DES MOINES (AP) — Five months after U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin gave Iowa its first open Senate seat in 40 years, the 2014 race is shaping up differently in each party, with Democrats quickly uniting behind a well-known prospect and Republicans still casting about for a candidate.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic Party’s lone candidate, is steadily raising money and racking up endorsements — the latest being former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, who told The Associated Press Monday that he was formally backing Braley.
On the Republican side, a host of top-tier prospects have opted out and others are still weighing their options, while money and major endorsements remain largely up for grabs.
But being a year out from what will likely be a closely watched and super PAC-funded general election, it’s hard to say if Democrats will have the upper hand.
“Obviously, we expect a very challenging and difficult race. Iowa is one of the most competitive states in the nation. What Congressman Braley is doing right now is everything in his power to get into a position to win,” said Culver, who was elected governor in 2006 and served one term before losing a re-election bid to Gov. Terry Branstad.
Republicans said this cycle will be a tough one for Braley because midterm elections typically favor the party that isn’t aligned with the president.
Republican Pollster Greg Strimple said he didn’t think that Braley was building an unbeatable advantage, given that substantial funding will likely be available to whoever wins the primary. And the popular Branstad is likely to run again, which will draw GOP supporters to the voting booths, Strimple said.
But the key, he said, is finding a GOP candidate who can appeal to moderates. The party’s field has been slow to shape up, with U.S. Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King declining to run, as well as state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Braley — who has built a reputation as a consumer advocate and an Obama loyalist — announced his bid quickly after Harkin announced in January he wouldn’t run again, raising more than $1 million in February and March. He said Monday he appreciated Culver’s backing and said he was just staying focused on the general election.
“I can’t control what’s going on in the other side. All I can do is try to put together an organization that will appeal to Iowans next November,” said Braley, who’s also drawn endorsements from the state’s unions and from top Democrats, including Harkin.
Republicans need to gain six seats in order to take control of the U.S. Senate. They’re targeting vulnerable Democratic senators up for re-election in more conservative states and focusing on states where Democrats are retiring — like in Iowa. The state has become a perennial presidential campaign battleground; the past four presidential races have been decided by fewer than 10 percentage points.
So far, Republicans who have declared themselves candidates include: Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, Sioux City talk show host Sam Clovis, attorney Paul Lunde and David Young, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley. Businessman Mark Jacobs has formed an exploratory committee and state Sen. Joni Ernst is also considering a run.
Doug Gross, a Republican fundraiser in Iowa, said he thought a competitive primary could help promote the Republican candidate.
“Assuming we get a good candidate, it’s an advantage for us, because the race will get attention,” Gross said.