By Craig Robinson
Even before U.S. Senator Tom Harkin announced that he would be retiring at the conclusion of his fifth term, Democrats and various political pundits basically agreed that Eastern Iowa Congressman Bruce Braley would be the strongest statewide candidate if and when Harkin decided to hang it up.
Most believed that Braley would eventually run for the U.S. Senate once Harkin retired, but with Harkin fundraising and looking as if he was preparing to seek re-election, many Iowa Democrats began to mention Braley as the preferred Democrat to challenge Governor Terry Branstad next year. Now that Harkin has publically stated that he will not seek re-election in 2014, Braley’s name once again sits at the top of the list of Democrat candidates interested in running for the U.S. Senate in 2014.
The politically ambitious Braley has already confirmed that he is weighing a run for the U.S. Senate, but is Braley the best statewide candidate that Iowa Democrats can find to run for Harkin’s senate seat? Liberal activists sure seem to think so, but the polling data disagrees.
In a general election poll conducted for TheIowaRepublican.com by Voter/Consumer Research late last September, Braley’s favorability rating was nothing to celebrate. Even more troubling for a potential statewide campaign is that he’s relatively unknown to most Iowans. While this data is a bit stale, the survey was conducted at a time when Braley’s name ID should be at its highest as he was running radio and TV ads advocating for his re-election last fall.
The poll showed that only 21 percent of respondents had a favorable impression of Braley, while 18 percent said that they had an unfavorable impression of him. When it comes to Braley’s name ID, 14 percent said they were aware of him but didn’t have an impression of him, while 47 percent said they were unaware of the Eastern Iowa Congressman.
By comparison, failed 4th District Congressional candidate and former First Lady of Iowa, Christie Vilsack held a favorable impression from 40 percent of respondents. Only 14 percent of Iowans were unaware of Vilsack, but 35 percent of respondents had an unfavorable impression of her. Even though Vilsack lost her congressional challenge to Congressman Steve King, her prospects as a statewide candidate are better than Braley’s.
Democrats also would be wise not to put too much stock in Braley’s convincing 2012 re-election campaign. The Obama campaign invested heavily in Iowa in 2012. That turnout effort not only helped re-elect the President, but it also helped every Democrat on the ballot. Braley defeated his Republican challenger, Ben Lange, by 15 points in 2012, but two years earlier, Braley struggled mightily with Lange. In 2010, Braley defeated Lange by less than 5,000 votes, or by less than two percent of the vote.
Braley has also struggled in a Democrat primary. Like he is today, Braley was the perceived Democrat frontrunner for the open 1st Congressional District in 2006. Braley won the four-way primary, but displayed little strength in doing so. Braley lost half of the 12 counties that made up the 1st Congressional District, but was able to squeak out a narrow 518-vote victory over Rick Dickinson, the President and CEO of the Greater Dubuque Development Corporation. Braley won the Democrat nomination with 36 percent of the vote compared to Dickinson’s 34 percent.
There is little doubt that Braley is the Democrats’ most high-profile elected official in the state. While Braley has been the subject of much speculation, his colleague in the U.S. House, Congressman Dave Loebsack, hasn’t even been mentioned in discussions of potential Senate or gubernatorial candidates. The challenge that Braley may face in a U.S. Senate primary isn’t going to come from a state office holder or Loebsack. The people Braley needs to keep an eye on have the last name of Vilsack and Culver.
As mentioned above, Christie Vilsack’s poll numbers are solid, but not spectacular. Former Governor Chet Culver wasn’t included in last fall’s survey for obvious reasons, but it would be a mistake to write him off. Culver’s father, former U.S. Senator John Culver, is still influential in Democratic circles in the D.C., and while Chet Culver wasn’t much of a governor, he is a proven campaigner.
Both Culver and Vilsack have a larger statewide footprint than Braley currently has, but for some reason, media outlets have hardly speculated about these high-profiled candidates. Braley’s U.S. Senate candidacy seems inevitable, but so too is a primary. As is the case with Republicans, there is always great interest when a U.S. Senate seat opens up.
Republican Favorability Numbers
We tested the favorability of a number of Iowa politicians in our September 2012 general election poll. Unfortunately, we did not test Congressman Tom Latham’s statewide appeal, but we did test Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds’ and Congressman Steve King’s favorability.
Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds
Favorable: 33 percent
Unfavorable: 16 percent
Aware No Impression: 14 percent
Not Aware Of: 37 percent
Congressman Steve King
Favorable: 31 percent
Unfavorable: 33 percent
Aware No Impression: 11 percent
Not Aware Of: 24 percent
To put all of these numbers in perspective, below are Branstad and Harkin’s numbers.
Governor Terry Branstad
Favorable: 55 percent
Unfavorable: 38 percent
Aware No Impression: 5 percent
Not Aware Of: 1 percent
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin
Favorable: 48 percent
Unfavorable: 39 percent
Aware No Impression: 10 percent
Not Aware Of: 4 percent
About the poll:
Field date: September 23rd -25th, 2012
Margin of Error ± 4.4% N=500
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