Republicans look to shake up race for Iowa Senate nomination

Two high-profile Iowa Republicans actively exploring bids for the state’s open Senate seat could be game changers in what has been a crowded but low-key primary to date.

Sources close to evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats (R) and former oil executive Mark Jacobs (R) told The Hill both men are testing the level of support they’d have in a campaign for the seat being vacated by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa.)

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Jacobs, who announced a Senate exploratory committee in June, is now “probably likely” to run, said Richard Schwarm, a former chairman of the Iowa Republican Party who has been advising the ex-CEO of Reliant Energy.

Vander Plaats, meanwhile, is awaiting fundraising reports from the four current GOP candidates to see whether they are exciting the party’s conservative base.

Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker (R), David Young (R), a former chief of staff to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R), and conservative radio host Sam Clovis (R) are already in the race.

Jacobs’s and Vander Plaats’s potential campaigns mean very different things for Republicans’ chances at winning the seat, however.

Jacobs is viewed as someone who could give the likely Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley (Iowa), a tough race, while Vander Plaats is viewed as a risky nominee in the swing state because of his strident social conservatism.

Republicans are hopeful they can still put the seat in play, though a number of the state’s top GOP politicians have passed on the race.

If the GOP can win in Iowa, it would be significantly easier for Republicans to win the six seats necessary to regain Senate control in 2014.

“Vander Plaats would be formidable and would probably be the front-runner to win the primary,” said Craig Robinson, a former political director with the Iowa Republican Party.

“A general election would be difficult for him. He would be an easier target for someone like Braley to paint as extreme.”

Schwarm, a friend of Gov. Terry Branstad (R), said Jacobs is moving toward a bid but has no timetable for an announcement.

“Mark is very conscientious and wants to test things thoroughly,” Schwarm tells The Hill.

“He’s testing the waters; he’s been out a lot. He’s done research on a plan for a campaign if it happens ... but he hasn’t made a decision, and that rests with him and his wife.”

Schwarm suggested Jacobs would be able to at least partly self-fund his campaign.

“If he decides to run, he will have resources sufficient to compete vigorously. He wouldn’t just be self-funding, though,” he said.

Dave Barnett, a spokesman for Vander Plaats, tells The Hill the social conservative leader is waiting for a Federal Elections Commission fundraising report in mid-October and will decide no later than Jan. 1 if he will run.

“He’s definitely putting off looking at that decision until Oct. 15, and after that he’ll start to consider looking at that option if it’s a feasible move,” said Barnett, communications director for The Family Leader, the Iowa evangelical group run by Vander Plaats.

“He’ll have a decision, one way or the other, by Jan. 1. ... He is constantly being approached and pressed by people across Iowa and outside Iowa encouraging him to run.”

Vander Plaats has run for office multiple times before, losing the GOP nomination for governor in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

Over the years, he’s developed a powerful network in the state. Vander Plaats led the successful efforts to remove Iowa Supreme Court justices who’d legalized gay marriage in Iowa and topped 40 percent of the vote in the 2010 GOP primary when he ran against Branstad for governor.  

His endorsements of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) helped both men win Iowa’s presidential caucuses.

Iowa Republicans have struggled to land a top-tier recruit to run for Harkin’s seat in the swing state, while Democrats have coalesced around Braley.

There has been no recent public polling of Iowa’s Senate race, but Braley comfortably led his announced opponents in a July survey from Democratic pollster Public Policy Polling.

Vander Plaats would be a bigger name than those currently running, and he could have a real shot at the nomination, particularly if no candidate reaches the 35 percent needed to win the nomination in a primary. 

A state convention would then choose the GOP nominee, and conservative activists would hold significant sway.