted that Democrats' current 55,000-person registration advantage is higher than in 2006, when they were ahead by about 22,000.

According to the weekend's Iowa poll, the problem for Culver is not so much that voters disagree with his message, but that they are dissatisfied with the messenger. Sixty-seven percent of voters believe that investing in infrastructure will bring new businesses to the state -- and Culver has sought to do just that with his $875 million I-JOBS program -- but 61 percent of voters see Culver as weak on job creation.

There's also the issue of Culver's response to the devastating floods that hit the state in the summer of 2008. Culver lobbied hard for federal relief money in the wake of the floods, but has come under criticism from Branstad and others that he overpromised and has saddled the state with millions of dollars in debt by borrowing heavily to pay for the recovery effort.

Donn Stanley, Culver's campaign manager, said that the combination of the economic downturn and the flooding disaster "have probably created more challenges for Chet Culver than any governor in Iowa has had to face in a long time."

But Stanley argued that Culver's gotten "very high marks" for his response to the floods, and that both the governor's and the administration's work on flood relief have been net positives for Culver overall.

As for the enthusiasm gap facing Democrats in the state this fall, Stanley said that "part of it is just a little bit of fatigue" after the party's big wins in 2006 and 2008. Now, Stanley said, "I think they're saying, 'We're tired and we're frustrated, but we know what's on the line.' And they're going to turn out and vote."

Joe Shannahan, a veteran Democratic strategist who served as spokesperson for former Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) and the state Democratic Party, chalked up the lack of enthusiasm among some Democrats this year to the national winds as well as the state's economic distress. But Shannahan noted that compared with other difficult cycles for Democrats, this year, the party is ready.

"I think 1994 was kind of a surprise to us," Shannahan said. "We are not surprised about what's going on right now. Our eyes are wide open, and we know what it's going to take to stem that tide. And it is going to be the nitty-gritty of shoe-leather politics."

Shannahan also said that the flooding issue is a mixed bag for Culver. "In certain areas it does probably help; in others, it probably hurts," Shannahan said. "I don't believe it's a definite negative for him because it was pretty locally managed in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City."

Obama is visiting the state tomorrow as part of a four-state tour of key battlegrounds this week -- but will one visit a month before Election Day be enough to fire up state Democrats?

By Felicia Sonmez  | September 28, 2010; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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Next: Afternoon Fix: Republican polls show four Western House races in dead heat; DSCC launches new ads in Delaware and West Virginia

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