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Cover Story

A preview of Iowa’s 2014 races Primary colors

4/16/2014

Cover designFor decades, the race for President of the United States has always been front and center in the Iowa political arena. But for the first time in years, the battle for the White House is taking a temporary back seat to the blockbuster state races in the 2014 election.

The retirements of long time Senator Tom Harkin and Congressman Tom Latham have set off a political game of musical chairs. Hanging in the balance are a once-in-a-generation open U.S. Senate seat, the make-up of the state’s Congressional delegation, control of the state General Assembly and the possible retention of the longest serving governor in the history of America.

The races could shape the future of Iowa politics for decades, and it all gets underway with the June 3 primary. Hillary Clinton, Chris Christie and other 2016 hopefuls may just have to wait until November to get the full attention of Iowa voters.

The United State Senate Race: “The Big Sleep” becomes “The Big Lebowski”

A few months ago, many political observers thought the contest to replace Tom Harkin was a foregone conclusion, with Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley positioned to walk away with the contest.

Bruce Braley

Bruce Braley

But what started as a Raymond Chandler-penned film noir with a predictable hero ending has taken on the look of a Coen brothers’ free-for-all, with a supporting cast that includes a hog-castrating army mom, a jet-setting energy executive, a shock jock, a sports jock and a used-car salesman — all straddling a cartful of liquor manned by a smooth-talking charlatan lawyer. Where is the Iowa Film Office when you need it?

Joel and Ethan Coen fashioned “The Big Lebowski” after Chandler’s “The Big Sleep.”  But while movie-goers knew that Bogey would prevail in the 1946 classic, “Lebowski” kept viewers guessing about its main character, The Dude, until the end. In this year’s Senate race, we may not know the ending until the closing credits begin to roll on the night of Nov. 4.

The current make-up of the U.S. Senate is 53 Democrats, 45 Republicans and two independents. There are 33 seats up for election, and the GOP needs to pick up six seats to take control, which would effectively end the Obama presidency.

Nate Silver, the wunderkind predictor of presidential races at FiveThirtyEight, recently put Democrats into panic mode when he projected that Republicans may take control of the Senate this fall. For Democrats, holding Harkin’s seat was always a given in order to retain control. But that all changed in a Texas minute.

Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst

When Harkin announced his retirement, the Democratic establishment circled the wagons early around Braley. The strategy was to avoid a primary and save money for the general election. But primaries can also serve to enhance a candidate, particularly one like Braley, who was unknown by a large number of Iowans. Primaries give candidates the opportunity to practice debating, build their ground game and test-drive their get-out-the-vote efforts, all while getting free media attention along the way.

Unfortunately for the Democrats, Braley has gotten a considerable amount of free media following his 47 percent moment in front of a group of trial lawyers at a recent Texas fundraiser where he said, “To put this in stark contrast, if you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice. Someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years, in a visible and public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or you might have a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

This wasn’t the first dust-up for Braley. During last year’s government shutdown, he drew criticism after a work-out at the private House gym, when he lamented, “There’s no towel service; we’re doing our own laundry down there.”

Mark Jacobs

Mark Jacobs

Braley is fortunate the Texas video wasn’t released a month before the general election or his political career would almost certainly be over. Whether he can recover or convince enough Iowans to overlook such a comment remains to be seen.

“Braley is still unknown to many Iowans,” said University of Iowa Political Science Professor Tim Hagle. “The Republicans will make sure it doesn’t go away.”

A March Quinnipiac University poll indicated that 46 percent of Iowans don’t know enough about Braley to have an opinion of him, but that was before the video dropped. The Texas comment is a multi-layered insult offensive to farmers, non-lawyers and fans of Grassley, or in other words, a supermajority of Iowa voters.

But there is a lot about Braley that makes him look like a successful candidate and someone who would serve the state’s interest well in the Senate. He is smart, articulate and knows how the system works. He is already established in Congress and understands how to use Congressional committees and the bureaucratic process to get what Iowa needs. He also has a much bigger campaign bankroll at this point, and history shows the candidate with the most money almost always wins.

Matt Whitaker

Matt Whitaker

Five Republicans are vying for the chance to take on Braley, although the race continues to narrow toward a two-person contest between Joni Ernst and Mark Jacobs.

Sam Clovis, a Morningside College professor and Sioux City radio talk show host, is a favorite of ultra-conservatives while former U.S. Attorney and former Iowa Hawkeye tight end Matt Whitaker has been able to raise enough money and support to stay competitive, but neither has yet shown they can play on the fall stage. The fifth candidate is Ames auto sales manager Scott Schaben. The race could go to a state convention if no on receives 35 percent of the primary vote.

