Congressman Bruce Braley has officially been a candidate for the U.S. Senate for almost two months now. While Iowa Democrats have united around Braley’s candidacy, Braley’s journey to becoming the presumptive nominee of his party has been short and bumpy road.
Braley’s announcement that he would run for the U.S. Senate was immediately drowned out by a Des Moines Register headline urging U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to run for the seat. Braley may have been the first to enter the race, but was not the candidate that many Iowa Democrats wanted to be their nominee.
Undeterred, Braley asked his trail lawyer friends to fill up his campaign coffers and end primary before it even had a chance to begin. His plan worked. In the first month of his campaign, Braley raised $856,000 and transferred another $179,000 from his congressional campaign account. All told, Braley banked just over a million dollars for his U.S. Senate campaign, and Democrats quickly embraced him as their savior and heir apparent to the Harkin seat.
It took Sen. Tom Harkin a little longer to officially endorse Braley, but at an event on April 21, he said, “Congressman Braley went out, started getting all the Democrats behind him, and made it very clear that he was going to fight hard for this seat. He’s got a good message. He’s raised money, and he’s got pretty much the Democratic Party in Iowa behind him, so it made it very clear to me that maybe I should get on board this train, huh?”
That’s not what most would call a ringing endorsement. Even more surprising, Harkin’s official endorsement received very little statewide media attention. Receiving Harkin’s blessing should have been a big deal, but most Iowans are still unaware it even happened. It’s the job of Braley’s campaign to make sure their candidate receives good media coverage, but thus far, his political team has been an embarrassment outside of the realm of fundraising.
Braley’s out-of-state fundraising ability has been impressive, but Iowa Democrats may not want to start planning Braley’s victory celebration just yet. By essentially nominating Braley more than a year in advance of the primary and 18 months ahead of the general elections, Iowa Democrats are now stuck with a very liberal candidate who is largely untested.
Braley, a four-term congressman who represents the northeast corner of the state, has been more lucky than good as far as his congressional campaigns are concerned. Braley won his seat in congress in 2006, a great year for Democrats across the country and here in Iowa. He faced token opposition in his first re-election campaign in 2008, which to the chagrin to Republicans, was an even better year for Democrats at the ballot box than 2006 had been.
In 2010, Braley seemed to be cruising to another easy re-election against a mostly unknown challenger in Republican Ben Lange until the Iowa based American Future Fund (AFF) took interest an the race. With AFF pouring over $1 million into the race over the final two months of the campaign, what was once a seat Democrats thought for sure that they would hold was suddenly in play.
Braley survived his 2010 challenge, but just barely. Braley only won half of the counties in the 12-county Congressional District. Lange didn’t just rack up wins in rural counties like Bremer, Buchanan, Butler, Delaware, and Jones counties, but he also won the largest county in the district, Scott County. Braley squeaked out a 4,209-vote victory and defeated Lange 48 percent to 47 percent.
Braley came out of his 2010 campaign wounded politically. He lost his seat on the powerful and influential Energy and Commerce committees, settling instead for Veteran’s Affairs and the Oversight committee. Braley also lost a leadership position with the National Democratic Congressional Committee after his near defeat in 2010. The once rising star had won re-election but had still bottomed out politically.
Braley’s 2012 re-election has helped put some distance between himself and his 2010 campaign. The 2012 race was a rematch between Braley and Lange, but redistricting was kind to Braley. Braley’s new district included Poweshiek County, which is where he grew up and still owns a lake home on Holiday Lake. It also included Linn County, the state’s second largest county, which has become a liberal bastion in recent years. Braley defeated Lange by 15 points. However, 2012 was once again a tremendous year for Democrats across the country and in Iowa.
Despite the current confidence of Iowa Democrats and Braley himself, 2014 is likely to be a lot more like 2010 than 2006, 2008, or 2012. Two factors are obvious. First, President Obama is not on the top of the ticket like he was in 2008 and 2012. The Obama political enterprise is unmatched in regards to its turnout operation, and candidates like Braley benefitted greatly from that effort. Second, just as was the case in 2010, a popular Terry Branstad sits atop the Republican ballot once again.
Branstad has always run strong in eastern Iowa, and his longevity in office and appeal to voters across all political spectrums should once again help Republicans who often struggle in eastern Iowa. Making matters worse for Braley is that Iowa Democrats don’t currently have a challenger for Branstad. The odds that his opponent will not be a top tier candidate grow every day. While the open Senate seat will be the center of attention in Iowa in 2014, the most known and liked commodity on the ballot will be Branstad. Branstad’s presence on the ballot will be helpful for who ever the Republican Senate nominee ends up being.
Another obstacle that Braley will have to contend with is outside spending by groups like AFF. Braley was incensed over the $1 million spent against him by AFF in 2010, but that’s nothing compared to what’s headed his way in the 2014 U.S. Senate race. Braley’s thin skin is a weakness, and as a sitting member of congress, he is an easy target for conservative leaning organizations to attack.
While Democrats are likely to use the same tactics to attack Braley’s Republican opponent, the material they will have to use against the GOP nominee is likely to be very limited. State Sen. Joni Ernst has a legislative record that could be attacked by Democrats, but former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker and Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz don’t have any legislative records to highlight. Braley could attack Schultz on voter ID and his attempts to prosecute voter fraud, but that’s a losing issue for Braley in statewide campaign.
As the race stands today, Braley may appear to have the world on a string, but in reality, he is facing a daunting task. There is no doubt that Republicans will field a strong candidate to run against Braley. While Braley has a head start, once Republicans select their nominee, they will be laser focused on winning the seat that Harkin has occupied for nearly 30 years.
While the media and Iowa Democrats may see Braley as Bruce Almighty, his track record in non-presidential years is less than divine.
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