Iowa Senate race sets up GOP establishment vs. grassroots test

Iowa’s 2014 Senate race is fast becoming an early battleground in the Republican family feud over recruiting “electable” candidates, with an early GOP front-runner scoffing Tuesday at suggestions he wouldn’t survive a general election. 

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), a favorite of Tea Party conservatives, challenged claims by a founder of the new Conservative Victory Project super-PAC that he has a “Todd Akin” problem going into a potential Senate campaign. 

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“I’m a relatively competitive individual, and I’d be happy to put my record up against all those critics,” King told The Hill on Tuesday. 

King was responding to remarks by Steven Law, who along with former President George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, has launched the Conservative Victory Project in an effort to prevent weak general-election candidates from winning GOP primaries. 

“We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem,” Law recently told The New York Times, likening the Iowa lawmaker to the ill-fated Republican Senate candidate in Missouri whose comments about “legitimate rape” cost him the 2012 election. 

Akin has become a favorite example of establishment Republicans for why they need to get involved in GOP primaries.

King and Rep. Tom Latham (R-Iowa) are the two names most mentioned as GOP candidates for the Iowa seat, which is opening up with the planned retirement of Sen. Tom Harkin (D). 

King, who hasn’t decided whether to run, said Law’s remark did nothing to dissuade him from joining the race and, instead, fired up his base.

“The most obvious result of it is, it seems to have animated my support,” King said.

Conservative Republicans and Tea Party groups have responded with fury to the Conservative Victory Project, claiming the group represents an effort by establishment Republicans to undermine the GOP grassroots. 

How the super-PAC fares against King — if he runs — will test whether the group can be effective in knocking off a candidate it deems unelectable.

Two polls released Tuesday — one by GOP pollster Wenzel Strategies for the conservative group Citizens United and another conducted by Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling — show King holding a clear lead over Latham in a hypothetical primary showdown. 

The PPP poll also shows that Latham would be a much stronger general-election candidate in the swing state. He comes within 4 percentage points of Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), whom many expect to run. Braley leads King by 11 points, according to PPP.

King told The Hill that he “absolutely” believed he could win in a statewide general election.

“I look around the country and I see things like former Gov. [Mitt] Romney, who won in Massachusetts, I see Gov. Chris Christie who won in New Jersey, I see Sen. Pat Toomey, who people thought couldn’t win [as a Republican in Pennsylvania],” King said. 

“Show me the list of candidates that conventional wisdom said could win, and where are they today? Many of them are former politicians.”

Latham declined to weigh in on Law’s remark about King.

“That’s their business, not mine,” he told The Hill on Tuesday.

Latham hasn’t made up his mind on the race. He said it’s “way early” to even establish a timetable for his decision.

Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party, said Law’s remarks had hurt his group’s cause.

“It’s not just King’s strong-headedness they need to be concerned about, it’s the strong-headedness of Iowa activists, who don’t want to be told what to do,” he said. “A lot of Iowa activists think Latham would be the strongest candidate, but those comments got them rallying around King, to tell Rove and Law to get out.”

Conservative Victory Project spokesman Jonathan Collegio said Law was talking about the broader context of blocking unelectable candidates — whether they’re Tea Party heroes or flawed establishment politicians.

“It’s way too early to determine who a group like CVP would or wouldn’t support in Iowa — we don’t even know what the field looks like yet,” he told The Hill. “The critical thing for us is to get the most conservative candidate elected in a primary who is also capable of winning in the general [election].”

Collegio said the Conservative Victory Project has been unfairly portrayed as an establishment group that supports centrist candidates. He said it would support the strongest candidate without regard to ideology. 

King ran a strong campaign defending his House seat in 2012 against Democrat Christie Vilsack. 

But his district is also the most conservative in the state. King has made a number of controversial remarks during his six terms in Congress about abortion and immigration that could come back to haunt him in a statewide election.

King said in 2008 that terrorists “will be dancing in the streets” if Barack Obama won the presidency “because of his middle name, because of who his father was and because of his posture that says ‘pull out of the Middle East.’ ”

He also took to the House floor in 2006 with a model electric border fence, comparing illegal immigrants to livestock.