Ernst was born and raised on a farm in Montgomery County. She graduated from Iowa State University and has a master’s degree in public administration from Columbus College in Georgia.

She is a former county auditor and current state Senator and is also a Lt. Colonel in the Iowa National Guard. She was a company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. She was been endorsed by Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin. Her finance committee is headed by experienced hand David Oman, and she is the first to name a full 99-county leadership team, an impressive organization accomplishment. She has not been afraid to attack Jacobs for moving back to Iowa and for his support of cap and trade, reforming Obamacare and contributing to the Senate campaign of former New Jersey Democratic Governor Jon Corzine.

Sam Clovis

Sam Clovis

Ernst recently released the “Squeal” ad, an exceptionally clever and effective entree introducing her to Iowans and the nation. The ad garnered a tremendous amount of free press while being discussed coast to coast on late night television and in nearly every political journal.  If President Obama needs someone to stand up to Vladimir Putin, he may want to consider Ernst for the part.

Dallas County Republican Chair Christi Taylor said the recent ad has given Ernst a boost.

“She is a strong woman, mother, solider and legislator,” said Taylor. “She was already popular, and the ad has given her a surge.”

Scott Schaben

Scott Schaben

Jacobs was born and raised in Iowa and is a graduate of Roosevelt High School in Des Moines. He has to keep repeating those facts to voters because he has been pegged as a sort of carpet bagger. He is the former CEO of Reliant Energy in Houston, which he helped turn around from financial peril. He has a strong business background and has plenty of cash.

He was the first candidate on the air with several well produced television ads and has invested heavily on media. He has done the “Full Grassley” by visiting all 99 counties but may not be connecting with some key primary voters. Taylor indicates that while Jacobs is highly regarded, he may not be making the personal contact needed to win over certain voters.

Ernst and Jacobs are the two candidates who appear able to defeat Braley. Ernst is perceived as more conservative and has a better chance of winning the nomination if it goes to a convention, where Kim Reynolds could help Ernst — as well as enhance her own stature as a party leader.

The Congressional races: Can Mrs. Smith go to Washington?

Diane Bystrom, Director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, feels “a sense of optimism” that Iowans will finally elect a women to Congress this year. But Iowa could lay a goose egg once again as there are just six women out of the 27 candidates for the five federal races. In addition to Ernst, three of the four Congressional districts could nominate a woman, but only Democrat Staci Appel in the Third District has a guaranteed spot on the fall ticket.

IA distict map

First District

Republicans seem to have more potential winning candidates out of the race than in. Perhaps that is because Democrats hold a 5.2 percent advantage in voter registration and a more accomplished list of primary candidates.

House Speaker Kraig Paulson, legislator Walt Rogers and former legislators Renee Schulte and Paul Pate all declined to run. That leaves Dubuque businessman Rod Blum, Marshalltown attorney Gail Boliver and Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Rathje to carry the day. Blum has gotten on the Republican Congressional Committee’s radar screen and appears to be the candidate with the most able fundraising and organizational structure.

The Democratic race is more unpredictable with five active candidates: former legislator Swati Dandekar, state representative Anesa Kajtazovic, former House Speaker Pat Murphy, former Congressional candidate Dave O’Brien, and Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon. Bystrom believes the best bet to elect a woman may be here, noting “If a woman wins the First District primary, the voter registration numbers simply favor the Democrat, and she would be more likely to win.”

All five have strong credentials and would be favored in the fall. Several Democratic county chairs in the district indicate they cannot tell if anyone has an advantage. University of Northern Iowa Political Science Professor Chris Larimer points out the geographic split, with Murphy from Dubuque County, Kajtazovic from Blackhawk County and the other three from Linn County each carving out their own niche.

Murphy appears to have stronger inroads in more counties, has the backing of key labor groups and has sufficient money to win the primary. He may be more likely to prevail if the contest must go to a convention.

Second District

No one expects incumbent Dave Loebsack to have much trouble in the fall, where Democrats hold their largest voter registration edge of the four districts. Republicans have three candidates after his seat: Mark Lofgren, Mariannette Miller-Meeks and Matthew Waldren.

Lofgren is leaving the state legislature to make the run and had early support and endorsements but has fallen short raising money. That opened the door for Miller-Meeks, the former director of the state department of public health who was the nominee in both 2008 and 2010. She is the favorite to win the primary, but most expect Loebsack to win handily in the fall.

