The 2014 race is becoming a difficult one to handicap: A number of races thought to be prime Republican pickups — such as North Carolina, Arkansas, and Louisiana — are now shaping up to be competitive races that Democrats will vigorously contest. But at the same time, Democrats are discovering that a few of their so-called safe seats have proven to be anything but; chief among these is retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin’s Senate seat.
Shortly after Senator Tom Harkin announced his retirement last Spring, Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley announced his candidacy, and the party establishment quickly got behind him and quashed any intra-party competition.
The Republicans had no logical standard bearer in the wings. After incendiary Congressman Steve King declined to run for the seat the party breathed a sigh of relief, but when his House colleague Tom Latham announced his retirement from politics there was no obvious candidate for Republicans to back.
Into the void stepped a gaggle of tea partiers — a radio host, the head of one of the various tea party organizations, and a new state senator named Joni Ernst joined the fray. Each has struggled to raise money and get traction amongst the electorate, although state senator Jodi Ernst recently managed to get some attention — not all of its flattering — for her recent TV ad where she bragged about her ability to castrate hogs.
None pose much of a threat to Braley, whose fundraising trounced the three of them combined, and the election jockeys in Washington DC quickly concluded that Braley would handily allow Democrats to keep the seat and wrote off the election.
Recently things have begun looking up for Republican’s chances of capturing the seat. The first break was when retired executive Mark Jacobs declared his candidacy late last year.
Jacobs grew up in Des Moines and after college quickly worked his way up the corporate ladder, becoming CEO of Reliant Energy in Houston. He took over as the company teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. He managed to pull it back from the brink, return it to profitability, and engineer a merger that ensured its continued survival.
After the merger he stepped down and moved his family back to Iowa, where he taught at Iowa State University and helped with a couple of new businesses in the region.
A few months after Tom Harkin’s retirement Jacobs became a candidate himself. He easily outraised the rest of the rest of the Republican field and then lent his campaign a million dollars of his own money to boot, allowing him to boost his name recognition across the state. If Jacobs does get the nomination he will be well-positioned to compete financially with Braley.
He will also be a difficult man to demonize. His midwestern mein and boyish appearance make him come across much more like the guy who owns the sporting goods store down the street than an unfeeling titan of industry that Democrats will attempt to caricature him as.
Jacobs’ other advantage — of sorts — is that he’s slightly closer to the center than the other tea party candidates. While no one seriously questions his conservative bona fides, he manages to express them in a way that comes across as more inclusive than the oft-apocalyptic meanderings of his primary opponents.