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March 4th, 2013

Examining the Republican Field of U.S. Senate Candidate

Iowa Republicans and the national media alike are antsy for a Republican to declare his or her candidacy for the U.S. Senate.  Their curiosity is understandable, but the reality of situation is that the only dynamic that changed when Congressman Tom Latham took himself out of consideration is that a very good candidate is taking a pass at the opportunity to run for the seat that is currently occupied by Sen. Tom Harkin.  Things are really no different on the Democrat side either.  Congressman Bruce Braley has officially jumped into the race, but the Democrats’ best candidate, Tom Vilsack, took a pass.

As has been the case since Senator Tom Harkin announced his decision to retire upon completion of his fifth term, Congressman Steve King holds all the cards in the Republican process since he would be incredibly difficult to beat in a contested primary.  Early polls have showed King with a substantial lead over any other Republican opponent should there be a contested primary.  The main question that remains unresolved is whether King will actually seek the seat.

While it’s understandable that many want an actual candidate to emerge, prolonging the start of the race might be an advantage for Republicans.  Individuals are only allowed to contribute a maximum amount of $10,400 for the entire race -$5,200 for a primary, and $5,200 for the general election.  That means the earlier a campaign starts, the more money a campaign is going to burn through by paying consultants, staff, and other expenses.

Congressman Braley is already racking up those expenses and not getting that much media attention as the only announced candidate.  There is plenty of time for the primary and general election politicking to take place even if a candidate doesn’t emerge until July or even August.  The trick is being prepared when the campaign does start.

There are three well-known Republican candidates that have expressed interest in running for the U.S. Senate – Congressman Steve King, Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, and Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey.  Below we discuss their strengths and weaknesses.  If you have things to add please do so in the comment section.

Congressman Steve King

Positives:  Steve King’s political career started in a high school gymnasium on the same night as the 1996 presidential caucuses.  After his local State Senator addressed the crowd, King went to the front of the room and asked to speak too.  Nobody clapped when he was introduced.  It was at that moment King made it clear that he was going to primary the Republican incumbent. Like he does sometimes today, King made people uncomfortable, but he won that primary by a substantial margin, and he won the general election the following November by almost 30 points.

Six years later, an open congressional seat in the most conservative part of Iowa lured King into another primary.  Three other candidates were also enticed to run, including the Speaker of the Iowa House, a well respected conservative doctor and colleague of King’s in the State Senate, and a young ambitious businessman.   King wasn’t the favorite in his congressional primary, but on election night, he had garnered the most votes, but fell just short of the 35 percent threshold he needed to surpass to win the nomination.  He would later go on to win the nomination at a special nominating convention, and he’s been in Congress ever since.

Despite what people may say of Congressman Steve King, his work ethic and his willingness to fight for whatever it is he wants is unmatched by any other politician in Iowa.  Politics is a contact sport, and King showed in his 1996 and 2002 races that he’s willing to get in the trenches and duke it out in a primary if that’s what the situation calls for.  It is a trait that many might not recognize or even consider to be a positive attribute, but that, combined with his conservative politics, is what makes King nearly impossible to beat in a Republican primary.  That type of scrappy demeanor would also be an attribute in a grueling U.S. Senate campaign.

When you get beyond what Karl Rove or the Des Moines Register’s editorial board think of King’s politics, what you see is a dedicated public servant who works hard, travels his district, and is willing to ask the tough questions in congress.  He works as hard in congress as he does traveling his district.  Through 2012, King has seen 36 of his amendments be adopted.  That’s the third highest total in that ten-year span.  In total, King’s proposed amendments have a 52 percent success rate.  It’s a sign of his willingness to work the legislative process and shape legislation, which is a needed skill, especially in a legislative body like the U.S. Senate.

King’s 2012 re-election campaign is also a strength as he considers a run for the U.S. Senate.  While King won his re-election by eight points, the race required him to raise a substantial amount of money and to make sure that his tongue didn’t cause him any trouble.  It wasn’t always smooth sailing.  It never is for any campaign.  King won that race and is now a much more disciplined and tested candidate for it.

