GOP sees hope for win in Iowa
© Courtesy of Mark Jacobs

With a GOP candidate finally on the rise in Iowa, Republicans now think their chances to take over retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) seat are too.

Former energy executive Mark Jacobs is looking more and more like the front-runner in a crowded Republican primary election, which could help the GOP avoid a hazard-filled party convention and coalesce around their nominee.

Finding a strong candidate has been especially crucial, with a cash-flush and primary-free Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell BraleyOPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP Ten years later, House Dems reunite and look forward Trump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer MORE (D-Iowa) waiting in the wings in the swing state.

Now, a field Republicans feared could continue to grow has been winnowed to six, with four as real threats, making it much easier for any of them to hit the 35 percent threshold in the June primary necessary to avoid a convention.

“At this point, each candidate would need to have some strength for this to go to a convention, and I don’t see that happening right now,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director.

According to Robinson and others in the state, that candidate looks increasingly like it could be Jacobs. With just over three months until the primary, his poll numbers and his fundraising are on the upswing.

Jacobs’s steady rise was aided when religious conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats (R) decided last weekend not to run, easing fears of establishment Republicans that he could have splintered the field. Former congressional staffer David Young (R) also recently dropped out of the race to run for retiring GOP Rep. Tom Latham’s seat.

Jacobs has a huge cash advantage on the rest of the primary field, largely due to his ability to self-fund his campaign — between personal loans and donations, he has brought in more than $900,000 since he formed an exploratory committee for the race in late June. And he is using it to leverage support in the state. The former energy executive has already spent more than $500,000 on TV and radio ads introducing himself to Iowa voters, and his campaign says he’s likely to stay on the air for the majority of the time between now and the early June primary election.

That’s translated to an edge in the polls over his primary opponents, albeit one that he’d need to expand in the next few months. Jacobs’s campaign released a poll on Monday from Hill Research Consultants that found him leading the pack with 22 percent support, followed by Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) at 11 percent, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker (R) at 8 percent and conservative radio host Sam Clovis (R) with 6 percent. The poll also found Jacobs in a virtual tie with Braley.

The GOP’s chances are also buoyed by President Obama’s weak poll numbers in a state he comfortably won two years ago. His approval rating in a December poll from Quinnipiac was 38 percent, with 59 percent disapproving.

Braley is still the likely favorite for the seat. The same Quinnipiac poll found him leading Jacobs by 9 percentage points, though that was before Jacobs started his barrage of TV ads. But if Republicans can get a candidate through the primary without major damage, they’re hopeful to bring another seat into contention. Republicans need to net six seats for a Senate majority, and they believe putting Iowa in play would force Democrats to spend valuable resources and complicate a difficult electoral map for their opponents.

Jacobs’s foes mocked his poll’s results, pointing out he’s still short of the 35 percent threshold he’d need to win and arguing his numbers will come down once they start airing ads against him.

“He’s been on air eight weeks in a vacuum with no one else on the air. ... Joni hasn’t spent a dollar on TV, mail or radio. If I were them, I’d actually be really nervous about those numbers,” Ernst’s general consultant David Polyansky said.  “You may call him a front-runner. I’d call him a guy who’s spent more than a half-million dollars and is treading water.”

Republicans also point to Jacobs’s past contributions to some Democratic candidates and his past comments in support of cap-and-trade energy legislation while he worked at Reliant Energy as major weak spots for the candidate.

Both Democrats and Republicans promise to attack Jacobs for the three decades he lived outside of Iowa, most recently in Texas, and for his business career as an energy executive and working on Wall Street for Goldman Sachs.

“By Election Day in November, Iowa voters will be familiar with the clear contrast in this race between Bruce Braley, who’s fighting to raise the minimum wage and protect Social Security and Medicare, and whoever his Republican opponent turns out to be, all of whom are siding with out-of-state oil billionaires against an increase in the minimum wage and Iowa families,” Braley campaign spokesman Jeff Giertz said.

“He hasn’t lived in the state since President Reagan took office. That’s manufactured Iowa values, and the people of Iowa see through that,” Polyansk said.

“Mr. Jacobs’s business practices in Texas and Wall Street will raise serious questions in the minds of middle-class Iowans,” said one national Democrat.

But Ernst had just $290,000 in the bank for the race as of the end of 2013, meaning Jacobs will have a huge cash advantage heading into the race’s homestretch. Whitaker had $230,000, while Clovis had less than $30,000 in the bank.

For now, insiders say it’s Jacobs to watch as the one who could change the dynamics of the race for the GOP.

“There are four legitimate candidates in this race, but only one of them, Mark Jacobs, has shown the ability to run TV ads and do a lot of voter contact. In a primary where 225,000 or so are going to vote, Jacobs is doing everything he needs to do to win that primary outright, while the others are on the chicken dinner circuit of county events and just aren’t reaching enough voters,” Robinson said. “This is where Jacobs’s fundraising ability and his ability to fund some of his own campaign operations come into play.”