Iowa is set to boast a plethora of competitive elections in 2014. All statewide constitutional offices are up for grabs, legislative control could be swung one way or the other and Tom Latham’s retirement announcement means his competitive 3rd Congressional district just became more so. Lastly, Tom Harkin’s open Senate seat looked like a surefire lock for Democrats when they nabbed a strong nominee in Congressman Bruce Braley whose district has traditionally leaned left but has never been a lock for the party. Meanwhile, Republicans saw multiple high profile nominees say no leading to a crowded field with no clear front-runner.
Unsurprisingly, until Obamcare’s roll out Democrats put this seat in their safe category. The state GOP is locked in infighting between establishment Republicans, evangelical conservatives and Ron Paulers. Short of GOP successes in state races in 2010 as well as Chuck Grassley being reelected the party has struggled in the state. Between 2010 and 2012 Democrats also won two state senate races that allowed them to hold the chamber (26D-24R). Barack Obama easily carried the state in 2012 while Republicans could only hold their current 2/2 split split Congressional delegation.
It is important to note Iowa has long been the quintessential Midwest swing state. Unlike Ohio which has more electoral votes and thus garners more media attention and has tended to swing towards the ultimate Presidential victor in recent cycles Iowa has not followed such a similar pattern. Rather, Iowa, a much more agriculturally dependent state until recently, has been more varied in its voting patterns. For example, in 1988, while a solid majority of states gave their votes to HW Bush Iowa gave its to Dukakis by a substantial margin (10%). In 2000, Iowa swung for Gore over George Bush by the second narrowest margin for any state in the country (next to Florida).
It is also important to realize Iowa has not had a Senate race without an incumbent featured since 1980. Divided politics has been a feature of the state at the local and federal level for decades. Of course, considering Braley has the advantage of representing the populous Des Moines suburbs a large swath of voters are already familiar with him. The same cannot be said for any Republican vying to challenge him.
Iowa, like many other Midwestern states has trended away from the GOP at the Presidential level. This appears to have more to do with vote distribution than any particular issue set though it seems safe to say the GOP obsession with abortion has not endeared them to suburban women (predominantly single women). Democrats have long been dominant in the East of the state while Republicans have dominated the state’s Western, rural and agriculturally dependent region. While this divide has not changed the demographics of the state have. Des Moines suburbs have grown in population while the GOP leaning rural areas have not and Democrats at the Presidential level (including Gore and Obama) have benefited.
For Republicans hoping to flip the open Senate seat this should be extremely concerning. Unlike statewide executive and constitutional officers that can appeal to these left leaning voters on competency GOP Senate hopefuls have to do so in a more ideologically based race. That said, there is nothing to suggest it cannot be done. Keep in mind Senator Chuck Grassley has done it five times since 1980. More specifically, his 1998 campaign might be the path a Republican may want to follow. Grassley easily won reelection with 67% of the vote that year but he did so amid a political environment hostile to Republicans (Clinton impeachment). He did so by emphasizing his tenure, state roots and his opponent’s liberal viewpoints.
Republicans running to replace Harkin cannot emphasize their tenure but they can hit Braley on his liberal views, especially on Obamacare. Braley apparently recognizes that this issue can peel away socially liberal voters from the party and as such voted with Republicans to amend Obamacare so the law allows all Americans to keep their heath insurance plan if they like it. His move came after polls showed widespread disapproval with the law and it sinking Democratic prospects nationwide.
The GOP field to challenge Braley is muddled, worrying GOP strategists. The field includes Sam Clovis, a radio host, Joni Ernst, a state senator, Mark Jacobs, an energy executive, Paul Lunde, Scott Schaben, Matthew Whittaker, a former US attorney for the Southern District of Iowa and Chuck Grassley’s former Chief of Staff, David Young. Both Young and Whittaker seem to be the early front runners though Ernst does have strong Tea Party support.
Democratic strategists scoff at the GOP field noting it is bereft of any big name candidates. They note Braley is popular, has plenty of cash and has distanced himself from the President and Obamacare. Republicans note however that Braley voted for Obamacare and no matter what he has done to distance himself from the law they will make him own it by November of next year.
Polls show none of the GOP nominees have caught fire among GOP circles or the Iowa electorate. However, in the most recent Quinnipiac survey Whittaker fairs the best, trailing Braley 43%-40%. Among independents Braley led 39%-35% but that may have more to do with name ID than anything else. Braley led among women and Whittaker among men reflecting the traditional gender group in federal races.
Democrats may enjoy many advantages in this race but Obamacare has made this race potentially competitive. As a result Republicans plan to tie Braley to the law and spend precious resources on making Democrats at least work to hold this seat. Much as Colorado and New Hampshire Democrats, states that have also trended Democratic at the federal level in recent cycles, are seeing Obamacare has made what looked like easy races appear to be anything but easy.