There are a number of other advantages for King to consider.  He’s has represented 53 of Iowa’s 99 counties since being in Congress.  He also has a huge advantage over any other Republican because every dollar in his campaign account can be transferred to a U.S. Senate campaign.  That also allows him take his time to make his decision to run since he can be soliciting contributions for his congressional account.

Negatives:  As has been well reported, King’s willingness to say what ever is on his mind at any given moment has gotten him in trouble in the past.  Maybe the best example of this is from the 2006 Republican Party of Iowa Sate Convention.  When speaking about the death of terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi , King joked with the Republican delegates saying, “There probably are not 72 virgins in the hell he’s at. And if there are, they probably all look like Helen Thomas.”  Thomas, a member of the White House Press Corps, didn’t take too kindly to being the subject of King’s joke.  King’s detractors were equally troubled by the joke.

There are also those who believe that King’s conservative brand of politics will hurt him in a statewide contest.  Recent polling indicates that there is some truth to that, but the most concerning factor is that a Democrat opponent will run a campaign that focuses extensively on every controversial statement King has made.  That makes King’s job of messaging or focusing the campaign on the current issues of the day more difficult.  It will also make it more difficult to introducing himself positively to those who don’t know him.  Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democrat who is an announced candidate for the U.S. Senate, is already attacking King on a number of issues even though King has not announced his intentions yet.

The other place King might struggle is putting together a campaign team.  There is a close knit group of King loyalists who are always involved in his campaigns, but for his 2012 re-election campaign, two members of the Branstad political team were dispatched to run his campaign.  With Governor Terry Branstad up for re-election in 2014, it seems unlikely that the people who helped him beat Christy Vilsack will be there to assist him with a U.S. Senate campaign.

There is also a transition going on in King’s congressional office to keep any eye on.  Bentley Graves, King’s current Chief of Staff, has decided to move on, which leaves a big opening in his office.  King could likely fill the position internally, but if he’s seriously considering a run at the Senate, he may want to widen his search to get someone who has experience in both the House and Senate.  This would be an asset for King personally, not necessarily for the campaign.  Still, major changes in a congressional office at the onset of a huge political campaign is never ideal.

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds

Positives: The statewide exposure that Reynolds has received from being Terry Branstad’s running mate in 2010 and the state’s Lt. Governor has been invaluable.  Now that U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has removed his name from consideration, Reynolds remains as the highest ranking and most visible statewide politician contemplating a run for the U.S. Senate.

Branstad has his critics as any politician does, but he is well respected across the state.  Poll after poll has shown that a majority of Iowans believes he is doing a good job at leading the state, and that good will rubs of on Reynolds.  Besides the exposure Reynolds receives as Lt. Governor, she also gets unlimited access to the best retail politician the state has ever witnessed.  Yes, Branstad is an institution, but he also has an understanding of Iowa politics that goes unmatched.  This is a side of Branstad that you don’t see on TV or hear in speeches, but having the opportunity to seek advice and counsel from someone like Branstad is priceless.

Also in Reynolds’ favor is the mere fact that she is an engaging woman.  One would have to live in a hole not to realize that Republicans have an image problem across the country, and having a very marketable woman on the ticket for the U.S. Senate would go a long way in helping Republicans up and down the ballot perform better with female voters in Iowa.  Reynolds is mom, grandmother, a long time county elected official, a former State Senator, and now the Lt. Governor.  Her rise to prominence in Iowa politics is a success story that that media consultants would love to tell.

Negatives:  For as well as Reynolds is now known across the state, politically she is somewhat ambiguous.  Most of her public positions are aligned with Governor Branstad’s priorities and beliefs, as is the case with most running mates and elected officials in her position.

