WASHINGTON — Thanks to an ever-growing field of candidates, Iowa Republicans are wondering whether they might have to select their 2014 U.S. Senate nominee at next summer's state convention — a potentially chaotic process.
Admittedly it's still early, and anything could happen, but there is reason for GOP concern, said political handicapper Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.
Using the rare route of picking a nominee at the convention could create obstacles for Republicans looking at a prime swing-state opportunity that will help determine who controls the Senate.
“This is all good for Democrats,” Duffy said.
The problem is that if no candidate receives at least 35 percent of the votes cast in the June 3 primary, it falls to the state convention delegates to pick the nominee. And they can pick whomever they like.
More candidates running means it's more likely no one clears that magic 35 percent threshold.
“The odds get greater each time a candidate enters,” said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa. “Looks like a lot of my friends are stepping up.”
King knows what he's talking about. He got the Republican nomination for his seat in 2002 at the state convention. It's the only time in recent memory an Iowan has found his way to Congress that way, but it could happen again next year.
King and other high-profile Iowa Republicans passed on running to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat. That has prompted a host of lesser-known candidates to enter the fray.
State Sen. Joni Ernst jumped into the race last week, joining northwest Iowa talk show host Sam Clovis, attorney Paul Lunde, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker and David Young, former aide to Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa. And others are reportedly getting in as well.
Each of the candidates has his or her own base of support and could claim a chunk of the electorate on primary day, Duffy said.
The danger is conventions tend to be dominated by the most passionate hard-line party activists. For the Iowa Republican Party, that means social conservatives and Tea Party enthusiasts.
The state's supporters of the libertarian politician and former Texas Congressman Ron Paul have also proven to be motivated and well-organized.
“It's a concern right now,” Duffy said. “Party conventions … really increase the risk of nominating a candidate who does not appeal to general election voters.”
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, appears to be a lock as the Democrats' nominee and has been aggressively raising money since shortly after Harkin announced his plan to retire.
Duffy rates the race a toss-up for the moment, but she said she may shift it to favoring the Democrats in part because of the potential for the nomination going to the convention.
Duffy pointed out it's not all bad news for Republicans. When a party has a field of lesser-known candidates, a competitive primary provides an opportunity to build support and name recognition.
Still, a convention complicates things.
Iowa Republican Party Chairman A.J. Spiker said the convention is now scheduled later in June, after the primary. However, if none of the candidates reaches the 35 percent threshold, the convention likely would be pushed back to July to allow for the required post-election canvas. He acknowledged that could be a challenge for Republicans, but expressed confidence that the Republican candidate will do well against Braley.
He also downplayed the chances that the nomination will go to a convention at all. He said many observers thought the crowded field for the 2010 governor's race might throw that nomination to the state convention, but it didn't happen.
“It's something we'll keep an eye on,” he said. “I think at the end of the day, though, it's going to be similar to what happened in 2010, and we'll have the field winnowed down.”
Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University, also said there's plenty of time for the field to thin before the primary. Some of the candidates could struggle to raise money or support and bow out.
“Someone can self-immolate on the trail,” Goldford said.
In the meantime, King pointed to his own example of how a candidate nominated at the convention can still be successful in a general election. And he has no preference whom that candidate will be from this group.
“I'm going to do my best to help all of them be able to plan a good campaign and compete with each other, because I think the competition is a good method for the best candidate to emerge,” he said.