Iowa could be key 2014 test for Senate GOP campaign arm

December 20, 2012

In its effort to avoid a repeat of 2012 -- when Senate Republicans swallowed tough defeats in several red states where GOP nominees ranged from lackluster to disastrous -- the Senate GOP's campaign arm could face an early 2014 test in Iowa, where Rep. Steve King (R) is considering a bid.

King hasn’t committed to running. But the outspoken conservative is definitely thinking about it. And the prospect of a King candidacy could prompt flashbacks to the just-completed election cycle in the minds of some party strategists.

For a number of reasons, King, who defeated former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack (D) in the state’s new 4th District in November, could be a problematic statewide candidate for the GOP. He’s beloved on the political right by the tea party and other conservative activists, and enjoys a strong base of support in his Northwest Iowa district. But in a statewide race, his politics and tendency to stoke controversy with public statements could alienate moderate voters who could tilt the outcome of the election. 


Rep. Steve King (Cliff Owen -- AP)

“Before I could say ‘yes’ to something like that, I’d have to see a lot of the money would be lined up and a lot of the support would be lined up,” King recently told Roll Call. “I’ve taken no steps in that direction.”

Sen. Tom Harkin (D), who has served in the Senate for nearly 30 years, will face voters in 2014. Harkin hasn’t yet committed to running for a sixth term, but if he does, the senator looks to be in pretty sound shape for reelection. A November survey from Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling showed him leading a generic GOP opponent by eight points.

But Harkin, who is in his 70s, might opt for retirement. If he steps aside, the Iowa race would instantly become more competitive for the GOP. And who the GOP nominee is could make the difference between winning and losing.

If that nominee is King, the GOP would be forced to get behind a staunchly conservative congressman with a knack for stirring controversy. The Washington Post’s Ed O’Keefe took a closer look at King’s past in Iowa earlier this year. From his dispatch:

He once said terrorists would be “dancing in the streets” if President Obama won the 2008 election. He claimed that Congress was to blame for a suicidal pilot who crashed his plane into an Internal Revenue Service office in 2010 because lawmakers failed to follow King’s advice to abolish the tax agency. And King, a founding member of the House Tea Party Caucus, once called disgraced former senator Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) “a great American hero.”

“Because of [King’s] outspoken nature, it makes it more difficult for him, particularly in the eastern part of the state,” said University of Iowa political scientist Timothy Hagle.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) agreed with that assessment of the more Democratic eastern part of the state. "I think Steve King, I just don't think he can do it in Eastern Iowa," Branstad told The Hotline last month

A hardliner on the issue of illegal immigration and border security, King threatened to sue the Obama administration earlier this year for issuing an executive order blocking the deportation of certain young illegal immigrants.

All of this came in a state that Obama won in 2008 and 2012. 

Senate Republicans hope to avoid nominating flawed general election candidates in 2014, coming off a cycle in which that happened far too often. One of incoming National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Jerry Moran’s (R-Kan.) vice chairs will be  Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a favorite of conservative activists. A Republican familiar with NRSC strategy recently told The Fix that Cruz’s role will involve communicating with conservative groups and activists who have been partially responsible for nominating candidates who ended up as busts in the general election.

Iowa could be an early test of how well this arrangement will work. If King begins to move more seriously toward a Senate bid, the Senate GOP campaign arm will face some key decisions. Would the group try to convince him not to run? Would it boost another candidate? These are the questions that would confront the NRSC. 

At this early stage, though, it’s not clear who else might be interested on the Republican side. A couple of names tossed around in state political circles: Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Tom Latham, two candidates who look to be better general election fits. If Harkin retires, the Democratic name most often floated is Rep. Bruce Braley.

When asked about the Senate race, King's congressional office didn't weigh in. "Right now the Congressman is completely focused on organizing and gearing up for the 113th Congress," spokeswoman Brittany Lesser said. 

This past cycle, the GOP learned the hard way what the price of nominating weak candidates can be, even in states that lean heavily Republican. Unsteady GOP nominees arguably cost the GOP seats in four states Mitt Romney won by an average of 13 points. 

In Montana and North Dakota, Rep. Denny Rehberg and former congressman Rick Berg lost to Democrats who ran better campaigns. In Missouri and Indiana, two disastrous candidates who stoked controversy with comments about rape and pregnancy cost their party a pair of seats that looked like virtual GOP locks a year before Election Day.

Iowa isn’t Missouri, North Dakota, Montana, or Indiana. Obama won there twice -- by an average of nearly eight points. If weak Senate nominees could sink GOP hopes in redder states, one could do the same in Iowa.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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