As required by law Iowa's 5 congressional districts are as close to equal in population. But after that, the similarities end.
The fifth stands out on a map by dent of its shear size. Stretching North to South from Minnesota to Missouri and extending eastward from the Missouri river across nearly a third of the state, the 5th is the Iowa’s largest congressional district and may well be its most complex.
It holds two cities, Council Bluffs and Sioux City of more than 50-thousand people. But apart from those urban centers, the population is in mostly rural communities like Orange City and Leon. The district covers 32 counties in all.
The 5th congressional district boasts many things; The Loess Hills, the great lakes of Iowa in Okoboji, and the turn-of-the last century homes on the Heritage Hill tour of Red Oak.
Take out Council Bluffs and Sioux City, the two largest cities in the district, and the district is basically the same -- all rural. Thousands of acres of corn, soybeans and livestock line the fields and roads of this district.
The commonalities make the district a perfect platform for a bio-economy.
A microcosm of the district is the ice cream capital of the world, LeMars, a city growing with help of a 4-lane road that also allows for the transport of ethanol, bio-diesel and now wind turbines. Current Congressman Steve King calls this district the bio-tech capital of the state. But technology doesn't necessarily define the politics of the district.Mark Lundberg/Sioux County Republican Chair: The fifth is a little more on the conservative slant, a little more geared toward pro family values.
Mark Lundberg is the chair of the most republican county in Iowa. He says school enrollment is a good measure of the district’s politics.
Mark Lundberg: “You could refer to NW Iowa as the bible belt of Iowa, very strong Christian influence in this area. We have a lot of students that go to Christian schools as well as good public schools as well, but we have a very high percentage of kids that attend Christian schools in northwest Iowa.”
But while strains of social conservatism can be found throughout the district, economic prosperity is more spotty. Northwest Iowa enjoys a low employment rate and a number of firms always looking for more workers. It’s a different story in the southern part of the district.
Andrea McGahuey/Decatur County Democratic Chair: Definitely poverty. We have an aging community and kids are leaving and not coming back. They go to college and go to a bigger city or leave the state.
Andrea McGahuey lives in Leon, which is the county seat of Decatur County, often the poorest in the state with nearly 20% of the population living below the poverty line. The county suffers a problem plaguing many areas of Iowa.
Andrea McGahuey “I think we're all experiencing that brain drain, obviously we're all affected by the economic situation in our country. We're all rural areas, so we all have a lot of the same concerns, with consolidation of schools and getting good teachers.”
Those left behind need every dollar. Many commute considerable distances to work. A few cent increase at the pump each week adds up to become a big pocketbook issue as seen by the Daily Nonpareil of Council Bluffs reporter Tim Rohwer.
Tim Rohwer/Reporter Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil: “This time more than last, its energy. 4 years ago, even 2 years ago as we all know gas prices weren't as high as they are now, I think by far its the hottest issues out there.”
Bret Hayworth/Sioux City Journal: “They're definitely concerned about pocketbook issues. I've talked with some members of both parties who gas prices are certainly are a big thing with the economy and if you live in a rural town, you're probably in a bedroom community, and you're driving into a county seat or a Sioux City or a Council Bluffs or what have you, and just affording that. Just holding your own is what something I heard a lot recently from the western Iowa.”
Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal adds that issues extends the whole district and has for quite sometime.
Bret Hayworth: “One thing that has plagued the district is it is a low income district. It’s the lowest of the 5 districts, it’s the least affluent, it’s heavily, heavily rural.
But while the district was and may still be defined by its values, the realities of a struggling economy may be subtlety re-defining it politically.
Registration for democrats is up and democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has energized the district’s minority party
Bret Hayworth: “The Western Iowa democrats are more energized by their chances this time compared to the previous three times when Steve King won. They're hoping there are some coattails from Obama, there was twice as many people that participated in the Iowa Caucuses vs republicans statewide and voter registration total in the 5th district has been when Steve King won the first two couple of elections, this just shows you how sizeable it is, about a 50, to 55,000 advantage in voter registration of republicans over democrats. There's still more independents than democrats, but the democrats are closing the gap, its down to the low 40s. 4506 so that's about a 20% gain its still a sizable advantage for republicans.
Tim Rohwer: “I talked to a candidate who mentioned he'd put 100,000 miles on his car travelling thru the district. You have to have a pretty good car and be willing to put in the long hours. It is a very big district, so it takes awhile to drive from the south to north if you want to meet as many people as you can in the counties but it does take quite a bit of driving.”
For their part the republicans remain confident, but are aware of history.
Mark Lundberg: “I'd say our district is still safe for republicans, running for US Congress in this district, it'd have to be a significant change. Last time republicans lost in this area was after the Watergate issues, with the Nixon administration and that's kind of a compelling event that caused some changes in voting. I think for the most part people here are pretty comfortable with Steve King's philosophy and how he's doing business. Obviously he's a little bit of a lightning rod for the other side as far his comments. But he's a very knowledgeable gentleman and very true to his values.”