February 3, 2014

Des Moines, Iowa

As the 2014 election cycle begins to take shape, the candidates jockeying for position in the crowded GOP Senate primary are all trying to break away from the pack as the best option to take on Democrat Bruce Braley in the fall.

No clear leader has emerged in the Republican race for the seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. At least six little-known hopefuls are competing to run against Braley, a congressman from Waterloo who is busy raising money and building his organization as the only Democrat in the field. Still, some Republicans hope that weak approval ratings for President Barack Obama and his policies may give Republicans a shot at the seat.

"I think there's a greater sense of urgency among the donors now that Braley seems more vulnerable," said former Iowa GOP Party Chairman Matt Strawn.

Most of Iowa's top Republican office-holders opted out of the race last year, opening the doors for the lesser-known candidates. The GOP field includes conservative radio host Sam Clovis; state Sen. Joni Ernst; former energy company CEO Mark Jacobs; and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker. Also competing are lawyer Paul Lunde and former car salesman Scott Schaben. In addition, conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, who heads The Family Leader, said he is considering a bid.

Will Rogers, chairman of the Polk County Republicans, said the race was still "pretty wide open."

"As I talk to people, I don't get a sense that a lot of the primary voters have made up their minds," Rogers said. He noted that the candidates are talking about similar issues. "The themes of ObamaCare, less government, more efficient government, more individual responsibility, all the candidates are talking about those things."

At town hall meetings, county events and debates, the candidates have been trying to distinguish themselves. Ernst is pushing her background in elected office and in the military. Jacobs wants to talk about his CEO experience. Whitaker is peddling his small business record. And Clovis is portraying himself as a straight-talker who seeks to reduce government spending.

One concern among some Iowa Republicans is that the competitive primary could push the eventual nominee further to the political right, which may make it harder to win more moderate voters in a general election. In addition, Iowa's June 3 primary has a 35 percent threshold. If no candidate gets that much, the nomination would be decided at a party convention, which could favor a more conservative candidate.

Politically, Iowa is a true swing state, with elected offices evenly divided between the political parties. Voter registration data show that the state has 616,762 registered Republicans, 615,428 registered Democrats and 719,917 registered voters with no party affiliation. Still, Obama easily carried Iowa in 2012, suggesting a slight Democratic edge.

Nationally Republicans need a net gain of six seats to take Senate control from Democrats. The Iowa race is not considered the GOP's strongest territory for capturing a seat - open seats in West Virginia and South Dakota are viewed as top prospects, as well as races against incumbent Democrats in Republican-leaning Arkansas, Louisiana and Alaska.

Still, if the political climate favors Republicans, the Iowa GOP candidate could have a shot, some experts said.

"If the president is back up at 47 percent (approval ratings), the Democrat will have a better chance of winning. If he's at 42 percent, only the most extreme Republican won't be competitive," said Sara Fagen, who was White House political director for President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2007.

Fundraising numbers for 2013 show Braley, of Waterloo, continues to hold a powerful financial advantage in the race. Braley raised slightly more than $4 million in 2013 and ended the year with $2.6 million in cash on hand, financial reports due to the federal government Friday showed.

In contrast, Ernst ended 2013 with $289,514 in cash on hand. Jacobs, who gave or loaned more than $500,000 to his campaign, ended the year with $252,610 in cash. Whitaker reported he had $232,092 in cash at the end of the year.

Jacobs is expected to put more personal funding into his campaign, though he declined to say how much. He was the first candidate to start running television and radio advertisements, which he launched last year.

GOP pollster Greg Strimple said that additional support will be available to the right general election candidate in Iowa.

"As long as the candidate is credible, the national money and the national party have to pay real attention to the race," said Strimple, who also noted that the Republican general election candidate will benefit from running with popular incumbent Gov. Terry Branstad at the top of the ticket.