With no less than seven Republicans vying for Iowa's open U.S. Senate seat next year, GOP leaders are afraid of a highly fractured outcome in the primary that, under a unique state election law, will require a state convention to select the nominee.
Should no Republican get 35 percent of the vote in the primary next June, then the state party convention would select the nominee from the field of candidates. In such a scenario, the nominee picked by a convention may not necessarily be the top vote-getter in the primary.
Newsmax spoke to several Republican activists in the Hawkeye State who agreed that such a drawn-out nomination battle could only benefit Bruce Braley, the three-term U.S. congressman and certain Democratic nominee who hopes succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.
After Harkin announced his retirement last year, well-known Republicans such as Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham, and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds passed on the race. So a "B-Team" of candidates quickly emerged.
No problem, old Republican hands agreed. As Iowa City attorney and Johnson County GOP Chairman Bill Keettel told Newsmax, "We have a history of people coming out of nowhere and beating the 'big names' to become senators."
In 1960, Republican state Sen. Jack Miller won an upset in the Senate race over the much-favored Democrat, Gov. Herschel Loveless. Twelve years later, Miller himself was upset by Democrat Dick Clark, a top aide to a U.S. House member. In 1978, six years after he retired as lieutenant governor and left politics, Republican Roger Jepsen came back and unseated Clark.
At this point, five of the seven contenders are thought to have a chance of winning the GOP nomination. The leading candidate among the "front five" appears to be Matt Whitaker, 43, former U.S. attorney and well-known from his days as a tight end for the University of Iowa Hawkeyes football team that went to the Rose Bowl in 1991. More recently, he ran a close-but-losing race for state treasurer.
Whitaker's leading opponent is Des Moines businessman Mark Jacobs, who has spent an estimated $1 million to increase his name recognition through a recent TV blitz.
A former Goldman Sachs executive and CEO of the Reliant Energy company, Jacobs has signed on a campaign team that one wag dubbed "Return of the Jedi." It includes Rich Schwarm, political alter ego of Republican Gov. Terry Branstad; direct-mail and fund-raising expert Nick Ryan, a major player in Rick Santorum's win in the Iowa "Straw Vote" last year; and Steve Grubbs of the Victory Enterprises political consulting firm.
Many GOP leaders in Washington privately hope the Republican nomination goes to state Sen. Joni Ernst. A wife and mother, the 43-year-old Ernst is also lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and served in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Before winning her state Senate seat, she was Montgomery county auditor.
"She's got all the credentials and she's a woman," said one veteran Republican pollster, noting the slim number of female statewide office-seekers in his party.
Des Moines attorney David Young, a former top aide to Iowa GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, has impressed audiences with his knowledge of issues. From his years working for the popular senator, Young has developed a widespread network of political contacts.
Rounding out the Republican "Front Five" is Sam Clovis, Sioux City radio talk show host. Known for being able to dish out red-meat conservatism, Clovis has a strong following among the "tea partiers" and has been a popular fixture at their meetings.
Although a just-completed Harris Poll showed 58 percent to 75 percent of likely Iowa voters know next-to-nothing about the five Republicans, the same survey showed a difficult race ahead for Democrat Braley as well, even though early poll put him ahead of the Republican field.
The survey found that 60 percent of the voters knew enough about Braley to form an opinion. Among likely voters statewide, the poll showed Braley edging Whitaker by 41 percent to 38 percent, Jacobs 41 percent to 37 percent, Ernst 42 percent to 36 percent, Young 41 percent to 35 percent, and Clovis 40 percent to 35 percent.
All told, the prospects for a Republican pickup of a Senate seat from Iowa are promising. But the crowded field of candidates could cause a problem.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax.
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