(Note: This article will be updated for polling and campaign developments, including campaign fundraising breaking news.)
The Iowa Senate race was the fifth article in what will be a succession of articles containing expanded analysis relating to the PPD 2014 Senate Map. The state was chosen for purposes of relevance and timing, as it represents the clear rightward shift we now see on our 2014 Senate Map Predictions, which is more favorable to the Republican Party than the national political landscape.
Democrats settled on Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley as the party’s nominee for the Iowa Senate race, but the Republican field is crowded with candidates sensing an opportunity to replace retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.
Ex-U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, a hometown name who played football at the University of Iowa, was among the first to officially declare in the race. He started as the slight favorite to win the Republican primary, but that rating is becoming more obfuscated as time goes on.
Mark Jacobs has also officially announced he will run for the chance to take on presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley. The long list includes state Senator Joni Ernst of Red Oak, former U.S. Senate staffer to Iowa Republican Senator Chuck Grassley, David Young, college professor and conservative radio commentator Sam Clovis, attorney and author Paul Lunde and salesman Scott Schaben, both of Ames, all of which have already spent months on the campaign trail.
With the GOP field full of second-tier candidates bracing for a possibly competitive primary, conventional wisdom would hold that the unopposed Braley has an edge, which was reflected in the prior “Leans Democrat” rating on our 2014 Senate Map Predictions. However, national and state conditions as well as campaign developments, i.e. Braley caught on video belittling Iowa farmers, has made this race far more competitive than other pundits have given it credit for.
Despite the crowded, uncertain field on the Republican side, the Iowa Senate race will still likely be decided on the issues and fundamentals. Early polling conducted by Quinnipiac University and Harper Polling both found a well-known Rep. Braley slightly to moderately leading his still-unknown Republican challengers. But both also underscore the daunting challenge for Braley: Iowa voters simply want to vote Republican in 2014.
Not only is the very popular incumbent Gov. Terry Branstad spanking his Democratic rival Hatch in the Iowa governor race, but Republican Senator Chuck Grassley has a significantly higher approval rating than his Democratic counterpart, whose retirement put this seat in play. Quinnipiac found Iowa voters by a margin of 46 – 41 percent say that they want the Republican Party to control the U.S. Senate, while Harper Polling found Iowa voters by a margin of 42 – 38 percent want a Republican senator.
By a 2 to 1 margin, Iowa voters say they want a senator who opposes ObamaCare and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and a plurality want someone opposed to stricter gun control laws. Harper Polling, as well, found by a margin of 52 – 39 percent, Iowa voters say they want a senator who opposes ObamaCare.
As it stands on the issues now, Iowa voters are firmly on the side of the Republican Party. The reasons Braley is still leading his likely Republican challengers are many, and I examined them in a recent article. Still, the race, as expected, has begun to tighten in recent surveys.
Presidential job approval is still the most influential variable in midterm elections, and Obama has a negative 38 – 59 percent job approval rating among Iowa voters, according to the Quinnipiac University poll, which is the lowest in the state yet measured by Quinnipiac. In fact, Iowa measures at one of the highest Obama disapproval states nationwide. Obama’s approval was 34 percent in the Harper Polling survey, as well.
“President Barack Obama twice carried Iowa and it was the Iowa Caucuses which began his march to the presidency, but if he were on the ballot here today he would be toast,” said Peter A. Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute. Since Obama isn’t on the ballot, leaving the voters with no choice but to take it out on Democratic candidates, his disapproval is “having an impact on the prospects for Iowa Democrats who do face the voters in 2014,” Brown added.
The Cook PVI (Partisan Voting Index) in Iowa was D+1 in 2010, when the GOP won 85 percent of races more Republican than D+2. In 2010, Republicans cleaned house nationwide, making significant gains in the state of Iowa. With Gov. Terry Brandstad also on the ballot in 2014, a potential coattail effect could potentially pose further challenges to a candidate whose party is in complete opposition to the voters.
While PPD is aware that other pundits have this race rated far more favorable to Braley, for all the reasons above, I must respectfully disagree.
(Note: An updated analysis of more recent polling can be view by clicking here, or return to our 2014 Senate Map Predictions.)