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May 14th, 2014

Iowa’s Lousy Primary Run-Off System Could Decide Three Races

Less than three weeks until the June 3 primary, it seems likely that at least one, and possibly three, of Iowa’s federal races could be decided at special conventions. Due to crowded fields and the lack of an overwhelming frontrunner in the Republicans’ U.S. Senate and Third Congressional District races, as well as the Democrats’ First Congressional race, its possible no candidate will reach the required 35 percent threshold.

If that happens, the results of the primary become practically irrelevant. Unlike most states, which have a run-off system involving just the top finishers, Iowa’s system completely ignores the results of the primary. Anyone, including people who did not compete in the primary race, can be nominated at the special convention.

Therefore, in the case of Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, the votes of the 200,000 people who cast ballots in the GOP primary could be rendered meaningless. The Republican nominee would instead be chosen by 2,000 state convention delegates. Iowa’s process does not favor whoever finished first in the primary vote. Instead, it favors whichever campaign worked the delegate strategy the hardest.

This is part of the dilemma facing the campaigns as they prepare for the June primary. While they should be focusing on winning the nomination outright, candidates are also preparing for a convention fight. Particularly, candidates not faring well in the primary polls, such as Sam Clovis in the senate race, are hoping no one achieves 35 percent and the nomination is decided by delegates to the state convention.

Fourth District Congressman Steve King won a special convention in 2002 during his first bid for federal office. However, King is not a fan of Iowa’ s method for choosing the nominee. He railed against the Hawkeye State system when interviewed him last year during the controversy created by the Republican Party of Iowa attempting to move the state convention to July.

“I don’t know that Iowa has a very good process. I think that some day that’s going to come back to bite us, and this may be the time,” Congressman King said. “We should be more similar to many of the other states that have a runoff system that if you don’t win a certain percentage of the ballot in the primary, that the two top vote getters go on to run in a special election in a specified period of time and that’s that.”

State Senator Jack Whitver, who strongly considered running for the Third District seat, agrees that Iowa’s system needs improvement.

“I think we need to take a hard look at the system we have in place. I would like to look into a process that includes a runoff if nobody reaches the 35 percent threshold,” Whitver said. “Sometimes the current system does work however. There may be cases where a moderate gets 30 percent while several conservatives split the rest. A convention would help this situation. I think a runoff would be the logical and fair way to go.”

King claimed 31 percent of the vote in the Fifth District primary in 2002, topping the four-candidate field. Eventually, he earned the nomination following a hard-fought convention battle.

Republican State Central Committee member Ryan Frederick believes if Republicans face a similar situation this year, a lot of delegates will reward whoever placed first in the primary, as they did for Steve King.

“I think there’s an inherent advantage to winning the primary,” Frederick said. “There is a certain number of delegates who give a lot of weight to the results of the primary. Historically the winner of the primary has eventually won out in a convention.”

However, that was not the case in an Iowa House race in 2012. Jim Robidoux barely missed winning the Republican nomination in House District 37, garnering 34.16 percent of the vote. However, John Landon, who placed a distant third in the primary, won the nominating convention and claimed the seat in the November 2012 general election.

That convention involved less than two-dozen delegates, whereas a special convention to choose the nominee in the Third District would include around 465 delegates. That race, which includes six candidates, seems the most likely to be decided by convention.

The perceived frontrunner, 2010 congressional nominee Brad Zaun, trails four of the candidates in fundraising by a significant margin. Secretary of State Matt Schultz, another who would presumably be near the top of the polls, has been hampered by negative stories in the media regarding paying employees who were sent home.

That has opened the door for candidates Monte Shaw and Robert Cramer, who have done well in the fundraising department. Cramer has been personally calling delegates this week, preparing for a possible convention battle.

Zaun or Schultz would still have a strong chance of winning the Third District nomination at convention. That might not be the case for someone like Mark Jacobs in the U.S. Senate race. His only path to the GOP nomination is likely by winning the June 3 primary with more than 35 percent of the vote.

Joni Ernst is likely also hoping to wrap things up on June 3. However, she would likely be able to consolidate a lot of delegate support at a special convention. However, Sam Clovis might pose serious competition in that situation.

As for the First District Democrats, former House Speaker Pat Murphy is the frontrunner in the race, but is still struggling to surpass 35 percent in the polls. However, if one of the other candidates can consolidate support from delegates that did not support Murphy, someone else could pull off the upset.

When the race comes down to being decided at a special convention, it is often the candidate who delivers the best three-minute speech that is rewarded with the nomination. That is no way to choose a nominee for such an important seat.

However, that is the system Iowans are stuck with, for now. The outcome of these primary races might force the legislature to change that method to avoid similar situations in the future.

About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

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