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.
It’s an advantage in that he clearly appeals to those Republicans who first and foremost want to nominate someone with a chance of winning the general election, as well as those who want a Senator who’s willing to work across the aisle to get things done.
What’s become clear in 2014 is that the race is eminently winnable for the right Republican. The state is solidly purple, and a Republican governor running at the top of the ticket and some help from Senator Charles Grassley’s machine will be a serious boost to any Republican candidate.
Joni Ernst, the tea party favorite with her clownish commercials that have her riding Harleys, shooting a gun and talking about hog castration, has garnered the support from much of the DC establishment, which apparently figures they might as well appear inclusive by supporting the woman in a race they perceive as unwinnable.
It probably is unwinnable for a Republican attempting to hew to the policy path of Sarah Palin and Ted Cruz, but for someone willing to engage the voters on the issues, this seat is up in the air.
Braley’s recent gaffe — criticizing Grassley in front of a group of trial lawyers for being a farmer and not having a law degree — highlighted the fact that despite Braley’s experience in Congress and the imprimatur of Harkin and the party, he’s not all that formidable. In his four terms in Congress he never had a terribly competitive race, and remains largely untested. He entered Congress during the Democratic landslide of 2006, winning a seat Jim Nussle vacated to run for governor, and barely survived the Republican wave in 2010. During the year he has spent campaigning for the Senate he has struggled to increase his name recognition outside of his congressional district.
Braley might get lucky and end up with yet another second-tier performer, but thus far it is not looking like it’s going to be a banner year for tea-party candidates. Iowa’s conservative base may buck the trend and nominate one of their own, but with control of the U.S. Senate at stake there’s a good chance Ernst’s supporters abandon their strict purity test and go with the conservative who can win.
A matchup of Mark Jacobs versus Bruce Braley would likely turn out to be a nip and tuck race, and one with the possibility of determining control of the Senate.
Ike Brannon is President of Capital Policy Analytics, a Consulting Firm in Washington DC.