RED OAK, Iowa — With the clock running down at a Republican candidate forum in the 3rd District, Monte Shaw was ready to make his move.
Shaw, the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, stood up, shed his jacket and strolled away from the table where the other five Republican candidates sat.
“All joking aside, this is an important election,” Shaw said as the spotlight followed him across the stage. “This is one of 17 seats Democrats have targeted to put the speaker’s gavel back in Nancy Pelosi’s hands.”
The candidates are seeking the nomination to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Tom Latham. The nominee will face Democrat Staci Appel in November in a district that President Barack Obama carried twice, but where Republicans have a small edge in voter registrations.
In one of the most competitive House races in the country, Republicans will most likely pick their nominee via an unpredictable convention. The choice will impact the general election, and Democrats see two Republicans as easier to defeat in November than the rest of the field.
It was a collegial affair at the Red Oak Community High School auditorium in southwestern Iowa on May 3.
The candidates took a pass when the moderator invited rebuttals. They agreed, unanimously, that Iowa’s own John Wayne was their favorite actor and sparred lightly over the issue of Cyclones or Hawkeyes.
The Republicans were in lockstep on policy priorities such as a balanced-budget amendment, term limits and repealing Obamacare. The GOP field is uniformly against abortion rights and supports the Second Amendment.
The issue is electability, Shaw said on stage, trying hard to draw a distinction that would stick with the 60 or so voters scattered around the auditorium, plus a KCSI radio audience.
The issue is also an Iowa nominating process that will throw this six-candidate race to a district convention if no one breaks the 35 percent mark in the June 3 primary.
Each of the candidates sees a path to 35 percent, but just in case, they all say they have a convention strategy too.
“The candidates are stressing electability as a way of picking off [state Sen. Brad] Zaun people on a second ballot at convention,” said an Iowa GOP strategist who doesn’t work for Shaw or Zaun.
This source said Zaun could win 40 percent of the delegates on a first ballot, but could max out around that level. Candidates get eliminated one by one over rounds of balloting until there are two contenders left.
Zaun led a Loras College poll with 17 percent, while all of the other candidates — Shaw; Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz; businessman Robert Cramer; David Young, a former chief of staff to Iowa GOP Sen. Charles E. Grassley; and self-proclaimed outsider Joe Grandanette — were in single digits.
The poll was conducted April 8-10 and had a 5.65 percent margin of error.
It preceded a wave of television and radio ads by all of the candidates, with the notable exception of Zaun.
The candidates have to be “very careful” about going negative against their opponents, the GOP strategist said, because that could rebound against them among convention delegates.
That means some ammunition is lying around.
Schultz is taking flak following revelations that a few appointees, whose positions were eliminated, remained on the state payroll. But his primary foes have steered clear, and Schultz has turned the matter into an attack line against an allegedly biased media.
According to a 2001 police report, Zaun allegedly banged on the window of a girlfriend’s house and called her a “slut.” For this reason and others, national Republicans are not keen on Zaun.
But so far, the other campaigns aren’t touching that one.
“Nominate someone who can stand up to the scrutiny the media is going to put on us and the liberal attack machine is going to put on us,” Shaw said during the forum, hinting, ever so gently, that this could be a problem for other candidates.
The prospect of a convention delights Democrats.
“None of the Republican candidates has enough money to spend their way to 35 percent,” said a Democratic strategist in Washington, D.C.
This source said the candidates most likely to benefit from a convention dominated by conservative activists are Zaun and Cramer, rather than someone in the pragmatic mold of Latham.
“I have the most conservative positions but the demeanor of a bridge builder,” Cramer told the audience in Red Oak.
The Democratic strategist also took a few digs at Shaw as perhaps a bit suspect to conservatives. Earlier this year, Shaw split with GOP Rep. Steve King from Iowa’s 4th District by saying he would have voted to increase the debt ceiling.
“We’re all pretty conservative,” Shaw said prior to the forum. He noted that his campaign co-chairmen are John King — the firebrand conservative congressman’s brother — and moderate former GOP Rep. Greg Ganske.
Zaun chaired Rep. Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign in Iowa, while Cramer has close ties to the conservative activist community.
Zaun isn’t raising much money: He picked up $56,750 in the first quarter of 2014 and had about $46,000 in cash on hand, according to the most recent campaign reports filed at the Federal Election Commission.
He is well known in the district, though, and has been working hard on the convention angle, according to GOP sources.
Shaw currently holds the fundraising lead among Republicans, with about $170,000 in cash on hand. Schultz has about $136,000 in the bank, while Young has $133,000.
Cramer began the year as a decided dark horse before raising an impressive $167,000 in the first quarter and spending heavily on TV, radio and mailers. That left him with only $78,700 in the bank, but it also caused his opponents to take notice.
Democrats believe Appel matches up particularly well against Zaun or Cramer. Appel was selected for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program for top candidate recruits. She has $470,000 in the bank.
Appel lost her state Senate seat in the GOP wave of 2010, but Democrats say she has a moderate record that will play well in a swing district.
Iowa has never elected a woman to Congress, and some Republicans concede this gives Appel an appealing talking point.
But Republicans say they will replicate the impressive turnout they produced for Latham in 2012, when he faced then-Rep. Leonard Boswell, a Democrat, in a member-vs.-member match-up.
“In November, it will be better to have an ‘R’ next to your name,” predicted former Iowa Speaker Brent Siegrist, a Republican.
The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates Iowa’s 3rd District race as a Tossup.
Charlie Mitchell is a former editor of Roll Call. Follow him on Twitter: @CharlieReports.