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04.20.11

Christie Vilsack, the Woman Challenging Iowa's Glass Ceiling

If former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack wins a House seat in 2012, she'll end her state's ignominious record of zero women elected to Congress or the governor's mansion. But she'll have to get through Tea Party favorite Steve King first.

Christie Vilsack wants to run for Congress, and that means running against history.

In announcing Wednesday that she'll form an exploratory committee for a likely challenge to outspoken conservative Steve King, Iowa's former first lady is giving Democrats a credible chance to capture the seat. She also could be her state's ticket out of a tiny, exclusive, and undesirable club.

Iowa, it turns out, is one of only two states that has never elected a woman to the House, the Senate, or the governor's mansion. The other, in case you were wondering, is Mississippi.

No offense to Mississippi, which did open the nation's first public college for women in 1884, but the dishonor is particularly unexpected—and embarrassing—for Iowa. While Mississippi was dead last in a 1998 study of civic culture in American states [PDF], Iowa is noted for engagement, tolerance, equality, and support for civil rights and women's rights.

This is the state that nurtured feminist pioneer Carrie Chapman Catt, sole woman in her 1880 graduating class at Iowa State, first woman to speak at the college debating society, school superintendent by age 24, leading U.S. and international suffragist, and—cruel irony—founder of the League of Women Voters. More recently, Iowa produced the only woman who ever chaired the Republican National Committee, Mary Louise Smith.

"We really have a wonderful history," said Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky. "With this one problem."

Some older Iowa women voters “just didn’t want to vote for a woman,” Campbell said. Their attitude was, “being a mother and homemaker was good enough for me, why isn’t it good enough for you?”

Diane Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, bristles at being lumped with Mississippi. "We're better than Mississippi," she said. By at least one measure, she's right. According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, Mississippi is 47th in the nation in termos of percentage of women in its state legislature, while Iowa is 15 slots higher at 32nd.

Vilsack could change her state's unfortunate status if she prevails in the House race that her husband—Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the state's former governor—predicted would be " a holy war" between two sharply contrasting candidates and their parties. King, a religious conservative and Tea Party favorite in his fifth term, has called Joe McCarthy a hero and once likened illegal immigrants to livestock. He recently said that "if we get the culture right, the economy will be right eventually." Christie Vilsack, an experienced campaigner and fundraiser, describes herself as a teacher, historian, and a journalist. Her recent causes include promoting literacy and preventing unplanned pregnancies.

King and Vilsack would compete in a vast new 4th Congressional District that now extends from northwest Iowa to Ames, the liberal home of Iowa State, and Democrat-friendly areas such as Mason City and Fort Dodge. The district is still the most Republican in Iowa, but it's less lopsided than King's old district.

Vilsack initially backed Hillary Clinton for president and has long been concerned about her state's woman problem. At a gathering of Democratic women a year ago, she said Iowa is not "maximizing its potential" because it has elected so few women. She urged everyone in the room to "stop and think, before the day is over, about running for office."

Why is Iowa so inhospitable to women politicians? And can Vilsack break the curse?

Iowans blame the situation on demographics and ideology. States that elect lots of women to their legislatures tend to be liberal, urban, young, or fast-growing, or some combination of those factors. Think Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Vermont, and Rhode Island, Bystrom said. But not Iowa.

Former Iowa Attorney General Bonnie Campbell experienced the problems up close and personal when she ran for governor in 1994. Some older, rural women "just didn't want to vote for a woman," Campbell said in an interview. Their attitude was that "being a mother and homemaker was good enough for me, why isn't it good enough for you?"

The same problem cropped up 14 years later, when Campbell was making calls for Clinton before the Iowa caucuses, the community meetings at which Democrats signify their choices by standing together for various candidates. "I got Democratic women who literally said, 'If I didn't have to stand up in a room in front of my husband, I'd support Hillary Clinton, but I can't.' It was a stunning thing," Campbell said.

A few Iowa women in both parties have run for the House and Senate since the 1980s, usually with the added challenge of taking on incumbents. Some have had limited political skills and networks, and most have been unable to raise much money.

Democrat Roxanne Conlin—who lost a governor's race to Republican Terry Branstad in 1982—pulled in a respectable $3.2 million last year for a Senate race. But that was less than half of what veteran GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley raised for his winning campaign. Timing has also hurt: Campbell in 1994 and Conlin in 2010 ran for statewide office in what turned out to be national Republican wave elections.

The terrain is different for Vilsack. She would run in a presidential election year, so turnout will be relatively high, a plus for Democrats. And Iowa is a general-election swing state, so President Obama's campaign organization will be working flat-out to energize Democrats, moderates, independents, and students—the same groups Vilsack will need to win.

The battle lines are already clear. As executive director and now board chairman of the Iowa Initiative to Reduce Unintended Pregnancies, Vilsack worked closely with Planned Parenthood. That group and the whole issue of women's reproductive health are now flash points in liberal-conservative struggles over abortion and the federal budget.

Then there's Tom Vilsack's remark about a holy war, which provoked an instant warning from the aggressive, well-heeled, and fiscally conservative Club for Growth. "Before Christie Vilsack has her husband issue a fatwa against Steve King, she should know that Steve King has an excellent record in Congress on the issues that the Club for Growth cares about," the group said. Translation: Run against him, you run against us, too. ("I don't think he's got the spouse thing down quite yet," Vilsack said of her husband.)

Vilsack, who lived in southeast Iowa before moving to Des Moines in 1999, faced carpetbagger charges within hours of disclosing that she had purchased a home in nearby Ames. "She doesn't care which Iowans she actually represents so long as she can be in Congress," said Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn.

But after eight years of criss-crossing the state as first lady, she's no stranger to her new district. The question now is whether Vilsack's background and political skills will be enough to lift her state out of the exclusive club that Carrie Chapman Catt would consider a disgrace.

Jill Lawrence is an award-winning journalist who has covered every presidential election since 1988. Most recently, she was a senior correspondent and columnist for PoliticsDaily.com. Her other positions have included national political correspondent for USA Today and national political writer at The Associated Press.