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April 30th, 2013

History Shows Senate Primary Field May Solidify Late

It appears as if the logjam that has prevented Republican candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat from declaring their candidacies has broken.  Despite Congressman Steve King still mulling over a run of his own, at least three other candidates seem eager to get in the race sooner rather than later.

Secretary of State Matt Schultz spent most of last week reaching out to influential Republicans about his imminent campaign.  Sources tell that State Senator Joni Ernst was talking about her potential candidacy in private meetings with her Senate colleagues last week.  A “Draft Joni Ernst for U.S. Senate” Facebook page was also launched.  Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker was also in the news and taking steps towards making his candidacy official. is now allowing people to sign up to receive email updates and sports a photo of Whitaker from his days as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.

While things definitely seem to be moving forward for Iowa Republicans, don’t expect a set primary field any time soon.  Ernst, Schultz, and Whitaker all bring diverse backgrounds and unique attributes to the race, but there is plenty of space for other candidates to occupy.  The most glaring hole in the current field is that it lacks a trusted social conservative.  With two U.S. Supreme Court rulings to be handed down in June on gay marriage, social issues will be in the spotlight once again.

It’s not that Ernst, Schultz, and Whitaker don’t all hold conservative positions on life and marriage, it’s that the Republican base is used to having a candidate to support who leads on those issues in statewide contests.  Bob Vander Plaats has run in each of the last three statewide primaries for governor.  In the 2008 and 2012 presidential caucuses, social conservatives rallied around candidates like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum and carried them to victory.

With the field as it is currently constituted, Iowa’s social conservatives don’t have a horse in the race.  That means the conditions are ripe for a credible social conservative to enter the race.  A Vander Plaats candidacy is not all that far-fetched.  With Latham, Reynolds, and possibly King taking a pass on the open Senate seat, Vander Plaats is not only the most known candidate among those likely to run, but he also has a political and fundraising network already in place.

The field also lacks a candidate that has established connections to the Iowa business community, which includes the stalwart donors who backed Branstad’s return to office and other more recent campaigns.  These donors often get a bad rap from activists because they are mostly interested in investing in candidates who they believe can win the general election, but let’s not forget winning the seat is what’s really important.  With no clear favorite in the race, it’s now up to candidates like Ernst, Schultz, and Whitaker to impress this group if they want to prevent future candidates from entering the race.

Already one intriguing candidate has emerged that may appeal to this crowd.  For the last seven years, David Young has served as Sen. Chuck Grassley’s Chief of Staff.  Now Young is said to be eyeing a run for public office himself.  Young’s position with Grassley has put him in contact with all sorts of Iowans, but it has also allowed him to build relationships with many influential business people, local government officials, donors, and activists.  A person like Young is coming at a Republican primary in a very different way than Ernst, Schultz, and Whitaker will.  It will be interesting to see how that develops should he actually throw his hat in the ring.

Unsettled primaries are nothing new in Republican politics in Iowa.

Steve Grubbs and Maggie Tinsman battled it out during the early stages of the U.S. Senate primary in 1996.  Congressman Jim Ross Lightfoot entered the primary in March, just two months before the primary.  Lightfoot garnered 61% of the vote besting Tinsman, his nearest challenger, by 36 points.

In 2002, Steve Sukup and Bob Vander Plaats campaigned across the state lining up support for their gubernatorial campaigns for most of 2001.  Iowa wrestling icon Dan Gable made headlines when he indicated that he may enter the race that summer.  A radio interview with a little known sports radio host at the time, Steve Deace, ended Gable’s campaign when he couldn’t answer a question on abortion.  Doug Gross would enter the contest in January of 2002 and go on to win the nomination.

The 2008, the primary for U.S. Senate isn’t one that many Iowa Republicans like to reminisce about, but it does continue the theme of late entrants in the race being successful.  Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Rathje spent almost two years being the only Republican seeking the nomination only to see Chris Reed and George Eichhorn jump into the primary at the last minute.  Reed won the primary and Rathje finished in third place.

In 2010, Republicans were chomping at the bit to run against Governor Chet Culver.  Bob Vander Plaats, Christopher Rants, Jerry Behn, Rod Roberts, Christian Fong, and Paul McKinley all entered the race early only to be drowned out by the constant speculation that Terry Branstad was being encouraged to make a comeback.  Branstad launched his campaign in October and went on to win the primary by nine points.

There are lessons that can be learned from all of this turbulent Republican primary history.

First, no matter what the primary fields looks like as the race gets underway, it could change substantially by the time the calendar turns to 2014.  In 2010, only three of seven candidates that announced their candidacies actually had their names printed on the June primary ballot: Branstad, Roberts, and Vander Plaats.

Second, if you are a candidate who gets into the race early, you have to hit the ground running.  You either beat expectations out of the gate or you become an afterthought.  The 2006 gubernatorial campaign isn’t on the list above for one reason – Congressman Jim Nussle’s ability to raise a substantial amount of money in the off year.  Doug Gross was preparing to enter the primary, but decided against doing so because of Nussle’s perceived strength.  Bob Vander Plaats would also bow out of that contest before the primary when he joined Nussle as his running mate.  Nussle was able to accomplish clearing the field because he raised a lot of money, not because he was a sitting congressman.

If Ernst, Schultz, and Whitaker want to still be standing in January of 2014, it’s imperative for them to raise serious money between now and then.  Failure to do so will only invite others into the race.  They might be getting company anyway, as there are lots of names swirling around, some of which are more serious than others.

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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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