The similarities between this year’s open U.S. Senate race in Iowa and the 2006 campaign for governor in the state, which was also an open seat, are striking to say the least.
On one side you have an eastern Iowa Congressman running for statewide office for the first time. On the other side you essentially have a four way primary, where the candidates struggle to differentiate themselves from each other and money is hard to come by.
The open U.S. Senate race has not received the attention it deserves nationally because many of the powerbrokers in Washington D.C. believe that it is Congressman Bruce Braley’s race to lose. The argument that these pundits and party powerbrokers make is an easy sell. Braley, a three-term congressman, has represented every major community in eastern Iowa. He is better known than any of his would-be Republican opponents. Braley has also avoided a costly Democrat primary, which has allowed him to fill his campaign coffers early.
The candidates fighting for the Republican nomination are unknown to a large portion of Iowa voters, including most Republicans. Worse yet, these candidates have all struggled in the most important facet of a campaign – fundraising. While Braley regularly hauls in about $1 million per quarter, the Republican candidates struggle to keep their heads above water. The only exception is Mark Jacobs, who has the personal wealth to supplement what he raises with his own money.
From 30,000 feet, or better yet Washington D.C., the U.S. Senate seat in Iowa looks like a long-shot for the Republicans this fall, but writing off this race would be a huge mistake. Unlike those in Washington who control the levers of power, and more importantly the national financial spigot, Iowans have seen this scenario before where the candidate who appears to be the 800 pound gorilla in the spring get’s crushed like an ant in the fall.
The Early Frontrunner
Just like Jim Nussle in 2006, Congressman Bruce Braley has been the early frontrunner in the U.S. Senate race. While both men represented northeast Iowa when they decided to run for statewide office, they both cemented their frontrunner status by showing off their fundraising prowess early in the race. Nussle raised nearly $2.5 million in 2005. His early fundraising strength forced Doug Gross out of the 2006 gubernatorial race and later caused Bob Vander Plaats to end his candidacy early to avoid a primary.
Braley raised $3.2 million for his U.S. Senate race in 2013. His decision to jump in the race as soon as Harkin announced his retirement plans proved to be a deterrent and kept other Democrats from jumping into the race. Like Nussle, Braley seems content to sit back and raise money while those seeking the other party’s nomination duke it out in a primary.
The Other Party’s Primary
In 2006, Iowa Democrats had a spirited gubernatorial primary that featured Secretary of State Chet Culver, Secretary of Agriculture Patty Judge, former Congressman Mike Blouin, and former State Representative Ed Fallon. Even though the Democrat field in 2006 was better known across the state than the 2014 Republican U.S. Senate candidates are, there are still similarities.
For example, Blouin was endorsed by nearly every Democrat legislator and was backed by powerful labor unions like AFSCME. While labor unions and state political groups don’t hold that sort of sway in Republican politics, State Senator Joni Ernst enjoys the same sort of establishment support from her party that Blouin received from the Democrats in 2006.
Patty Judge, who dropped out of the race to join forces with Culver, struggled mightily in the fundraising department but has always been a favorite among her party’s activists. Former U.S. District Attorney Matt Whitaker finds himself in a very similar predicament. If Whitaker had the money to be run a full-fledged media campaign, he would be a formidable candidate, just like Judge would have been for the Democrats in 2006.
The 2006 Democrat gubernatorial field also featured a candidate who comes from the Democrat base in Ed Fallon. While it would be difficult to find issues on which Sam Clovis would agree with Fallon, the two occupy the same position in their respective primaries. Like Clovis, money was hard to come by for Fallon, who raised just $101,000 in 2005, but grassroots supporters powered his campaign. Fallon finished third in the primary, but the 26 percent of the vote he garnered on Election Day was impressive.
The winner of the 2006 gubernatorial primary was Culver, who despite not having the support of the labor unions or much of the Democrat establishment machinery defeated Blouin in the primary by five points. Culver won with 39 percent compared to Blouin’s 34 percent. Culver was able to win his party’s nomination for a number of reasons, but his main advantage in the race was fundraising. The money Culver raised (over $1 million in the off-year) allowed him run TV ads, which bolstered his already solid name identification across the state.
Mark Jacobs might not have a lot in common with Culver, but he is running the same type of campaign. Like Culver, Jacobs is running against an establishment candidate who has been backed by most legislators and the Governor and Lt. Governor. While that makes winning the nomination more difficult for Jacobs, he has shown a willingness to spend his own money on TV and radio ads that are aimed at helping build his name ID across the state. In the 2006 campaign, Culver showed a willingness to take the fight to his opponents. Jacobs has thus far not spent a dime attacking one of his opponents. Yet, if he’s serious about winning, he may need to do just that.
An Unpopular President
In 2006, Americans began to sour on President George W. Bush much like they are beginning to sour on President Obama. In 2006 it was wars in the Middle East that eroded support the president’s support. In 2014, it’s the president’s health care plan that has voters disapproving of Obama. At this point in 2006, Bush had an approval rating of 37 percent. Today, President Obama’s approval rating stands at 40 percent.
In November of 2005, Jim Nussle was leading Culver by 8 points. His internal poll showed him leading Culver 43 to 35 percent. By March of 2006, Nussle was trailing Culver by two points. A recent survey of potential general election matchups looks oddly similar for Braley. In February, a PPP poll showed Braley leading each of the four Republican candidates, but only by six points. Braley’s support in the polls repeatedly comes in at less thnt 45 percent, a bad sign for a candidate being polled against candidates who are unknown to as many as 75 percent of Iowans.
The minute the Democrat primary for governor was in the books in 2006, the race completely changed. The same is likely to happen in the U.S. Senate race this year. While Braley currently enjoys better name I.D. across the state, that advantage evaporates as soon as the Republican primary ends on June 3rd. Braley’s fundraising advantage will also likely erode once the primary is over as well.
Even though the Iowa U.S. Senate race isn’t currently garnering the attention it deserves in places like Washington D.C., when the dust settles in June and Republicans have their candidate, the race is bound to be one of the most hotly contested senate races in the country. The outcome of the race could also very well decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Braley may look like a clear frontrunner today, but I can’t help but think of the 2006 Nussle campaign when I look at Braley. Everything went right for Nussle in 2005 and early 2006, but when the general election campaign began, Chet Culver was a far more formidable candidate than anyone saw coming.
They say history repeats itself, but this time I think the shoe is on the other foot. Braley has had a phenomenal 2013 and early 2014, but the only thing that really matters is how he does in the general election. All the signs in this year’s general election are not currently pointing in Braley’s favor.
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