Perhaps the worst kept secret in Iowa politics is that Kraig Paulsen, the Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, is planning to run for Congress in Iowa’s 1st Congressional District. Political insiders have talked about Paulsen’s probable candidacy for months now, yet he has made few public moves that suggest an announcement is imminent.
While some politicians might have used the legislative session that concluded in the spring as a launching pad for a congressional bid, Paulsen chose instead to keep his ambitions to run for Congress quiet. Many speculated that Paulsen didn’t want to enter the race until after the June 30th fundraising deadline, a move that would allow him a full three month period to raise money for his campaign before have to disclose his haul. The first of July has come and gone, and yet Paulsen is still not a candidate.
Perhaps Paulsen is waiting to get into the race until sometime in October following the conclusion of the October quarterly fundraising period. While condensing the length of the primary has its advantages, putting off the start of his campaign also comes with significant risks. There is little doubt that Paulsen will be viewed as the Republican frontrunner in the race should he decided to actually seek the Republican nomination, but it would be a mistake to underestimate his Republican opponents and impact that the Democrat primary field may also have on the Republican primary next June.
As the Speaker of the Iowa House for the past four years, Paulsen has had a statewide presence that none of his opponents can match. Being known to those who follow politics closely is an advantage for Paulsen, but one only needs to look at how few people know Congressman Bruce Braley to see that holding elected office doesn’t make anyone universally known.
Paulsen’s biggest advantage in the race is all the relationships that he has been able to develop during his time as the top Republican in the Iowa House. In his role as Speaker, Paulsen has recruited candidates, built relationships with business and community leaders, raised money from people all across the state, and waged a multipronged campaign in districts across the state.
It is completely understandable why Paulsen is considered to be a five-star recruit, but the dynamics that exist in the 1st Congressional could make life more difficult for Paulsen as a congressional candidate than most would think.
On the Republican side, Cedar Rapids businessman Steve Rathje, a perennial candidate who many don’t consider to be all that serious, has done a good job of getting key business people to back his campaign. Linn County is the largest county in the 1st Congressional District, and Paulsen needs to own his home county in the Republican primary. The presence of Rathje makes building up a healthy winning margin in Linn County a more difficult task than it should be.
His other Republican primary opponent, Dubuque businessman Rod Blum, sought the Republican nomination in 2012 and actually did very well across the district. Blum did especially well in Linn County, a county in which he defeated 2012 Republican nominee Ben Lange. Blum excels on the campaign trail and does well with Republican activists. He also has shown that he’s not afraid of Paulsen. In June, as talk about Paulsen’s candidacy gained more attention, Blum called Paulsen an “opportunist” and “compromiser.”
Blum has also done a better job of getting the financial backing of the Dubuque business community this cycle. Had Paulsen made his intentions more known throughout the winter and spring, he may have been able to freeze some of the donors that Blum and Rathje have been able to get to invest in their campaigns. And while neither Blum nor Rathje have blown anyone away by their fundraising totals, their ability to get early financial commitments will hurt Paulsen’s fundraising prospects.
Paulsen also runs the risk of losing votes and fundraising dollars to two Democrat candidates running for congress. Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon and former State Senator Swati Dandekar both have bi-partisan appeal. Vernon’s first fundraising report was packed with moderate Republican donors who were stalwart donors to former Congressman Jim Leach during his tenure in Congress.
Dandekar also enjoys some Republican support in Linn County. She ruffled the feathers of some Democrat activists when vacated her state senate seat for a seat on the Iowa Utilities Board in 2011, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some GOP donors and activists contribute to her campaign. Iowa’s election laws also require voters to participate in either the GOP or Democrat primary. That means that those Republicans who back Dandekar or Vernon will not be able to vote for Paulsen in the primary.
All four of these candidates are problematic for Paulsen. Blum may be his toughest opponent, but Rathje, Vernon, and Dandekar will all siphon money and votes away from Paulsen in the primary. That creates a serious obstacle for Paulsen to overcome. His decision to hold off announcing his candidacy only compounds the predicament he finds himself in even more.
Former Iowa House Speakers have found it difficult to run for higher office in recent years. Brent Siegrist found life as a congressional candidate more difficult that he expected back in 2002. Siegrist finished third in a four-way primary, finishing behind Steve King and John Redwine, two state senators at the time. Christopher Rants’ 2010 gubernatorial campaign never took off, and Democrat Pat Murphy’s 1st District Congressional run has been lackluster to say the least as the former Speaker has struggled in the fundraising department.
Paulsen can overcome these obstacles, but by waiting to enter the race, he has limited his margin for error. Paulsen will need to hit the campaign trail running. That means it will be imperative for him to post impressive fundraising numbers and avoid making any political gaffes. Paulsen needs to hope that a certain old saying holds true. No, not, “the early bird gets the worm.” Paulsen is putting all his stock in, “good things come to those who wait.”
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