CEDAR RAPIDS — Bruce Braley and Ben Lange have a lot in common: they grew up in small Iowa towns, love baseball, went to law school and each have three children.
And they want the same job.
Braley and Langer are locked in a rematch for the 1st District seat in the U.S. House — the seat Braley, a Waterloo Democrat, has held for the past six years.
Two years ago, Lange, an Independence Republican, surprised Iowa political observers by coming out of nowhere to come within less than 2 percentage points of defeating Braley.
The playing field has changed since 2010. Redistricting expanded the district from 12 counties to 20. The 1st District now includes Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, Cedar Falls-Waterloo and Marshalltown. The district stretches from the Mississippi River and Minnesota state line south to Iowa and Poweshiek counties.
A third of the active voters are registered Democrats, 28.5 percent are Republicans and the remaining 38 percent are registered as “no party.”
The biggest difference, Lange says, is Linn County, where 28 percent of the district’s registered voters live.
“I think it’s (an) advantage for us because voters there don’t see Braley as the incumbent,” he says. Overall, 52 percent of the district is new territory for the candidates.
Braley has countered that “by getting out early and as often as possible to talk about his work on behalf of the district,” according to campaign manager Jeff Giertz.
The other difference, Lange says, is that people saw how close he came to defeating Braley two years ago with virtually no resources.
“We don’t have to battle the idea that I can’t win,” he says. “They know I can win.”
But he didn’t win two years ago, Giertz said.
“(Lange’s) approach didn’t work two years ago and we just need to remind voters of his out-of-step positions,” he said.
Like two years ago, there’s little the candidates agree on, and even when they agree, they’re at odds.
For example, they’re both calling for a balanced-budget amendment as a way to control federal spending. Lange calls Braley’s recent support an election-year conversion after opposing the measure on the floor of the House. He points to Braley’s six votes to raise the debt ceiling to make the case that the incumbent supports spending that will put the United States on a Greece-like debt trajectory.
Reining in spending is the make-or-break issue in the campaign, Lange says. “It’s the decisive factor.”
“Either we are going to put people in office to solve this or we will be the next Greece,” he said. Noting the national debt has nearly doubled while Braley’s been in office, he says the incumbent “has failed on every aspect of it.”
Braley, however, touts his bipartisan effort to control spending, pointing out he has signed on to a balanced-budget amendment proposal offered by a Michigan Republican after he opposed earlier plans that “would tie our hands if we faced a threat like World War II.”
The deficit Lange rails against, Braley argues, is the result of fighting two wars on the country’s credit card.
So he favors the plan to balance the budget over 10-year window with exceptions for war and unanticipated natural disaster.
Neither candidate likes the approach Congress has taken to dealing with the federal budget. Lange calls the Budget Control Act, which Braley opposed, “Chicken Little’s way out of making a decision.”
Congress is passing off $16 trillion in debt to future generations, Lange says.
“You know where I come from in Quasqueton, there are so many zeros it’s hard to relate to,” Lange says, referring to his Buchanan County hometown. “When you boil it down to every man woman and child, it’s a little over $50,000 in debt per person. My three daughters are $50,000 in debt before they can ride a bike.”
Braley voted against the Budget Control Act because “it was going to be a train wrack and keep us from addressing the serious challenges of getting to targeted spending cuts and new revenues that we’re going to need to get the budget deficit reduced.”
The problem with the act and the budget sequestration it will require if Congress doesn’t act before the end of the year, Braley says, is that it will force across-the-board cuts to defense spending and domestic programs without getting to the heart of the problem.
Defense spending has to be addressed, he says, pointing out the United States spends more on defense than the next 10 largest countries combined.
Defense spending cuts, whether through sequestration or other means, could have an impact in the 1st District. Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids already has announced defense spending-related job cuts.
“It’s difficult to get rid of programs because they become jobs programs,” Braley says. “So I would be a strong voice for my district because these cuts would have a profound economic impact for communities like this one.”
Perhaps the area of biggest disagreement is over health care. Braley, a champion of the Affordable Care Act, says it’s “almost shocking” to hear Republicans talk about repealing Obama-Care.
Lange calls for repeal, but says Republicans lose the argument if they don’t have a plan to replace it.
“Repealing Obama-Care is going back to status quo and that puts people in the same position of 18 percent premium increases every year,” Lange says.
Realistically, Lange ads, depending on who controls the Senate, it may not be possible to repeal ObamaCare. Then the question becomes how to implement reasonable changes without starting over.
Braley defends ObamaCare. The changes already implemented — coverage of pre-existing conditions and allowing young adults to stay on parents’ insurance, for example — “are proving to be wildly popular.”
Braley also defended congressional spending on farm programs, including subsidized crop insurance. It’s a good trade-off, Braley said, eliminating direct payments to farmers without over-burdening taxpayers.
“Everybody who farms in Iowa knows they are one bad year away or one change in policy away from seeing prices fall, profit margins disappear and farm sales start to appear the way we saw them in the 1980s,” he said.
Farmers will accept the loss of direct payments, Lange says, as long as they have the ability to protect themselves against years like 2012.
There always will be a need for a farm bill, he says, because of the “national security interest in making sure that a food source is there.”