Dave Loebsack put his thumb on the scales.

Loebsack is retiring from Congress; the 66-year-old Iowa City Democrat will have served 14 years representing Iowa’s 2nd District in the U.S. House of Representatives when his term ends next year.

This past week, Loebsack endorsed Rita Hart in the nascent race to replace him. The primary election is still more than a year away, but Loebsack has made it known which candidate he supports.

"Rita Hart is a farmer, educator and former state senator who truly understands what Iowa and our district needs. But most of all, Rita Hart’s a problem solver who will fight day in and day out to bring people together and get the job done,” Loebsack said in a statement. “I know she’ll continue to champion the priorities we’ve worked for together like giving our veterans the care and support they need, expanding rural broadband, and providing more opportunities for vocational and skills training for Iowans.”

The move essentially clears the Democratic field for Hart, a former state senator and candidate for lieutenant governor.

Sure, other Democrats could still get in the race. But any such candidate would face a significant uphill climb against Hart as she carries Loebsack’s endorsement, not to mention her own qualifications as a well-known figure in the district.

Whether that’s a good thing for Democrats remains to be seen. The party has some recent experience with field-clearing primaries that did not go well: namely, the 2014 U.S. Senate race.

Bruce Braley, who represented the 1st District in Congress, did not face a primary challenge in that 2014 race. Meantime, then-state Sen. Joni Ernst emerged from a competitive primary with momentum; she went on to defeat Braley in the general election.

Should Democrats feel gun-shy about clearing a primary field in this 2nd District race? I put that question to Pat Rynard, publisher of the political website Iowa Starting Line, during a recent episode of "Iowa Press" on Iowa Public Television.

Rynard said that while a competitive primary may be a good thing, it’s not like the Democratic Party is shooing away other potential candidates. It’s more, Rynard said, that those other potential Democratic candidates view Hart as a formidable candidate and feel it may not be worth their effort to face her in a primary.

When Loebsack announced his retirement, the 2nd District seat instantly became a toss-up in the view of national political forecasters. Loebsack has represented the district since his upset election in 2006, but Republican President Donald Trump won the district in 2016. Republicans will make a concerted effort to flip the seat in 2020.

It would appear it will be up to Hart to keep the seat in the Democrats’ hands, and it looks like she will head into what figures to be a tough general election without having a similarly difficult primary.

Whether that affects her chances in 2020 remains to be seen.

Iowa Republicans criticize new tariffs

Iowa’s top elected Republicans, U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and Gov. Kim Reynolds, are expressing opposition to President Trump’s threat to apply another round of tariffs on Mexico — this time with the goal of pressuring Mexico into action on immigration policy.

A White House statement said the new 5 percent tariff would be applied June 10, and that Trump would lift them only after Mexico takes actions to alleviate the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Grassley, Ernst and Reynolds issued statements disagreeing with the strategy.

"Trade policy and border security are separate issues. This is a misuse of presidential tariff authority and counter to congressional intent," Grassley said. He added the new NAFTA agreement, formally called the USMCA, would be jeopardized as a result.

Ernst and Reynolds also noted the potential for a negative impact on the agreement at a time when Iowa farmers already are facing multiple headwinds that are driving down the price of corn and soybeans.

"If the president goes through with this, I’m afraid progress to get this trade agreement across the finish line will be stifled,” Ernst said. She added this "isn't the right path forward" to fixing illegal immigration.

Reynolds said the immigration issue should not be resolved "on the backs of Iowa farmers."

"Iowans are frustrated with Washington’s inability to reform our country’s immigration system and address the crisis at the border, but I am asking the president to rethink this approach," she said.

Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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