Meet Staci Appel, Hillary Clinton's top congressional candidate

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacts as she is introduced before speaking at a campaign event in Charlotte, N.C. on Oct. 25, 2014.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacts as she is introduced before speaking at a campaign event in Charlotte, N.C. on Oct. 25, 2014.

DES MOINES, Iowa -- If you’ve heard Hillary Clinton on the stump for Democrats this year, you’ve heard her praise incumbents locked in titanic $100-million Senate battles. But you may have also heard her single out Staci Appel, who is running for Congress here and may be a rare bright spot for Democrats on what is shaping up to be a bleak Election Night Tuesday.

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Appel is running for Congress in an open seat from this true tossup district that includes Des Moines and the Southwest quadrant of the state. And she’s got a fan in Hillary Clinton, who has praised Appel in speeches from San Francisco to New York City.

“I was in Iowa with a candidate for Congress Staci Appel. She is a great mom who worked her way up from minimum wage to management, and with enough support, she could be the first women ever elected from Iowa to Congress,” Clinton said at a gathering of Democratic women in Washington in September.

Appel, a former state senator who was a county chair for Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, is happy to hear it. “Well, I’m a fan of hers!” she said in an interview during a campaign stop at a coffee shop here.

The state has a history of rejecting women at the polls -- as Clinton, who came in an embarrassing third place here, knows -- but it might elect two or more Tuesday night, including Appel and Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst. 

While other Democrats have struggled here, Appel is feeling good heading into election night, with a strong financial lead, a narrow edge in polls, and a chance to break Iowa’s glass ceiling that Democrats say is firing up voters.  “The excitement to elect the first woman to Congress is really huge,” she told msnbc. 

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Appel is counting on that excitement to help her do better than other Democrats on the ticket. “We’ve outperformed Bruce Braley,” she said. “I think it’s because I haven’t served in Washington, D.C. I’ve served here in Iowa and I have a record of getting things done.”

Also confident is Ernst, whom Gov. Terry Brandstad introduced on Monday at event in Newton as “the first woman senator from Iowa, the first woman combat veteran in the United States Senate.”

In a memo, her campaign touted an internal poll that they say shows 8% of voters in the district plan to vote for Ernst and Appel. "We believe it is important to share with you that we have been running ahead of the Braley in the 3rd district since we began polling in July," campaign manager Ben Miller wrote.

In the entire county, her campaign is one of only a small handful of congressional races where Democrat have a good opportunity to pick up a seat, and where the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is still spending outside money to back a candidate in an open seat.

Republican opponent David Young, a former chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Grassley, came in fifth place in a Republican primary, but won during a party convention. A magician who has raised eyebrows with campaign ads featuring illusions, Young has struggled at times. He had only $30,000 on hand in his most recent campaign finance report, to Appel’s nearly $250,000.

He also came under criticism from fellow Republicans recently for saying Obamacare was “here to stay.” An influential conservative blogger slammed his “schizophrenic” campaign. 

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Still, polls show a close race that could come down to the wire.

In the state Senate, where Appel served as assistant majority leader, the mother of six worked on family-centric issues: Universal pre-school, a ban on texting while driving, equal pay for equal work, a seat belt law, and an indoor smoking ban. 

The state has attracted other top-tier women candidates, like Christie Vilsack in 2012, but has yet to send a woman to Congress.

Appel took a pass on responding to Sen. Tom Harkin’s controversial comments that Ernst is “very attractive.”

As for Hillary Clinton, Appel wants to help her again – and this time to win the state. “She will win,” Appel said.