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Crowded Senate Field Muddles GOP's Iowa Chances

Crowded Senate Field Muddles GOP's Iowa Chances

By Scott Conroy - September 18, 2013

Though his visit to Iowa on Sunday was steeped in 2016 speculation, Vice President Biden had a more pressing message for the Democratic activists at the 36th annual steak fry hosted by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.

Before the Hawkeye State becomes ground zero in the next presidential race, Biden reminded them, it will play a critical role in determining which party controls Congress after the 2014 midterms.

“Unless we can maintain this seat, unless we can begin to break down the majority in the House of Representatives, everything you have fought for for the last six years and beyond is in jeopardy,” Biden said, according to the Des Moines Register.

That call comes as Iowa Democrats have already settled on their choice to replace the five-term Harkin in the Senate: Rep. Bruce Braley, who is running unopposed in his party’s primary.

State Republicans, on the other hand, already have a half-dozen candidates actively vying for their party’s nomination -- with three more in the wings as potential late entries in the race.

Among the possible additions to the fray is conservative firebrand Bob Vander Plaats (pictured). The president of The Family Leader -- Iowa’s most influential socially conservative advocacy organization -- Vander Plaats helmed Mike Huckabee’s 2008 Iowa caucuses victory and was a prominent backer of Rick Santorum during the former Pennsylvania senator’s surprising 2012 caucuses win.

Vander Plaats’ possible entry into the field has the potential to further upend an already chaotic GOP race.

“He will have a decision one way or the other by January 1,” said spokesperson Dave Barnett. “He is being constantly pressed by people within Iowa and across the nation that are encouraging him and reaching out to him to consider that possibility.”

Vander Plaats, who has run for (and lost) the GOP gubernatorial nomination three times, remains a polarizing figure in state Republican politics. Critics note that he has had far more success as a presidential-level kingmaker than as a candidate, and charge that his uncompromising style makes him prone to being blown out in the general election -- if he were to win the nomination.

“At a certain point you just have to be able to look in the mirror and say, ‘You know, maybe running for office isn't what I'm cut out to do,’” Dave Kochel, an Iowa operative who helmed Mitt Romney’s 2012 effort in the state, said of Vander Plaats. “Even if he could identify a path to a primary win or a convention win -- and I'm not sure one exists -- it's very hard to make the case that he's our best general election candidate. Iowa Senate seats don't come open very often, so this is a unique opportunity.”

If he does enter the race, Vander Plaats would have strong competition for the hearts and minds of the evangelical right in Sam Clovis, a Sioux City talk show host, who launched his campaign May and is in the middle of touring all 99 Iowa counties.

A goateed, suspenders-wearing true believer who looks and acts the part of the rural outsider he is, Clovis is also a tenured economics professor and a former Air Force pilot whose colorful background and charismatic presence on the stump suggest that he should not be underestimated.

New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Mike Biundo, who was Santorum’s 2012 campaign manager before being hired as Clovis’ general consultant, noted that the first-time candidate retains a particularly strong base in deeply conservative western Iowa, due to his radio show.

“I think Sam’s uniquely positioned in this race, given the fact that he’s already been out of the gate running a statewide campaign,” Biundo said. “I think his positions are similar to [Vander Plaats’] on lots of issues. And they’ll differ on some issues, if he does get in.”

Polling in the race has thus far been sparse. A survey conducted in July by the Democratically affiliated Public Policy Polling showed that Matt Whitaker, a former U.S. attorney, was the Republican candidate closest to Braley in head-to-head matchups, trailing 43 percent to 34 percent. (Braley bested every other GOP contender by a double-digit margin.)

But among the center-right Republican establishment in the state, Joni Ernst is widely viewed as having the best shot at defeating Braley. A gun-toting, tough-talking lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, who was elected to the state Senate in 2011, Ernst has received several favorable comments from Republican Gov. Terry Branstad.

According to a GOP source who is close to the governor, Branstad “believes she would be the strongest candidate against Braley.” The source added that Branstad will not officially endorse during the primary, even as he works behind the scenes to promote Ernst’s candidacy.

Iowa state Rep. Rob Taylor, who represents a central Iowa district just west of Des Moines -- and the first public official to endorse Ernst -- said that though he believes she is the best candidate in the field, whoever emerges from the primary would be in a stronger position after surviving the tough competition.

“From the 30,000-foot perspective, with as many candidates as we’ve got, it may look like we’re at a disadvantage. I absolutely disagree,” Taylor said. “A good, healthy primary generally vets the best candidate.”

There is little doubt, however, that the campaign for the nomination will be untidy.

Other already announced contenders include Ames attorney Paul Lunde, automobile salesman Scott Schaben, and David Young, who quit his job as Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s chief of staff in order to throw his hat in the ring.

A lingering question in the race is whether former energy CEO Mark Jacobs will enter it as a self-funder.

Jacobs has been actively exploring a potential bid for weeks and would join the campaign as a top-tier candidate, though some state Republicans worry that the millionaire businessman could be vulnerable to populist-fueled attacks from Braley.

An additional factor to watch as the June 3 primary nears is whom the leaders of the Iowa Republican Party -- Chairman A.J. Spiker and Co-Chairman David Fischer -- will rally behind.

Both were key backers of Ron Paul’s 2012 campaign in the state and are lightning rods for Republican operatives and officials concerned that their allegiance to the Paul-backed liberty movement comes at the expense of other factions within the party.

And Fischer said in June that he was “seriously considering” whether to run for the Senate himself.

While Iowa political watchers expect one or more of the already announced candidates to drop out before the March filing deadline, there is no doubt that the primary will remain extremely crowded. And because of the multi-candidate field, it will be difficult for any contender to reach the 35 percent threshold required to win the nomination outright. It is more likely that a nominating convention will subsequently determine the outcome.

A dispute over the date of the convention has led to even more early intra-party squabbling even before the campaign revs up in earnest. The event was initially scheduled for mid-June, but Spiker recently announced his intention to push it back to July 12 -- a move that many Republicans argue would put the eventual nominee at a disadvantage, given the diminished time to campaign against Braley.

The issue remains unresolved, but a recent article in the Iowa Republican (a respected news and analysis website focused on state GOP politics) reported that State Central Committee members who want to move the convention date back to June have the votes required to do so. 

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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