On Political Wire's podcast, we recently spoke to Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, about the state's fascinating politics, its marquee U.S. Senate race, and the actions that 2016 presidential hopefuls are already taking there.
Here are five takeaways:
1. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is the favorite to succeed Sen. Tom Harkin (D), but two things could hurt his chances. Harkin, the Hawkeye State's longtime junior senator, surprised many Democrats when he decided to retire from the Senate. Braley, who soon afterward declared his candidacy, embraced the mantle of the progressive heir apparent to Harkin. Although Braley may hold the edge right now in the polls, Republicans are trying to link him closely to the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare, noting that he delivered a floor speech in the final debate over the law, and are even calling the health law "BraleyCare." Braley also erred when he criticized Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as being an Iowa farmer with no law experience. Although Braley apologized, "I'm sure that Iowans will be seeing this snippet of video on their television screens in the general election," Henderson said. "The fact that a candidate as experienced as Bruce Braley made this sort of freshman mistake has been really surprising to Democrats."
2. Republicans may have a mess on their hands in picking their Senate candidate. Iowa election law requires that a primary candidate get at least 35 percent support to win the party nomination, and if that fails to happen then the nomination goes to a state party convention, according to Henderson. With five candidates on the GOP side right now, ranging from state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to energy executive Mark Jacobs (R) to Rick Santorum-backed professor Sam Clovis (R)), it's tough for one of them to get the needed 35 percent. Adding to the mess, at the convention "the delegates aren't necessarily bound by the candidates who were on the primary ballot," Henderson said, though "history has shown that the party people do select from among the candidates who were on the ballot." But these factors together raise the possibility that Ernst and Jacobs, two leading candidates with establishment support, won't wrap up the nomination and that a Todd Akin-esque candidate will win at the convention instead. "That is what moderate Republicans tell reporters is their greatest fear, is that they will nominate someone who is too conservative for the general election."
3. Gov. Terry Branstad (R) should coast to victory, as long as recent management controversies don't pick up steam. Branstad should have an easy path to victory, considering that his Democratic opponent, state Sen. Jack Hatch (D), is not well-known outside Des Moines, the capital. One thing that is giving Branstad some headaches, however, is an ongoing scandal involving allegations that the administration paid extra to laid-off state workers as part of exit-settlement agreements. "They did actually pay employees extra in exit settlements to keep the details of the settlements secret, so Democrats have obviously labeled that hush money," Henderson said. Polling continues to show Branstad leading Hatch by up to 10 points, but many Republicans worry that Branstad is not doing enough to push back against Democrats' attacks, Henderson said.
4. The list of potential GOP presidential contenders visiting Iowa, the first-in-the-nation caucus state, keeps getting bigger. GOP senators such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and governors such as Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Scott Walker (R-Wis.) have visited the Hawkeye State recently. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has helped Branstad raise campaign cash. Santorum, the former Republican senator from Pennsylvania who won the Iowa caucuses in 2012, has made an endorsement splash in Iowa. Even former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R) has said he would visit the state to fundraise for Branstad. "They're all making steps to shore up their positioning in Iowa. And that's why you have people like a Marco Rubio saying, 'OK, I should play in this race just to get my name out there,'" Henderson said. Endorsements and fundraising events don't change many GOP voters' minds about the presidential hopefuls. "But they do keep your name as a potential 2016 candidate in the public discussion," Henderson said.
5. Hillary hasn't visited Iowa. Should Democrats be alarmed? Some Democrats are actually worried that Clinton is taking Iowa for granted by not visiting the state. But there is one key reason why Clinton wouldn't visit Iowa, at least not for now: the media frenzy that would ensue. "It would be a nuclear blast if she came to Iowa," Henderson said. Another thing to keep in mind, Henderson said, is Clinton's third-place performance in the 2008 Iowa Democratic presidential caucuses (then-Sen. Barack Obama came in first), a major disappointment to her supporters. "I think that the Clinton campaign may actually be weighing whether Hillary Clinton comes to Iowa and campaigns in earnest, or maybe skips Iowa and goes directly to New Hampshire," Henderson suggested.
Listen to the whole conversation here: