Iowa Republicans struggle with turmoil

The Associated Press

It was a day Iowa Republicans had long dreamed of when their Democratic nemesis, Tom Harkin, announced he was retiring from the Senate. But that day was in January, and as the Midwest winter now gives way to spring, Republicans here find themselves in a surprising predicament – still trying to come up with someone to run for the job, and struggling to avoid becoming another example of the party’s disarray after its presidential defeat.

Ever since Harkin, who had held the office since Ronald Reagan was president, provided an opening for the GOP, the party has bounced between two options for the Senate seat:┬ácandidates who could win but won’t run, and candidates who could run but, party officials fear, couldn’t win.

Meanwhile, the state party apparatus has become a reflection of the GOP’s bitterly divided factions. Now led by followers of libertarian Ron Paul, the organization has quarreled with Iowa’s senior Republican eminence, Gov. Terry Branstad, and disputed his strategy for state government and party affairs.

“The Republican Party in Iowa is in turmoil, with no clear leader for the future and no consistent governing philosophy,” said Doug Gross, a Republican fundraiser and Branstad confidant.

As Democrats line up behind their already-declared candidate for the Senate, Bruce Braley, Republican leaders are hoping they can sort things out before the 2014 campaign heats up and before the 2016 presidential race puts Iowa and its first-in-the-nation caucuses back in the political spotlight. The state party is still trying to get over its experience last year, in which balloting problems at the presidential caucuses left GOP officials unable to declare a winner. National GOP officials plan to discuss the 2016 nominating process, and Iowa’s place in it, at a meeting in California this week.

Overall, the Republican Party needs to pick up six seats to win control of the Senate in 2014, and Harkin’s would seem to be one of its better chances. A Republican, Charles Grassley, holds the other Senate seat and the party controls the governorship and one house of the Legislature.

But any campaign plan quickly went awry when Branstad’s first choice for the race, Rep. Tom Latham, a respected 10-term House member, declined to run.

Meanwhile, Branstad was trying to hold off another Iowa congressman, Steve King, a conservative firebrand who had long eyed the Senate but whom some considered too divisive for a party trying to broaden its appeal. Branstad’s delicate diplomacy was upended when a national conservative group publicly called out King as just the kind of lightning rod the GOP should avoid.

But while the barb put King on the defensive, he does not give the impression of a candidate hot to run.

“There can be no scores to settle,” King told The Associated Press, saying he was studying poll research. “Of all the opinions out there, I want to make sure there’s empirical data.”

The search may now turn to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a working mother and energetic former county officeholder who is popular with social and pro-business conservatives. She has the public blessing of Branstad, but remains untested outside his shadow. Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, a well-liked but lower-profile potential fourth option, is waiting to see what Reynolds decides.

“I am surprised we don’t have a stronger candidate that’s stepped out yet,” said Gwen Ecklund, a GOP county chairwoman from western Iowa.

By contrast, the declared Democrat in the race, Braley, a congressman from Waterloo, has been able head off potential Democratic primary challengers and raised $1 million in less than two months.

Adding to the GOP tumult has been the growing power of Ron Paul supporters, who were a nonfactor in the state before Paul placed third in the 2012 Iowa caucuses, higher than many thought possible. Paul’s 2012 Iowa caucus campaign chairman A.J. Spiker won election as party chairman last year, and Paul supporters now occupy senior offices on the state GOP committee.

Spiker has attacked a gasoline tax proposal that Branstad was considering supporting and has been crosswise with Branstad’s efforts to put the volatile gay marriage issue on the backburner.

Some Republican officials are concerned about attracting any more negative attention to Iowa or prompting any more suggestions that another state should start the presidential nominating calendar – after the Republican National Committee made an issue of Iowa’s botched caucus balloting last year. State GOP officials first declared Mitt Romney had narrowly won, then announced 16 days later that former Sen. Rick Santorum had received more votes – long after the news could have helped boost his campaign for subsequent early primaries.

An RNC report expressed a strong preference for states using regular elections, rather than caucuses or conventions, for picking nominees.

“I’m concerned because the report calls for doing away with caucuses,” said Steve Scheffler, a Republican National Committee member from Iowa.