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May 16, 2014 3:45 PM Rigging the Game From Both Ends

By Ed Kilgore

Regular readers know that Iowa politics—especially Iowa Republican politics—fascinates me because of the complexity of its rules and the rich diversity of the state’s ideological factions. This comes in handy when the Caucuses approach. It initially looked like the Republican Senate nomination contest in the Hawkeye State could be a barnburner: once congressmen Tom Latham and Steve King (ah, what a Senate race King versus Braley could have been!) decided against a run, you had a big largely unknown field with the strong possibility of no one scaling the 35% threshold required to keep the contest being thrown into the laps of state GOP convention delegates in June. Then the fun would have really begun!

Now it’s all looking like a bit of an anticlimax. Several potential Senate candidates moved over to the contest for the retiring Latham’s seat. Former energy exec Mark Jacobs, one of several Mitt Romney clones coming out of the woodwork to run self-funded “I’m a businessman outsider!” campaigns, took the early lead with a ton of unopposed ad spending. State legislator Joni Ernst, already the not-so-secret favorite of Gov. Terry Branstad’s administration, positioned herself well with a lot of celebrity GOP endorsements—Mitt himself, then Sarah Palin, and then Marco Rubio—and more recently pulled off the nice trick of being endorsed by both the Senate Conservatives Fund and the U.S. Chamber, two groups normally hissing at each other in contested primaries. And then she struck gold with her perfectly-timed “Squeal” ad boasting of her hog-castrating prowess that nicely played off both the usual stuff about federal “pork” and Bruce Braley’s embarrassing video that allegedly insulted Iowa farmers.

So Ernst had herself a surge, mostly fed by “earned media,” and the last two polls from Iowa show her passing Jacobs and rising into the 30s, very close to the victorey threshold.

But meanwhile, a third candidate, “constitutional conservative” Sam Clovis, who had been bumping along in third place for months, winning nearly every candidate debate, but not having two nickels to rub together, got a boost from dual endorsements by 2012 Caucus winner Rick Santorum and legendary social conservative “kingmaker” Bob Vander Plaats (Clovis and BVP were both heavily involved in Santo’s campaign). The normal scenario you might imagine is Clovis catching grassroots fire, Ernst stalling, Jacobs hanging in there with his wallet, and then the conservative evangelicals and Tea Partiers of Iowa snake-dancing to the convention to lift Clovis across the finish line, right?

Maybe in some other year. But this year it so happens Terry Branstad’s political network has been industriously wiring the state convention as part of its effort to rid the party of the Paulite leadership that took charge in 2012 in a post-Caucus coup. So the odds are high that Ernst would win in a convention, too.

There’s still time left before the June 3 primary for weird things to happen. But at the moment, it looks like Joni Ernst has got the game rigged from both ends. She’ll be a slight underdog to Braley at best. But for intra-Republican hijinks, we may have to await the presidential cycle to see the accustomed craziness from Iowa.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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