Residing outside of the competitive Senate landscape's top tier most of this election cycle, Iowa Republicans believe they are finally gaining some momentum for the state's open seat, particularly by avoiding a nominating convention.
The release Tuesday of a video taken of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s remarks at a Texas fundraiser was just the cherry on top of an already renewed sense of optimism among Republicans that the party will put up a competitive nominee. Several things still need to go the GOP’s way for success in November, but Republican insiders in the state see positive signs.
Along with President Barack Obama’s approval ratings in the Hawkeye State falling to 36 percent in a Des Moines Register poll taken last month, the crowded and unproven Republican primary field is beginning to shake out, and the party’s chances of nominating a candidate in the primary — and dodging a potentially debilitating convention — are improving.
"I think the notion of a convention choosing our Senate nominee gets more remote by the day," said one veteran Iowa Republican operative without ties to any of the campaigns. Democrats remain favored to hold the seat of longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who announced his retirement 14 months ago. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, opted against running — and later announced his own retirement from the House — and a handful of lesser-known contenders are facing off for the nomination.
Meanwhile, Braley, a four-term congressman, had $2.6 million in cash on hand by the end of the year — a number that dwarfed the GOP competition and is likely to increase by Monday’s first-quarter filing deadline.
Still, the video released Tuesday by GOP opposition research group America Rising offered an unhelpful round of press for Braley, who will likely see the clip used against him in ads this fall.
Speaking to a group of attorneys and potential donors, Braley, himself a lawyer, said it was important he win and Democrats hold the Senate. Should Democrats lose, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” would serve as the Senate’s next Judiciary chairman. Grassley has been re-elected easily since entering the Senate in 1981 and continues to earn strong approval ratings back home.
If nothing else, Republicans in the state hope the gaffe will force Braley to dip into his war chest earlier than expected to run positive TV ads.
"The conventional wisdom of six months ago that this was a safe Democratic seat is maybe open to question now,” said Iowa GOP consultant Bob Haus.
But before Republicans can focus on Braley, the party must weather the June 3 primary. While the initial GOP field included more than a half-dozen GOP hopefuls, some Iowa Republican operatives said it has dwindled to two clear front-runners: state Sen. Joni Ernst and former energy executive Mark Jacobs.
Iowa Democrats agree, and the Braley campaign has signaled it views Jacobs as the front-runner: recent statements are focused squarely on him.
“If you look at where the Republican candidates stand in the money race and what the next two months look like, it’s clear Jacobs has a big advantage [in the primary] in terms of being able to fund a campaign,” one Iowa Democrat said. “Any reasonable person will tell you Jacobs has the edge.”
With a top-tier field of two, Republicans say the party is more likely than ever to avoid a June 14 nominating convention — a rare process sparked when no candidate garners at least 35 percent in the primary earlier that month. Conventions often turn out the GOP’s most loyal activists and can increase the possibility of nominating a weaker general election candidate.
Republican operatives said Ernst's background — she is a military veteran and farmer with ties to rural communities in Iowa — is likely a better contrast to Braley, especially after his unforced error. But Ernst has struggled to raise the kind of money it takes to compete in a statewide race, unlike Jacobs, who has proven he is willing to spend his own personal resources.
For Ernst backers, with a renewed national focus on the race following Braley's comments, plus recent endorsements by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin and a small ad buy featuring pig castration that got big national play, there is hope national donors could start to open their pockets.
"Most conservative state lawmakers are on her side and now Palin, but she's also got guys like Mitt Romney and David Oman, who chaired Romney's campaign in Iowa and helped raise funds,” said one Iowa Republican operative with ties to the Ernst campaign. “So that is playing right into the narrative they want running into the two month sprint to the primary.”