In November 2006, Sue Dvorsky stood in a large ballroom at the hotelVetro in Iowa City and watched late into the night in amazement as election returns came in.
Dave Loebsack, a relatively unknown political-science professor from Cornell College, had just unseated an entrenched, widely popular 30-year Republican incumbent in what by all accounts was a long-shot campaign.
The victory by the first-time candidate scored one of the biggest upsets nationally in an anti-Republican tide where Democrats took control of both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate after 12 years of Republican control.
“It was wild,” said Dvorsky, a longtime Democratic activist and chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party from 2010 to 2013. “When he and Terry (Loebsack’s wife) walked through the door, the joint lit up.”
After 14 years representing Southeast Iowa, Loebsack is retiring from Congress. The 68-year-old ends a career as an advocate for veterans, wind energy and biofuels, rural broadband expansion, affordable and quality health care and access to quality education.
“Obviously, I have mixed feelings about it,” Loebsack told the Quad-City Times in a recent interview. “Certainly, a part of me would still like to be a part of the action … and doing what I can for my district.”
Loebsack said he intended to spend no more than 12 years in Congress. Initially planning to retire in 2018, he chose to seek another term following Republican President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 to provide “a check on his worst excesses” and help set the stage for a Democratic president to succeed him.
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“We are seeing that happen now,” Loebsack said. “So it’s definitely time for me to go and step off the stage, and have someone else do it.”
Both Democrats and Republicans interviewed by the Quad-City Times praised Loebsack for his broad-minded, pragmatic approach of seeking bipartisan solutions to further area priorities and provide assistance to those in need.
“He’s not the kind of partisan that alienates the other side, which is important,” especially in a district that shifted more to the right in recent years, said friend and former Republican Iowa congressman Jim Leach, whom Loebsack defeated in 2006. “He’s a good man who represented the district thoughtfully.”
Loebsack often teamed with former Republican Illinois U.S. Rep. Bobby Schilling, whose district bordered Loebsack’s, to advocate for the Rock Island Arsenal and obtain funding for construction of a new the Interstate-74 bridge. The two collaborated frequently, even though they seldom saw eye to eye beyond local projects, and despite their collaboration ruffling feathers in their respective parties.
“My top priority is to get Iowans back to work. I’m going to work with anyone who shares my goals,” Loebsack told the Times in 2012 of his work with Schilling to boost and support defense-related manufacturing jobs at the Arsenal.
Loebsack made the Rock Island Arsenal a focus of his work on the House Armed Services Committee, and butted heads with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and then-House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel to secure federal flood relief for Iowa in the wake of the devastating 2008 floods.
Raised by a single mother in Sioux City who struggled with mental illness until she could no longer take care of him and his siblings on her own, Loebsack also fought in Congress to improve access to mental health services.
When Loebsack was in fourth grade, the family moved in with his grandmother, who relied on Social Security survivor benefits to put food on the table for him and his siblings. Loebsack also used survivor benefits to get through college.
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It’s a personal story he wove into his fights in Congress to keep in place the Affordable Care Act and oppose efforts to change Social Security and Medicaid benefits.
Democrats, though, have been frustrated with Loebsack over the years for his centrist-leaning stances and not being more vocal for progressive causes, like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. He broke with the majority of his party in supporting construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline.
Loebsack said his support for the pipeline was based on the tens of thousands of short-term jobs that would be created.
“And not all of the arguments that were put forth on the environmental side did I necessarily think were compelling, but I certainly understand them,” he said. “You know, looking back on that, I’m not proud of that vote by any means, but it’s one that I took.”
Over the years, Loebsack developed a knack for riding out red waves that sidelined other Democrats across the state, including spending part of his career as the lone Democrat in Iowa’s six-member congressional delegation.
Republican Chuck Grassley, Iowa’s senior U.S. senator who has become known for visiting all 99 Iowa counties every year, praised Loebsack in a 2019 social media post in response to his announced retirement. Grassley called Loebsack “an outstanding public servant” for working hard and staying in touch with constituents, going places Democrats traditionally did not.
“He was just everywhere and voters rewarded him for that work,” said Troy Price, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman from 2017 to 2020. “The way you buffet against national tends is build the personal relationship with voters and they get to see you so you don’t get caught up with the party label writ large. No one ever could accuse Dave Loebsack of being a creature of Washington. They always tried, but they always failed because voters in that district understood he was there fighting for them and their voice in Washington.”
Loebsack’s touring of the district that includes Johnson County was part personal philosophy, part necessity in a district that was redrawn in 2012, picking up Davenport and a bigger contour of small, rural counties to the south and the west that made the district more diverse and less Democratic.
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“It’s a challenging district to represent in Washington, D.C., with the most liberal county in the state in Johnson County and some of the most conservative counties in rural parts of the district, as well as river counties trending away from being solidly Democratic counties and Scott County a bellwether county,” Price said.
The district voted twice for Democratic former President Barack Obama before swinging in favor of Republican Donald Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
“The key to this is just don’t go to places where you know you’re going to be liked and you know you’re going to … be greeted with open arms,” Loebsack said. “I was upfront with folks. I said, ‘Look, my district is not just Johnson County.’”
In 2018, Loebsack won by 12 points; without heavily Democratic Johnson County, his margin was just 2 points.
Much like Leach before him, Loebsack “never rose or fell by the passions of the moment,” said Dvorsky, the longtime Democratic activist.
“They’re pragmatic problem solvers with the professor gene — looking at a problem broadly and explaining it broadly,” Dvorsky said. “For people in political life with longevity, getting there is one thing. Staying there is because people trust your word. ... People have to know you’re thoughtful about how you made a decision. ... At the end of the day they don’t have to agree with you. They have to trust you. And that’s what they had in common.”
Loebsack said he looks forward to using his retirement to travel and spend more time with friends and family. He said he may return to teaching once the pandemic is over, and will continue to help the Iowa Democratic Party rebound from stinging losses. Loebsack led a postmortem analysis of what went wrong for the party in 2016 and how it could rebuild for 2018 and beyond.
“I’m going to do what I can to get the party back up on its feet here in the state of Iowa,” he said. “We have a lot of challenges ahead of us as you might imagine. We rebounded after 2014 to some extent, and I think we can do it again.”
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