Rod Roberts, director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, is a former state legislator from Carroll. He is one of several potential Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by veteran Democrat Tom Harkin.
Rod Roberts, director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, is a former state legislator from Carroll. He is one of several potential Republican candidates for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by veteran Democrat Tom Harkin.

April 26, 2013

Former State Rep. Rod Roberts, R-Carroll, is one of many Iowa Republicans in a political career holding pattern as U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, continues to roll over a decision about a Senate bid.

"I think that needle's just a little over 50-50 right now, just a little over," King said in an interview with The Daily Times Herald and Jefferson Bee & Herald earlier this month.

On Thursday, in an interview with James Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette, King said he was "within weeks" of making a decision about whether to enter the race, a prospect the Kiron Republican has termed an "uphill battle," or remain in the 4th Congressional District, a GOP stronghold from which King has built a national platform over the past decade.

Republican Congressman Tom Latham, R-Clive, already has announced he will not seek the Senate seat. And earlier this week, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds took her name out of consideration as well.

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey says he is days from a decision about a Senate race, and State Sen. Joni Ernst of Red Oak expressed interest in the seat through her Facebook account. Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker are two more potential candidates.

Statewide and national media accounts routinely include Roberts in the mix of potential Republican candidates. Roberts, the director of the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, has said he would not rule out a run for the U.S. Senate. Top Iowa Republicans reportedly have had discussions with Roberts about his political future, including the possibility of a Senate bid.

But as with other potential candidates, any decision from Roberts is tied to King's move. If King doesn't enter the race, Roberts could join what promises to be a large primary field. Should King run, Roberts would be even better positioned as he could seek the 4th District congressional seat now held by King. In fact, Roberts, who ran for governor in 2010, likely would be the frontrunner in a King-free 4th District race as Roberts would have more profile than other candidates who would emerge from state legislative ranks.

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt said the GOP could be diminishing its prospects for capturing the Senate seat with the drawn-out King intrigue.

"The best I can do is use the phrase that the natives are getting restless," Schmidt said in an interview Thursday. "The Democrats have a candidate. They're not going to have a divisive primary, are accumulating funds and are on track with this thing."

Waterloo Congressman Bruce Braley is the lone Democrat in the Senate race. His campaign has raised more than $1 million. Braley also counts on the support of retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and his considerable political operation and connections, as well as the endorsements of Iowa's Democratic state legislators.

"King is going to have to decide pretty quickly here, certainly by June, whether he wants to do this or not, because by showing ankle but not getting in, he's basically like a beaver dam," Schmidt said. "He's blocking the flow here. And no wonder that others who think that they might have a shot at this are starting to talk about it."

Schmidt said he believes the odds of King entering the race are more than 50 percent - but the chances decrease with each passing day.

"The longer he takes, the more I think he's sort of questioning whether it's worth giving up a tremendous bully pulpit that he has, big visibility and a safe position, possibilities of moving up in the leadership because the Democrats aren't going to retake the House," Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the Senate is without question more prestigious, but that under Democratic control it is not currently as friendly to Republicans and the tea party.

"I think he's asking himself: 'Do I really want to be in there getting my butt kicked by (Democratic New York) Senator (Charles) Schumer,'" Schmidt said.

Former Iowa Republican Party co-chairman David Oman, who served as a top aide to Govs. Terry Branstad and Robert Ray, said the absence of a Republican candidate is allowing Braley to launch a statewide branding with no countervailing message from the Republicans.

"Everyone must understand by now it's time to fish or cut bait," Oman said. "Someone needs to announce or be very clear about an intention to announce."

In an interview Thursday, Oman said primaries are the "hardest part of politics," but that one needs to start for the U.S. Senate race. Iowa tends to keep U.S. senators in office for long tenures, and Republicans can't miss opportunities to groom a winning candidate, Oman said.

He said it makes sense for King to announce his decision by May 10, the date Iowa Republicans will hold a Lincoln Day fund-raising event in Cedar Rapids headlined by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican. The event would be a major opportunity for King should he run, or afford a big stage to other candidates if he doesn't, Oman said.

"Candidates look for these kind of opportunities," Oman said.

King said he's been putting "all the pieces on the table" and that his team has commissioned statewide "kitchen sink" polling.

"I know that the decision cannot include in the analysis anything that has to do with settling a score or teaching anyone a lesson or my ego," King told the Daily Times Herald in Jefferson in the interview earlier this month. "Those three things have to go in the trash heap and the analytical data looked at objectively. And I don't know if any human being can make a decision completely devoid of all of that. But I'm in the process of trying to do that."

Oman said he takes King at his word that there's much to review before making the call about his future.

"There's risk in each decision, probably less risk if he was to stay where he is," Oman said.

The other Republican candidates in the discussion likely would not seek the Senate seat should King run, say party operatives and most of the candidates themselves. But if King doesn't run, and there's a spirited primary, that could work to the GOP's advantage, Schmidt said.

"I don't see a competitive, but not bloody, primary as a negative," Schmidt said. "It can help get the base excited and more involved than a coronation such as Bruce Braley walking away with it."