Iowa power brokers playing quiet but crucial role in Senate race

Two of Iowa’s most powerful Republicans have quietly lined up on opposite sides in the state’s GOP Senate primary, amid concerns a weak field is boosting Democrats’ chances of holding a key seat in the battle for control of the upper chamber.

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) encouraged Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) to run, while much of Republican Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyGrassley wants to subpoena Comey, Lynch after critical IG report Senate Dems call for Judiciary hearing on Trump's 'zero tolerance' Republicans agree — it’s only a matter of time for Scott Pruitt MORE’s (Iowa) political operation is aiding David Young (R), who, until recently, was Grassley’s chief of staff.

The seat has proven to be a recruiting headache for Republicans, who view it as a pickup opportunity in the wake of Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinDem Senator open to bid from the left in 2020 Senate GOP rejects Trump’s call to go big on gun legislation Trump should require federal contractors to follow the law MORE’s (D) decision to retire. A number of better-known candidates took a pass on running.

If Republicans emerge with a strong candidate in Iowa, however, their odds of controlling the Senate become much stronger.

“At some point, a candidate is going to have to rise to a certain level and become impressive. That’s what we’re waiting to see,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa Republican Party.

“Where [Branstad and Grassley] can help their candidates is in the fundraising department.”

The GOP likely needs to win six Senate seats to gain control of the Senate in 2015. The party appears to have the edge in open seats in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana, which would get them halfway to their goal.

Keeping Iowa competitive is a top imperative for the party. If they can win there, they only need to defeat two of four Senate Democratic incumbents running in red states, rather than three of the four, a much taller task.

The challenge for allies of Grassley and Branstad is to propel their favored candidate — relatively unscathed — to the front of a crowded pack.

If no candidate wins 35 percent in the crowded field in the June 3, 2014, primary, the GOP will choose its nominee in a mid-summer party convention, giving Democrats more time to campaign uncontested.

That’s a high goal: Ernst and Young are already facing former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker (R) and conservative radio host Sam Clovis (R) in the primary, with former energy executive Mark Jacobs (R) expected to announce soon.

Neither Ernst nor Young face an easy task.

Iowa’s GOP base and state party have strong contingents of both social conservatives, as well as Ron Paul supporters, who might push through one of their own. That creates the potential for Republicans to select a candidate who can’t win centrists and independents in the swing state. That would likely become easier in a convention than the primary.

“A lot of these people are unknown,” said Des Moines-based conservative radio host Steve Deace, who thinks a convention is likely.

“There is a real lack of buzz about the race, not nearly as much excitement as you’d think considering it’s an open seat. When I do hear anything, it’s disappointment in what the field looks like as currently constructed.”

To that end, both Grassley and Branstad could help their preferred nominee by boosting their profile and helping to connect them with donors and higher-quality campaign staff.

Neither Iowa lawmaker is stepping out with an official, public endorsement, however.  

Branstad has remained publicly quiet about the race.

Grassley told The Hill in June that he’d remain neutral in the primary but would help the party keep up in fundraising. There are concerns the GOP will fall too far behind 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 (Iowa), the likely Democratic nominee, who has been hauling in millions for the race.

After it became public that Grassley was helping Young with fundraising, the Iowa senator offered to host fundraisers for the other candidates. He has now scheduled fundraisers for Whitaker and Clovis.

But much of Young’s team is made up of former Grassley political hands, including his pollster, top fundraiser and ad-maker.

“Sen. Grassley is very supportive of David’s candidacy and is helping in any way that he can. As we get a little further down the line, and David is out there more, you’ll see Sen. Grassley really helping David in different ways,” Heather Swift, Young’s communications director, told The Hill.

“Whether it comes as an endorsement will be up to him, but either way, he’ll be very helpful. I know David really wants to earn the endorsement, and over the next year, he’ll look to be able to prove himself.”

Ernst, a first-term state legislator and National Guard member who’s close with Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), was encouraged to run by Reynolds and Branstad. She formally launched her campaign last week.

“Sen. Ernst received a lot of encouragement from a lot of her friends to run,” said Ernst spokesman Derek Flowers.

Republicans in the state say it’s unlikely either Grassley or Branstad supporters will be able to make or break the race — but at a minimum, they could help Ernst and Young jumpstart their campaigns.

“I think the presence of those guys around the campaigns mean access to donors and money. But those candidates have to earn it on their own,” said longtime Iowa strategist David Kochel, who ran Mitt Romney’s presidential caucuses in the state and is neutral in the primary.

“Sen. Grassley has been open that he’s going to give advice and help everyone. But Young obviously knows all of Grassley’s team very well. With Joni Ernst, Gov. Branstad has been very encouraging to her.”