Once she becomes a candidate for the U.S. Senate, she’s going to be inundated with questions on everything from what her specific stance on abortion and gay marriage is, to whether she supports the state gas tax.  Those issues are not necessarily federal issues, but they are questions that a Republican primary electorate will expect her to answer with detail.  It is imperative that Reynolds is prepared to run the second she announces her candidacy.  She will only get one chance to make a good first impression.

While Reynolds is a current office holder, it’s not as if she was thoroughly vetted in a primary process or general election. Some outspoken conservatives have already begun to criticize her on property rights issues, social issues, and some personal issues from the past.  In January, Bob Vander Plaats of The FAMiLY Leader criticized Reynolds for never taking a public position on marriage.  Reynolds made that statement at the administration’s weekly press conference.  She did say that she does support passing a marriage amendment so that the people of Iowa could vote on the matter.  Politico also reported last week that some conservatives in Iowa viewed Reynolds as an unviable candidate for the U.S. Senate seat.

Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey

Positives: When someone from outside of the state thinks about what an Iowan is like, they probably have a vision of Bill Northey in their head.  A farmer from northwest Iowa, Northey still makes time to plant and harvest his crops.  When you see him at the Iowa Capitol or the Iowa State Fair, he doesn’t give off that politician vibe, which is a good thing.  Northey is authentic, as knowledgeable about Iowa agriculture as anyone you will find, and under-appreciated as a statewide politician.

Northey won a contested primary in 2006 and followed it up with a general election victory in a year when Republicans were killed at the ballot box.  Since being elected in 2006, Northey has improved at one of the most important skill sets in all of politics – fundraising.  The amount of money that Northey has raised isn’t going to make any jaws drops, but the fact that he goes out and knocks on donors’ doors and asks for money is something that too few Republicans who have aspirations for higher office are willing to do.  None of the money that Northey has in his state campaign account ($128,273.65) can be used for a federal race, but he has used those resources in the past to hire political staff to help his own campaign, as well as the statewide Republican effort.

As Secretary of Agriculture, Northey has traveled abroad on a number of trade missions.  That experience as a statesman lends itself to the U.S. Senate, which deals with all sorts of international policies.  Northey might not be on the top of many people’s lists as a U.S. Senate candidate, but he should not be overlooked.  He’s an excellent campaigner, has a natural rural constituently in farmers, and can talk with authority about the Iowa economy since a large percentage of business in Iowa is related to agriculture in one way or another.

Negatives:  Northey is more defined politically than Reynolds, but on some issues he is also somewhat ambiguous.  When you run for Secretary of Ag, you’re not peppered with questions about social issues, immigration, or other hot button issues.  Northey will need to be prepared to address those types of questions should he run. Like Reynolds, Northey is going to have to answer all those questions for himself.  However, since he’s been on the statewide political circuit for years, he has seen it all before and should be prepared.

Northey’s laidback style of politics worked well when running for Secretary of Agriculture, but running for the U.S. Senate is in an entirely different league since the race has national implications.  If there was one criticism of Northey’s 2006 campaign, it was that he lacked that killer instinct.  Northey won that race by only 27,000 votes, or just barely over 50 percent of the vote.  Very late in that campaign it became known that Northey’s opponent had been convicted of cruelty to animals for starving cattle to death in 1987.  Had State Representative Clel Baudler not made that incident known, Northey might not have won his race.

The Rest of the Field:

There are a number of other candidates that have expressed interest in the race, but none of them have the assets and statewide presence that the three potential candidates listed above have.  Potential candidates like Bob Vander Plaats and Matt Whitaker have run for statewide office before.  Vander Plaats is currently at the helm of a statewide organization, but he is also viewed as more controversial than King is.  State Senator Brad Zaun has expressed interest, but he was successful in his congressional primary mainly because of his strength in Polk County.  In a 12 county congressional district that’s a huge advantage, but in a statewide contest it doesn’t do that much.

If King is the candidate, Republicans will likely avoid a primary.  If he doesn’t choose to run, the field will expand.  At that point, we can delve deeper into the strengths and weaknesses of those other candidates.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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