Third District

The Republican primary pits several able candidates with various political stripes against one another. The contest may be the most likely of the four to be decided at a district convention.

The potential nominees are construction company executive Robert Cramer, teacher Joe Grandanette, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, business executive Monte Shaw, former Grassley chief of staff David Young, and state Senator Brad Zaun.  Republicans have a good chance of winning the seat but must be careful about who they nominate.

The race might best be determined by a process of elimination. That starts with Grandanette, who is a political novice, and then Cramer and Zaun, who both carry baggage the Democratic National Committee would use in attack ads (Cramer on his religious views and Zaun for his past legal issues). That leaves Schultz, Shaw and Young.

Young appears to be a thoughtful candidate who knows the issues and the process in Washington, but his campaign seems to be just behind others in fundraising, endorsements and organization. That leaves Schultz and Shaw, both who could win in the fall.

Shaw has received high marks as the head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. He has also been a long-standing player in Republican campaigns. His finance committee is headed by Matt Strawn, an able politico and former chair of the state party. The campaign has been endorsed by former Congressman Greg Ganske and made an early announcement that they had raised $200,000 in the first quarter. (Campaign reports were due on April 15 for all the campaigns.)

Schultz has the financial backing of several familiar GOP heavyweights including Bruce Rastetter, Gary Kirke and Denny Elwell. He surprised many by winning the 2010 Secretary of State election against an incumbent but has created controversy with his focus on what some believe is phantom voter fraud. But that is not hurting him in the GOP primary, and he may be better positioned if the election moves to a convention.

“Matt Schultz has some serious traction. He connects with people, his message resonates and people really like him after they meet him,” Dallas County’s Taylor said, also noting that Shaw “is very well known in the inner circle of activists, and the people who know him like him very much.”

Schultz might win the political race, but Shaw might be the stronger general election candidate and a more effective member of Congress.

Fourth District

There is no primary in the fourth district where the fall race is between six-term incumbent Steve King and newcomer Jim Mowrer. King just disposed of the best candidate the Democrats have ever run against him, and Republicans hold an astonishing 37 percent to 26 percent voter registration advantage. King would have to make a big gaffe, which he appears to have been doing several times a year over his career — and it only seems to help him. Democrats can’t figure out how to crack this nut.

The Iowa General Assembly — same time next year

Democrats hold a slim 26-24 majority in the Senate and with it, the last line of defense against the GOP agenda. In the House, Republicans have a more comfortable 53-47 advantage. While there are some key match-ups for the fall, the early betting line has both parties holding their chambers. A few primaries are worth watching.

The most hotly contested is Des Moines’ District 17, where former legislators Ned Chiodo and Tony Bisignano have an ongoing brawl that resembles the Hatfields and McCoys.  The dispute went legal, with Chiodo challenging Bisignano in court over his ability to be on the ballot following Bisignano’s repeat arrest for impaired driving. The race is dividing the south side. After they finish pacing off against each other, a third candidate, Nathan Blake, could walk away from the skirmish as the winner.

The District 15 seat being vacated by retiring Senator Dennis Black has produced two strong Republicans: Crystal Bruntz, a Kum and Go human resources executive, and Mitchellville Mayor Jeremy Filbert. The winner will square off against popular former Newton mayor Chaz Allen, who is the only Democrat running. Local Democrats don’t seem to mind that Allen endorsed Terry Branstad for governor in 2010.

Senator Herman Quirmbach has a primary opponent in District 23 where community volunteer Cynthia Paschen was recruited by female activists unhappy about his spat with fellow Ames Democratic House member Beth Wessel-Kroeschell and his bully-like treatment of Republican Senator Amy Sinclair during last year’s session. Paschen has picked up the support of the long-serving former State Senator Johnie Hammond.

In Warren County House District 26, where the registered vote total is nearly even, the Republican primary features James Butler, a longtime member of the Des Moines Police Department, and Eric Durbin, an engineer at John Deere, with the winner working to oust first-term Democrat Scott Ourth.

Iowans may get a rare reprise this year from the caucuses as several key races dominate the political landscape. That should give Joe Klein time to start a sequel to “Primary Colors,” and while “Ready for Hillary” may be ready, the real Hillary may just have to wait until after the November curtain call. CV

James Strohman writes about Iowa government and politics and teaches political science at Iowa State University. He can be reached at strohman@iastate.edu.

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