OTTUMWA — Six votes.
Those two words were uttered almost a dozen times from various speakers, but not by Mariannette Miller-Meeks, who got wistful about the uncertainties of her place in the U.S. House of Representatives.
But she never gave up; she always believed.
"I've been down this pathway before and I lost, so there was no way on God's green earth I was giving up," she said during a Republican Party of Iowa gathering Thursday at the Bridge View Center. "I just hoped that I would do what I was supposed to do. It wasn't about me personally, but it was about the rule of law."
Miller-Meeks' slim victory over Democrat Rita Hart was the closest federal election nationwide in almost 40 years. It consisted of recounts in all 24 of Iowa's Second Congressional District counties, even though Miller-Meeks was ahead by less than 300 votes on election night.
"We celebrated on election night all of about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and then we prepared (for the recount)," she said. "And so one of the things that you learn in the military is if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. So you have to have a plan."
More than two months after her peers in Congress were sworn in, Miller-Meeks, a 24-year military veteran who became an Ottumwa ophthalmologist, carried only "provisional" status. She wasn't formally seated until Hart conceded March 31.
Miller-Meeks grew up in a family the fourth of eight children, left home at 16 for a job in the fast-food industry before enlisting in the Army, serving both in active duty and as a reserve enlisted officer. However, she suffered second- and third-degree burns when she was 15, which made it choice to become a doctor much clearer.
Perseverance have been synonymous with Miller-Meeks, who lost the congressional seat three times to Dave Loebsack before serving as a state senator for two years, and then pulling out the slimmest of wins.
"When you look at your childhood experiences, there's adversity, there is hardship, but you don't let those obstacles overcome," she said. "And to me, that's the symbol of America. That's the symbol of the United States. It's why people want to come here and why people immigrated here.
"More importantly, it was to continue to preserve those things that make this a wonderful nation that people want to come to," she said. "We're a country founded on the rule of law, and the ability that you can succeed."
Miller-Meeks' victory had a domino affect in Iowa, allowing state Sen. Adrian Dickey to finish the term, which ends in 2022. Republicans have commanding advantages in both the Iowa House and Senate.
"Six votes are what made state Senator Miller-Meeks Congresswoman Miller-Meeks," Dickey said. "She chose to knock on those doors that Rita Hart chose not to. This even probably wouldn't be taking place if not for those six votes, but she earned those votes."
Though Congress is on recess, Miller-Meeks has had a good run early in her term. She currently serves on Homeland Security, Education and Labor and Veterans' Affairs committees.
She's also helped pass bipartisan legislation, including the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, as well as the LGBTQ Business Equality Credit Enforcement and Investment Act, and the Equal Access to Contraception for Veterans Act. The latter two barely passed the House.
She also voted in favor of establishing a bipartisan commission to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the the Capitol, but that bill died in the Senate. She voted against the current selection commission that will be selected by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Miller-Meeks introduced he bipartisan Responsibility for Unaccompanied Minors Act, which would increase the duties of the Department of Health and Human Services to protect undocumented minors at the southern border.
"The preservation of the American Dream is critically important," she said. "And it's what drives me. I want more children like me, and like my husband (Curt), who come from very humble circumstances, that have a goal, they have a dream, and are willing to put in the work ethic to achieve it."