The biggest prize in the 2014 election cycle is the open U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin. While that race has receives a lot of attention, the open congressional seat in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District is equally enticing for candidates of both political parties.
For months now, Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Rathje and Dubuque entrepreneur Rod Blum has been campaigning on the Republican side, while former Speaker of the Iowa House, Pat Murphy has been campaigning in Democrat circles. Yet, neither the Democrat nor Republican fields seem to be set.
Now that the legislative session is over, the odds are good that at least one Republican legislator will enter the race. The name that has been bandied around the most is Speaker of the House Kraig Paulsen. A number of sources have told TheIowaRepublican.com that Paulsen is running. Paulsen did a good job of keeping his intentions quiet during the legislative session, and now that it’s over, he can move forward.
Paulsen would be considered an instant frontrunner in the Republican primary. His high-profile position in the Iowa House likely means he has better name ID than both of his Republican opponents. Paulsen also possesses two other attributes that his Republican opponents lack – fundraising ability and political campaign experience.
As Speaker of the Iowa House, Paulsen has led both the fundraising and campaign effort for House Republicans for the past two cycles. Paulsen has proven himself to be a very capable fundraiser and an astute campaign tactician. Working with pollsters and media vendors and managing political staff is nothing new for Paulsen. All said, Paulsen is probably the most formidable candidate Republicans could get to run for the seat.
While Paulsen would be a clear frontrunner should he decide to run for the seat, winning the primary might not be a walk in the park. Rathje and Blum each pose different problems for Paulsen. Rathje, a perennial candidate, hails from the same geographical area as Paulsen. While Rathje has had his problems as a candidate, his list of Linn County supporters is impressive. For Paulsen to win the primary, he needs to own Linn County, which is more difficult to do with Rathje in the race.
Blum on the other hand presents Paulsen with problems in the rest of the district. Having run in the newly reconfigured 1st Congressional District before, Blum has decent name ID among GOP activists. Blum is also an aggressive campaigner on the stump. Blum didn’t spend much money in his 2012 race against Ben Lange, but he was far more formidable than people anticipated he might be. Some Iowa Republicans like to write off candidates like Rathje and Blum, but it would be a mistake for Paulsen not to take them seriously.
Another legislator who has shown some interest in running for the seat is Rep. Walt Rogers. Hailing from Cedar Falls, Rogers would have a solid home base from which to run. Running against Paulsen could be difficult for him, but Rogers has done a good job as a legislature of appealing to both social conservatives and pro-business Republicans.
The Democrat side of the race is equally fascinating. Murphy has deep connections with organized labor, but that hasn’t necessarily cleared the Democrat field for him. Cedar Rapids City Council member Monica Vernon has indicated that she’s interested in running for the seat. A former Republican, Vernon has successfully been able to work with the Cedar Rapids Chamber as well as labor unions.
Another pro-business Democrat is also said to be considering a run for the Democrat nomination in the 1st District. Former State Senator Swati Dandekar would likely be the most formidable general election candidate for Iowa Democrats, but winning the nomination might be a difficult task.
Dandekar gave up her senate seat when Governor Terry Branstad appointed her to the Iowa Utilities Board. The move put the Democrats’ control of the Iowa Senate in jeopardy, something many Democrats are not likely to forget. Dandekar supported Mid-American Energy’s nuclear power bill while in the Senate. That vote likely would put her at odds with liberal environmentalists. She also broke with Democrats on the issue of gay marriage.
Both the Democrat and Republican primaries in the 1st District could be fascinating next June. Murphy seems to have cleanest shot at winning the Democrat primary, but his appeal in the general election is limited. On the Republican side, Paulsen would be a clear frontrunner, but he would have to deal with a pesky primary before he could focus on the general election campaign.
In many ways, the primary contests are shaping up as one would expect. Just like the U.S. Senate seat, it is rare for a seat in congress to be wide open. That usually draws a diverse field of candidates, which means a spirited primary.
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