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February 7th, 2013

The Invisible Primary

By Craig Robinson

It’s been less than two weeks since Senator Tom Harkin announced his plans to retire from the U.S. Senate, but in that time, Iowans have been inundated with U.S. Senate polls testing potential candidate matchups.  The results of two polls were released on Tuesday alone, and on Wednesday evening, another poll was in the field, this time a live operator poll.  I know this because I was surveyed.

With no announced candidates yet, these early polls mostly just satisfy curious activists and provide political pundits something to talk about.  Still, no matter how crazy some of these polls are, they will help shape Iowa’s upcoming U.S. Senate contest.

Perhaps the greatest influence these early polls will have is in the invisible primary that is currently taking place between Congressman Steve King and Congressman Tom Latham.  Most Republicans believe that a primary between Iowa’s two Republican congressmen is unlikely, and I agree, but that doesn’t mean that these two camps are not keeping a close eye on survey results or conducting polls of their own.

King and Latham’s interest in the 2014 U.S. Senate race makes it nearly impossible for any other candidate to gain traction.  If either of them runs, he will surely be the frontrunner.  If neither of them pulls the trigger on the U.S. Senate race, the Republican primary is going to be a free-for-all.

Both King and Latham have made subtle moves in recent days that indicate their interest in running for the open senate seat in 2014.  Shortly after Harkin’s retirement announcement, King told a number of different media outlets that he was seriously considering running for the seat.  Latham has been a little more subdued in terms of the media, but changing the name of his campaign committee from Latham for Congress to Iowans for Latham was quickly noticed, as was the creation of a Twitter account by the same name.

Results from the handful of polls that have been conducted either help or hurt King and Latham depending on whether it’s a primary or general election poll.  King shows considerable strength in Republican primary polls.  King leads all Republican challengers by at least 13-points in polls conducted Harper Polling, Wenzel Strategies, and Public Policy Polling.

King’s strength in the primary polls can be attributed to his willingness to campaign for Republican candidates all around the state over the past decade.  King has also endeared himself to Republican activists by making himself accessible at Republican functions and conventions.  Throughout his five terms in office, King has represented 53 of the state’s 99 counties, but he has done more than Latham to make himself known in the other 46 counties.

Latham’s strength is evident in general election polls.  In the Harper Poll, Latham leads Congressman Bruce Braley 36 percent to 33 percent, while King trails Braley by four points.  The PPP Poll shows both King and Latham trailing Braley.  The difference is that Latham trails Braley by three points, while Braley beats King by eleven points.

The PPP Poll tested King and Latham against Braley, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, former Iowa Governor Chet Culver, and Congressman Dave Loebsack.  Latham showed considerable strength by leading Culver and Loebsack, and only trailing Braley and Vilsack by three and four points respectively.  King, on the other hand, trailed all four Democrats by seven or more points.

What does it all mean?

While King looks to be a clear primary favorite, he needs to show greater strength in general election matchups if he doesn’t want to be dogged by statements that he can’t win a statewide election.  Weak general election numbers will also invite a primary challenge.  Even though King’s primary numbers look stellar out of the gate, don’t under estimate Republicans’ desire to win the seat in November.

Latham on the other hand would be in a stronger position to run for the seat if he polled better with Republican primary voters.  Latham has represented 56 of the Iowa’s 99 counties and has only lost three counties since 1994.  Latham’s performance is impressive, especially in large urban areas like Polk County.  Yet, since Latham has never really participated in the statewide political circuit, he’s relatively unknown in eastern Iowa.

Until King and Latham make their intentions known, the Republican campaign for the U.S. Senate cannot begin in earnest.  While King holds a trump card for the primary, Latham’s general election strength puts him on equal footing.  The invisible primary between the two may very well come down to who is willing to act first.  The first one to officially throw his hat in the ring is going to have a leg up with activists given that nobody really has the appetite to see two sitting members of congress in a primary against each other.

Photo by Dave Davidson

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson serves as the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Prior to founding Iowa's largest conservative news site, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa during the 2008 Iowa Caucuses. In that capacity, Robinson planned and organized the largest political event in 2007, the Iowa Straw Poll, in Ames, Iowa. Robinson also organized the 2008 Republican caucuses in Iowa, and was later dispatched to Nevada to help with the caucuses there. Robinson cut his teeth in Iowa politics during the 2000 caucus campaign of businessman Steve Forbes and has been involved with most major campaigns in the state since then. His extensive political background and rolodex give him a unique perspective from which to monitor the political pulse of Iowa.

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