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June 2nd, 2014

Republicans Face a Tall Task As General Election Looms

As expected, Tuesday’s Republican primary is garnering a lot of attention, and rightfully so.  It’s been over a year since many of candidates announced their intentions to run for office, and for all but one of them, all of their travel, events, yard signs, and fundraising pitches will come to an end June 3rd at 9 p.m. when the polls close.

Regardless of who wins the many contested primaries across the state tomorrow, the excitement that primary day brings will quickly fade as the reality of this fall’s general election begins to set in.

Republicans are pretty optimistic about the 2014 mid-term elections.  Many activists believe this year’s elections could be reminiscent to the 2010 mid-terms where Republicans wrestled control of the House of Representatives away from the Democrats, and here on Iowa, Republicans regained control of the Iowa House, and defeated an incumbent Secretary of State and Governor.

With primary day basically upon us, it’s time to start looking toward the general election matchups.  The 2014 elections present Republicans with plenty of opportunities.  Not only is Tom Harkin’s senate seat up for grabs, but there are also two open congressional seats to be had.  If Republicans win in November, Iowa will look like a conservative red state instead of a purple swing state it is today.  Lose those races, and the opposite is true.

Despite the bullish optimism of Republicans, it’s the Democrats who will enter the general election campaign with a substantial financial advantage in the federal races, and that advantage expands far beyond the U.S. Senate race.

It seems likely that Republicans are on the cusp of nominating a U.S. Senate candidate and a 3rd District candidate that will enter the general elections with limited funds.  State Senator Joni Ernst, the favorite in tomorrow’s U.S. Senate race, has relied on outside interest groups to supplement her campaign.  As Ernst has taken a lead in recent polls, her fundraising has greatly improved, but if not for groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on her behalf, Ernst would not be in the catbird seat for tomorrow’s primary.

The 3rd Congressional primary boasts a number of impressive candidates, but State Senator Brad Zaun, the favorite going into the primary, has struggled to raise money, and he also had fundraising issues in the 2010 general election when he was the 3rd District nominee.  Even if one of Zaun’s better-funded opponents won, they would still enter the general election with limited resources.  While the nominees in these two high-profile races are going to enter the general election with limited funds, the rest of the Republican federal tickets is also struggling when it comes to fundraising.

Congressman Steve King and the likely Republican nominees in the 1st and 2nd Congressional districts together have just over $550,000 in the bank as the general election begins.  That’s roughly $40,000 more than King’s Democrat challenger, Jim Mowrer, has in the bank by himself.

Not counting whoever wins the Democrat nomination in the 1st Congressional District, Democrats enter the general election with over $3.3 million in the bank.  Democrat U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley accounts for $2.3 million of that, but all of the Democrat congressional candidates are in good shape financially as the general election get’s underway.  Third District Democrat Staci Appel has the least money in the bank.  Appel has $466,564.65 cash-on-hand, which will be substantially more than whoever the Republican nominee is on Tuesday night.

Democrats should also be in good shape in the 1st District, as the five candidates running for the nomination there have combined to raise over $2.2 million.  State Representative Pat Murphy appears to the favorite in the Democrat primary, but Swati Dandekar and Monica Vernon have been more prolific fundraisers in the race.  Whoever wins the Democrat nomination in the 1st District will exhaust their financial resources in the competitive primary, but the likely Republican nominee, Rod Blum, only had $168,725.67 in the bank at the time of his pre-primary report.

What’s more problematic for Republicans is that it appears that national Democrats are far more eager to invest in Iowa races than national Republicans.  Last week the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) placed $1.3 million for broadcast ads in the Des Moines media market to run from September 5th to October 20th for the the 3rd District seat.  The DCCC also reserved $440,000 in ads in the Des Moines media market and another $230,000 in the Sioux City TV market for ads in the 4th Congressional District where Steve King, the lone Republican congressional incumbent is running for re-election.

Democrats will also likely have a spending advantage in the U.S. Senate race as well.  Holding Harkin’s seat in the Senate is already a priority for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), while the Iowa Senate race isn’t quite in the top tier for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).  The DSCC currently has $24.9 million in the bank, while the NRSC has cash on hand of $19.3 million.  For the Iowa race to become a priority for national Republicans, it’s either going to have to bump a state that is currently a priority, or the NRSC will need to find extra resources that it could direct toward the Iowa seat.

Liberal Super PACS also seem ready to pounce on the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate.  Just like you can sometimes smell a rainstorm coming in, you can sense that liberal billionaires like Michael Bloomberg and Tom Steyer are about to open the floodgates in an effort to paint the likely Republican nominee for U.S. Senate as extreme on gun and environmental issues.

Democrats and liberals are already making hay over Ernst’s comment in last Thursday’s KCCI debate, where she referred to the recent shooting near the University of California Santa Barbara as an “unfortunate accident.”  While articles in liberal publications and comments on Twitter are not about to derail Ernst’s candidacy should she be the nominee, her comment in the debate will haunt her in the general election.  It is also likely that anti-gun groups will use Ernst’s ads featuring her shooting, her legislative record, and recent comments in ads to make her out to be an extremist.

Likewise, Ernst’s repeated calls to eliminate the EPA and her recent remarks in opposition to the Clean Water Act, give environmentalist like Steyer ammunition to paint Ernst as out-of-step when it comes to the environment.  While most Republicans will not have any issues with Ernst’s position, these groups will aim to hurt Ernst with independent voters who don’t closely follow politics.

While the forecast for Republicans seems gloomy, there will likely be third party groups and national money that comes into the state to help the Republican effort.  The problem is that those resources might not come until later in the campaign cycle, which means Democrats have a significant advantage in setting the tone for the primary when it comes to paid media.

As we saw in the 2010 3rd District primary, Leonard Boswell and the DCCC didn’t wait to define Zaun after he won the Republican nomination.  The attacks on Zaun began early and never relented.  Zaun struggled to get his message across to voters because he lacked the ability to respond to the attacks by the Democrats.  All the Republican federal candidates in 2014 find themselves in a similar position to Zaun in 2010.

Republicans have plenty of opportunities this fall, but it would be a mistake to underestimate Iowa Democrats.   While the Democrat candidates should have limited appeal to independent and no party voters, they have done an excellent job on getting all their candidates in a position to win.

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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