Iowa Republicans Test Party Pivot as Democrats Quote King

U.S. Representative Steve King, an Iowa Republican, has said Americans should pick immigrants as they would a hunting dog, allowing the “friskiest,” hard-working ones into the country while keeping the lazy ones out.

It’s the sort of commentary from a potential U.S. Senate candidate that delights Democrats -- who are showcasing King’s remarks on a website to raise money -- and creates heartburn for Republicans who worry King may enter and win the party’s primary, only to then lose in the general election.

“He couldn’t win” the 2014 race, Doug Gross, a Des Moines lawyer and Republican activist who was once chief of staff to Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, said in an interview.

The concerns sparked by King’s possible candidacy reflect tensions nationally over whether the party should embrace candidates with better chances of winning general elections or those closer to the anti-government spending Tea Party movement that’s provided fresh energy.

“There is some soul searching that’s taking place,” said Mike Mahaffey, a former Iowa Republican Party chairman. “There’s a concern on the part of Republicans that we need to put our best foot forward.”

King’s past statements and votes -- as well as President Barack Obama’s six-percentage-point win in Iowa last November -- are key reasons Gross and others question whether the six-term congressman could win the seat being vacated by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

King Defenders

Defenders of King, 63, point to his re-election victory last year over Christie Vilsack, the wife of U.S. agriculture secretary and former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, and say he shouldn’t be underestimated.

The open Senate seat will be Iowa’s first in 40 years, and it figures to loom large in the 2014 Republican push to gain the six seats they need to win control of the chamber. Iowans are bracing for a heated partisan contest that’s likely to include millions of dollars from outside the state.

The campaign also will be closely watched for evidence of the party’s management of the internal divide that emerged after Obama’s re-election between the Tea Party activists and traditional party leaders.

“In a lot of ways, Iowa is microcosm of the national party when it comes to this Senate race,” said Gross.

King, who has said a decision on running for the Senate is “too big” to be rushed, is popular among Republicans most concerned about opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage. His rhetorical record and fight for “liberty” have made him a darling of the Tea Party and popular in his home district, which is disproportionately Republican compared with the rest of Iowa.

‘Bird Dog’

Last year, he said the U.S. should select eligible immigrants using the same criteria for choosing a “good bird dog,” which he said means the one that’s the “friskiest, the one that’s engaged the most, and not the one that’s over there sleeping in the corner.”

Also last year, he compared maintenance workers installing energy efficient light bulbs on Capitol Hill in Washington to “Stasi troops,” a reference to oppressive East German police.

“He used the microphone to build a national brand, but the tape recorder will kill his statewide ambition,” columnist Douglas Burns wrote Feb. 28 in the Daily Times Herald, a newspaper in Carroll, Iowa.

Through a spokeswoman, King declined an interview request.

Iowa Economy

King’s prior statements could grab attention during a Senate campaign in part because the economy is doing better in Iowa than much of the rest of the U.S. and might not dominate the debate.

Buoyed by rising farm commodity and land prices, Iowa had an unemployment rate in December of 4.9 percent, below the national rate of 7.9 percent in January. The state’s relatively robust economy can be traced in part to corn and soybean prices at levels above historical averages. Iowa is the biggest U.S. producer of the two commodities.

Climbing agriculture prices helped push farmland values in Iowa up 24 percent in 2012, an Iowa State University survey showed in December. It was the third consecutive year where values increased more than 15 percent, the report showed.

Gross said he doubts King will run, although he suspects the congressman will give that impression for as long as possible because it boosts his profile.

King’s Risk

Mahaffey said King, first elected in 2002, risks a safe House seat if he runs for Senate. “If he loses, he doesn’t have his bully pulpit anymore,” he said.

The challenges King would face in a statewide race have caught the attention of Republican strategist Karl Rove. His Conservative Victory Project, a super-political action committee with the goal of helping promote the most electable Republicans in next year’s primaries, has expressed interest in the race and questioned King’s chances.

Losses by Tea Party-supported Senate candidates, who made comments about rape and pregnancy that drew protests, cost Republicans seats in Missouri and Indiana that appeared to be virtual locks a year before the 2012 elections. When combined with similar defeats in 2010, many Republicans believe weak or controversial candidates cost them Senate control.

Rove’s foray into primary politics drew outcries from Tea Party activists and a cool reception from others in Iowa, including Gross.

“Karl is trying to help the party win elections, but you don’t do that from top down,” Gross said. “This has to be a resurgence of pragmatic Republicans from the grassroots level.”

Other Candidates

Republican donor Gary Kirke, an Iowa businessman with interests in gaming, manufacturing, retail and entertainment, said it would be best if Rove didn’t “mess with primaries.” Kirke also said he expects other Republicans to come forward as Senate candidates.

Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds is considering a bid, as are state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and syndicated radio host Steve Deace.

“We’ll all keep talking,” said Northey, who wants to see the party avoid a primary fight. “We don’t need to take several of our folks and run them in a primary.”

Reynolds said she expects to make her decision in the next three to four months, and called Northey and King “really good friends.” She said she wouldn’t enter a primary race if King has already announced his intentions to run.

“I believe he could be successful,” she said.

Another potential Republican contender, U.S. Representative Tom Latham, said last week he doesn’t plan to run.

Coalesced Democrats

On the Democratic side, Representative Bruce Braley, elected to the House in 2006, plans to run and his party has coalesced around his candidacy, with no serious primary challengers now on the horizon. The website featuring King’s prior remarks is raising money for Braley’s campaign.

Braley, 55, can expect a tough campaign if Republicans select a competitive candidate. Branstad won the governorship in 2010 by defeating the Democratic incumbent, Chet Culver, by almost 10 percentage points.

Although the state’s primary isn’t until June 2014, Republicans say they need to unite behind their candidate as soon as possible.

“The sooner the campaign can get organized and start raising money, it’s always beneficial,” said Matt Strawn, a former state party chairman.

Branstad, the state’s top ranking Republican, has already tried to help shape the race, nudging his lieutenant governor to enter the contest.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.