Republican Senate primary in Iowa a 'jumble' of untested candidates

As another Republican candidate prepares to jump into an already crowded race for the Iowa Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Tom HarkinTom HarkinGrassley challenger no stranger to defying odds Clinton ally stands between Sanders and chairmanship dream Do candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? MORE (D), an increasingly fractured field has GOP strategists concerned about the party’s options in the state.

Energy executive Mark Jacobs announced earlier this week he is forming an exploratory committee to consider a bid for Harkin’s seat. 

Jacobs, former president and CEO of Reliant Energy, has already met with the National Republican Senatorial Committee to discuss a potential run.

Iowa political analysts saw the potential arrival of another candidate as adding another layer to the race, but settling nothing.

“The race is and remains a jumble, the political equivalent of a [snow globe],” said David Yepsen, a former political columnist for The Des Moines Register.

The Iowa GOP is hoping to seize an opportunity to turn the seat red after the decision by Harkin, a five-term senator, not to seek reelection in 2014. 

But so far the field is a letdown to many Republicans, with the top-tier recruits taking a pass on the race. 

Iowa political analysts see the primary battle as wide open after the state’s most prominent Republicans – including Gov. Terry Branstad, Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King and Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds – declined to run. 

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey also said he won’t make a bid for the seat.

Jacobs, by contrast, has never held elected office – a trait he shares with all of the declared Republican candidates. 

The current field includes talk-radio host Sam Clovis, former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker and David Young, who formerly served as Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyMcConnell blames dysfunction on Dems Four states sue to stop internet transition Senate passes bill to preserve sexual assault kits MORE’s (R-Iowa) chief of staff. 

State Sen. Joni Ernst is widely expected to announce her candidacy.

The fragmented state of the GOP field, along with the Republican candidates’ lack of experience, raises questions about the Iowa party’s chances at capturing the seat.

Prolonged infighting in the primary would leave the eventual nominee "battered, out of money, and having moved so far [to the right] that it becomes difficult to move back to the center," Yepsen said.

Adding to the GOP’s problems in the state, a Des Moines Register poll released earlier this month shows that the three Republicans polled – Whitaker, Ernst and Young – have little name recognition.

Some leading state Republicans may have stayed out of Iowa’s first open-seat race in over 30 years because of the risk of a politically bruising contest, suggested Craig Robinson, former political director for the Republican Party of Iowa.

Some Republicans have speculated privately to The Hill that any of the potential GOP candidates would struggle to beat Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyCriminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship Trump's VP list shrinks Vernon wins Iowa House Dem primary MORE (D), the expected Democratic nominee, in a general election battle. 

Braley may benefit from the remnants of the get-out-the-vote operation President Obama built in Iowa for the 2012 election, Yepsen said.

Still, the fragmented field could be a boon to Jacobs, according to Robinson. 

Jacobs’ business experience could allow him to establish a niche with business-oriented and urban GOP voters, Robinson said.

Robinson also pointed toward Jacobs’ personal wealth – he earned nearly $10 million in compensation last year alone.  That might not be sufficient to completely self-finance a Senate race, but could allow him to hire staff and run ads very early, Robinson said. 

This would raise his name recognition among voters and allow his campaign to appear professional and serious from the outset.

Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee expressed confidence that Republicans could defeat Braley.

“We're excited about Iowa, where the primary … is healthy because it offers each of the candidates an opportunity to introduce themselves to folks across Iowa,” Dayspring told The Hill in an e-mail.