Back in April, long before Congressman Steve King and a handful of other prominent Republicans took a pass at running for the open U.S. Senate seat, I was asked how a non-traditional candidate would do if people like King, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey chose to not enter the U.S. Senate race.
I responded by saying that I thought a non-traditional candidate could do well, but if they want to be successful, they must have the ability to raise “traditional” candidate amounts of money to win a primary. I added that, while the climate may be favorable for an outsider, it still takes serious money to run for statewide office. If asked the question again today, that would still be my answer.
I then explained that I thought the baseline for the primary would be about $500,000 at a bare minimum. Bob Vander Plaats spent $937,000 on his 2010 gubernatorial primary, and he hardly ran any television ads. The conversation eventually would led me to write an article about the importance of fundraising in the U.S. Senate race, but as we all know, there is more to campaigns than just money.
I didn’t know it then, but the person who had inquired about whether or not a non-traditional candidate could do well was seriously considering getting into the race. A short time after that conversation, Sam Clovis officially entered the race in early June.
The knocks against Clovis’ candidacy for the U.S. Senate are well documented. He can’t raise money, like some of us, he’s packing a few extra pounds, and he’s a regional candidate with limited appeal. Yet, as the primary continues to unfold, it’s becoming clear that Clovis is going to have his name printed on the primary ballot, something that I’m not sure will happen with some of the other candidates in the race.
In an email exchange with me about a month before he announced his candidacy, Clovis wrote, “Though I am mostly fearless about things in my life, it is with some trepidation that I give this Senate race a hard look. I have done a lot of big, hard jobs in my life, so this is just another challenge, but still, it is a national event that will get national attention. I just hope folks take me seriously. I will certainly give it my best shot to make sure they do.”
I decided to publish this quote from that email exchange because as I observe Clovis today, I see him giving it his best. He still continues to struggle in the fundraising department. I also don’t doubt that some people will likely write him off based solely on his appearance. But there is no question that he and his campaign are giving it their best, and regardless of what you may think of Sam Clovis as a candidate, I believe he’s going to be factor in the June primary.
In a primary where all of the candidates are relatively unknown to most Iowans and money is difficult to raise, it appears that Clovis is the only candidate who is out there trying to organize the state. The campaign has already released hundreds of names of supporters who have agreed to help him organize. While the majority of those folks are from northwest Iowa, Clovis is the only candidate with visible grassroots support at this point in the campaign.
Still, some try to deemphasize Clovis’ early organizational accomplishments. Building a grassroots network isn’t glitzy or all that exciting, but it can be incredibly important in a crowded primary. A number of people believe that the GOP’s U.S. Senate nominee might ultimately be decided at a state convention since it could be difficult for a candidate to meet the 35 percent threshold in the primary due to the crowded field. What’s odd is that, while everyone seems so eager to talk about the convention scenario, only the Clovis campaign seems to be preparing for a convention.
Clovis has also found success on the county GOP circuit. A number of county Republican organizations have been holding U.S. Senate forums and straw polls. Clovis has dominated the early straw polls, and while those are contests for the support of the most engaged Republican activists, which is a relatively small group, it shouldn’t be overlooked. His success in the various forums however, is far more noteworthy and important to his success in the June primary.
When it comes to the issues, Clovis is as well versed as they come. His ability to speak about a wide variety of issues is impressive. I’m told that at a recent county GOP forum, the candidates were asked to speak about the Chinese devaluing their currency. One candidate had to take a pass on the question, while Clovis, an economics professor, answered it with ease and plenty of detail.
Even though Clovis might never be an impressive fundraiser, his candidacy should be taken seriously. As the primary stands today, Clovis appears to the most socially conservative candidate in the race. He also seems to be the lone anti-establishment candidate in the race. Combined, that makes for a formidable candidate. When you add in his military background, ability to communicate, and base of knowledge, things only look better for Clovis.
While political observers and pundits like to try to assess the strengths and weaknesses of candidates by using traditional metrics like fundraising, campaign staff, and even a candidate’s appearance, that doesn’t always work when it comes to unconventional candidates.
Clovis continues to catch my eye because he seems to be running his own race instead of trying to run the type of campaign others think he should run. I also think the hire of Chuck Laudner as his campaign manager is significant. Laudner has had success on a number of long-shot campaigns. While a lot of campaign managers are concerned with money, Laudner likes to joke about the fact that he’s never worked on a campaign with money, so he doesn’t know what he’s missing.
There is still a long way to go until primary day, but it’s becoming clear that Clovis has his campaign pointed in the right direction. If this race does end up being decided at convention, the Clovis campaign has an edge on its competition since it began organizing on the very first day of the campaign and continues to focus on a grassroots strategy.
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