Humiliation for the NRCC in Iowa

Washington Republicans have been talking up their chances of retaking the House of Representatives for months, and the National Republican Congressional Committee claims many recruiting successes in competitive House districts. However, before this week Republican primary voters had already rejected NRCC favorites in ID-01, KY-03, PA-04 and AL-05.

After last night we can add IA-02 and IA-03 to the list of districts where the NRCC sure doesn't know how to pick 'em.

In Iowa's third district, the NRCC tipped its hat to Jim Gibbons, naming him an "on the radar" candidate in February and bumping him up to "contender" status in April. Although Brad Zaun had won elections for mayor in Republican vote-rich Urbandale and Iowa Senate district 32, some Iowa GOP power-brokers tried to dissuade Zaun from running and got many big donors to come on board with Gibbons. The idea was that Gibbons, a former champion wrestler and wrestling coach for Iowa State University, had the name recognition, determination and drive to beat seven term incumbent Leonard Boswell. (Privately some Iowa politics-watchers suggested to me that major GOP donors may have seen Gibbons as more "malleable" if he got elected.)

We never did see a public poll in the IA-03 primary, but an internal poll released by Zaun's campaign in February showed that Gibbons' name recognition was not as high as Zaun's among Republicans in the district. For the first three months of this year, while Zaun was tied up with the Iowa legislature's 2010 session, Gibbons didn't capitalize on the opportunity to campaign aggressively around the district. He focused on fundraising, such as a highly-touted event featuring former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Gibbons' 4Q and 1Q Federal Election Commission filings showed him miles ahead of Zaun; being part of the NRCC's "young guns" program must have helped him with out-of-state donors and PACs.

Gibbons went up on tv about a month before the primary. His commercials (view here and here) were more polished than Zaun's, and his ad buys were much larger.

But when the votes were counted last night, Zaun won 42 percent of the vote in the seven-way primary, while Gibbons managed just 28 percent. Tea Party favorite Dave Funk didn't raise enough money for a significant paid media campaign, but he finished not far behind Gibbons with 22 percent. Gibbons did carry several of the smaller counties in IA-03, but Zaun dominated Polk County, containing Des Moines and most of its suburbs. Zaun's ground game defeated Gibbons' superior "air power."

In the second district, the NRCC put political newcomer Rob Gettemy "on the radar" in April, about six weeks after he declared his candidacy. Gettemy had the backing of various prominent Cedar Rapids area Republicans. Republican National Committeeman Steve Scheffler, who heads the Iowa Christian Alliance, is also said to be close to Gettemy, though Scheffler made no formal endorsement in Iowa's Republican primaries.

Gettemy got in the race late and faced three Republican rivals with substantial campaign experience. Mariannette Miller-Meeks won a tough three-way primary in 2008 to become the IA-02 nominee against Representative Dave Loebsack. Christopher Reed won the U.S. Senate 2008 primary to face Tom Harkin, and Steve Rathje was also a candidate in that Senate primary.

Gettemy had the most cash on hand going into the final two months of the IA-02 race, largely because of a $100,000 loan from the candidate. He went up on tv in early May, as did Rathje. The Gettemy commercials weren't bad (view them and transcrips here), but they presented a fairly generic Republican message. Miller-Meeks decided not to run any television commercials during the primary campaign, focusing on direct mail and face-to-face contact with voters.

Gettemy's internal polling must have shown him trailing Miller-Meeks, because his campaign paid for push-polls criticizing her. Over the final weekend of the campaign Gettemy attacked Miller-Meeks for accepting a donation from the American Medical Association PAC. He claimed that donation cast doubt on her opposition to health care reform, even though the opthalmologist Miller-Meeks has criticized "ObamaCare" since last summer and made her stance clear during the campaign.

When the votes were counted, Miller-Meeks won the four-way primary in dominating fashion with 51 percent of the vote. She led in all of IA-02's 11 counties. Gettemy finished dead last with 13 percent of the vote. Even in his home county (Linn), he came in third. Gettemy won fewer votes across the district than Reed, who raised very little money and is best known for for calling Senator Harkin "the Tokyo Rose of Al-Qaeda and Middle East terrorism" during the 2008 campaign. All of Gettemy's tv ads and connections to Cedar Rapids movers and shakers delivered fewer votes than Reed managed with his band of way-out-there wingnut endorsers.

The results in IA-02 and IA-03 raise more questions about the NRCC's ability to identify candidates with strong potential. The "young gun," "contender" and "on the radar" lists are important signals to NRCC donors about where their money could be most helpful. People who wrote checks to Gibbons or Gettemy without knowing anything about the local landscape may be upset to have wasted money on candidates who lost their primaries so decisively. Many Iowa observers expected the IA-02 or IA-03 nominations to be settled at district conventions, but Gibbons and Gettemy couldn't even hold their main rivals below the 35 percent threshold.

Iowa Republicans who recruited Gibbons and Gettemy and talked them up to GOP leaders in Washington also may have lost some credibility with party bigwigs in Washington.

The NRCC won't spend serious money on IA-02, which has a partisan index of D+7. I don't expect them to make a big play for IA-03 (D+1) either, for reasons I discussed here. There are too many other promising Republican pickup opportunities around the country, and even a Zaun victory in November is unlikely to yield a long-term gain for House Republicans. Because Iowa will lose a Congressional district after the 2010 census, the IA-03 winner will probably be thrown into the same district as Tom Latham (R, IA-04) in 2012.

Tags: National Republican Congressional Committee, NRCC, Steve Rathje, Christopher Reed, Rob Gettemy, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, Dave Loebsack, IA-02, Dave Funk, Brad Zaun, Jim Gibbons, Leonard Boswell, IA-03, House, Congress, Iowa, 2010 elections (all tags)

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