Iowa is used to being in the middle of the political spotlight, as it has long been known as the state where presidential candidates officially start their quest for the White House. But with the fervor surrounding the Iowa caucuses long gone, the spotlight is now shining on the state's four hotly contested congressional races, which have all been shaped by redistricting.
Over the past couple of years, a number of state legislatures across the country have been in a knock-down, drag-out fight over redistricting, trying to rewrite district lines in order to maximize lawmakers' chances of staying in office. [See how the GOP has made gains among independents in advance of 2012.]
In Iowa, the battle has been taken out of legislators' hands, leaving the heavy lifting to a non-partisan state agency, with the state legislators giving the plan a simple up or down vote.
"It keeps the races interesting," says Christopher Larimer, a political science professor at Northern Iowa University. "It is almost like a game of chicken. The legislators can send it back for another draft, but then they risk it coming back worse for their party."
With population shifts, Iowa had to eliminate one of its five congressional districts. Republican Rep. Steve King, who previously held Iowa's fifth, had his residence moved into the fourth congressional district, and in order to avoid an incumbent GOP matchup,Republican Rep. Tom Latham chose to run in the state's third district.
In Iowa, two of the districts lean Democratic and two lean Republican, but the large number of independent voters in the state keep all four races from being a sure thing.
In the race that will pick up the most national attention, King is facing stiff competition, which is something the outspoken GOP hardliner isn't used to. [Check out a roundup of this month's political cartoons.]
King is adored by constituents and has earned a reputation as a pro-life budget hawk who strongly opposes illegal immigration, calling for the construction of a concrete wall along the Mexican border.
"The congressman has always had a very clear set of values," says Jake Ketzner, King's campaign manager. "If you ask a voter in this district where he stood, they'd say he's a consistent conservative."
King, who has won re-election four times, is facing strong opposition from Iowa's former first lady, Christie Vilsack, whose husband, Tom, currently serves as the Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsack has outraised King so far, boasting nearly $1.8 million compared to King's $1.6 million.
"This is the most competitive race in the state," says University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle. "With high name recognition and money behind her, it seems Vilsack has a better shot than King's opponents have had in the past."
Ketzner says while voters know Vilsack's name, they don't know what she stands for.
"Once the issues come up, it is going to be difficult for her to survive in a conservative district," Ketzner says.
Vilsack campaign manager Jessica Vanden Berg argues that she has laid out a concise campaign, focused on expanding green energy in the state, expanding educational opportunities and laying out the differences between the two on women's issues.
"This is a different sort of election for him," Vanden Berg says, "There are major, major differences between the candidates. With her own unique brand, we are feeling good about where we are."
Moving South, the race in the third district pits Latham against the current incumbent, Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell. Latham currently holds a more than $1.2 million fundraising advantage over Boswell, and while the district leans to the right, pundits are not counting Boswell out.
"Every two years, people write Boswell off in his competitive races. But you never know. Boswell always seems to come back," Larimer says.
Boswell campaign manager Kevin McTigue says the Democrat built out an extensive ground game and is playing catchup by making between 2,000 and 3,000 calls to voters per day. McTigue blames Latham's cozy relationship with Speaker of the House John Boehner for Boswell's fundraising troubles.
"The speaker is very close with Tom Latham. There is a lot of pressure coming from the speaker not to give to us," McTigue says. [Romney Won't Pick Woman VP Because of Sarah Palin.]
Boswell, a Vietnam War and NATO veteran, is one of most decorated Democratic member of the House of Representatives. The blue dog Democrat supports President Barack Obama, but has a reputation of reaching across the aisle, including his recent deflection from the party line when he voted to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress.
Boswell hopes to use Obama's in-state appearances (Iowa is currently considered a toss-up in the presidential election) to bolster his own campaign.
McTigue says Boswell will support Obama even though the two don't always see eye to eye, and will try to lump Latham in with his House GOP colleagues who have earned a reputation for gridlock and stalemate.
"Leonard Boswell is a fighter and when he supports someone, unlike some people in the Democratic party, he is not afraid to show that," McTigue says. "We feel uniquely positioned to do well. [Latham] has voted 93 percent of the time with house leadership, a leadership that has shown a complete lack of ability to compromise at all or really act like grown ups."
Meanwhile, Latham's campaign is betting on the Republican advantage in the district, where as of May, there were roughly 12,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats.
"Things have been moving in that direction ever since January 2009," says Latham Chief of Staff James Carstensen. "The state that has launched the president's campaign in 2008 is a state that is moving away from his party."
While Carstensen dismisses Boswell's accusation that Boehner has been discouraging donations to Boswell, calling it a "fundraising fairy tale," the campaign admits Boehner's been a big player for them.
"The speaker was here in May and he did a breakfast and dinner reception for us," Carstensen says. "It is always helpful when you have a popular surrogate come in and add a higher level of excitement for an event."
Iowa's first congressional district swings to the other side of the political spectrum, but isn't a forgone conclusion to stay in Democratic hands.
In 2010, incumbent Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley won narrowly against GOP challenger Ben Lange, who is running against the congressman for a second time, packing a new slew of A-list supporters, including former GOP presidential nominee Rick Santorum.
In Iowa's second district, campaign finance reports show Democratic Rep. David Loebsack is out raising his Republican opponent John Archer by more than $600,000. But redistricting and an anti-incumbent sentiment could make the area more friendly to Republicans.
The new district includes more rural counties and has 163,000 registered Democrats and 137,000 registered Republicans, but the majority of the district consists of independent voters.
Those independent voters have yet to decide who they'll cast ballots for, a refrain that seems to be a state-wide theme as November approaches.
- Read: Why Hispanic voters matter in 2012
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This story has been updated to clarify that King’s residence became part of Iowa’s 4th District due to redistricting.