Many Republicans are thinking about running for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat next year, but the field is frozen until Representatives Tom Latham (IA-03) and Steve King (IA-04) make their intentions clear. King has indicated that he needs to battle “elites” like Karl Rove before he can analyze a possible Senate bid. That suggests Latham will be the first to decide whether to seek the Republican nomination.
On the February 15 edition of the On Iowa Politics podcast, James Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette commented that while he has predicted Latham will not run for U.S. Senate, he would now be “less surprised” to hear that the ten-term House incumbent is running after all.
I’ve heard from some people who were in Iowa working on the Mitt Romney campaign that they may be heading back to Iowa, and they’re not coming back to work for Steve King. So that certainly suggests to me that Tom Latham is at least considering a Senate bid.
I wonder whether former Romney staffers might be coming back to work on Governor Terry Branstad’s re-election instead. But Lynch is well-informed, so I’m inclined to believe his hunch. The Republican establishment wants Latham to be the Senate candidate; he’s the only Iowan in Congress to draw more votes than his party’s presidential nominee in every county in his district. It makes sense to dispatch veterans of the last presidential campaign to help lay the ground for Latham. If he weren’t considering the Senate race, he probably would not have rushed to change the name of his campaign committee to “Iowans for Latham.”
Tom Beaumont of the Associated Press reported on Friday that Branstad “has used private breakfasts with King and his House colleague Tom Latham to discuss who would be the strongest contender for [Tom Harkin’s] seat.” We already know Branstad’s views on the matter. In November, the National Journal quoted the governor as saying that Latham would be “a very formidable candidate,” but “I just don’t think [King] can do it in Eastern Iowa.” (See here.)
Several polls of Iowa Republicans have suggested that Latham would lose to King in a GOP primary. At face value, those polls are meaningless, because King would never run against Latham. However, they do suggest that Latham might be vulnerable to a candidate who inspires the right wing. As a 20-year incumbent, Latham would be the instant front-runner. Then again, Bill Salier–perhaps the wingnuttiest of all Iowa Republicans–was almost completely unknown before he drew nearly 41 percent in the 2002 IA-Sen primary against Representative Greg Ganske. Harkin won the general election by double digits, and on the Iowa Republican right, many believe (wrongly) that Ganske lost because he was not conservative enough.
Since then, quite a few long-shot Senate candidates have become Republican nominees against all odds. Latham hasn’t yet been targeted by RINO-hunters. He hasn’t cast many votes that would inflame the right. In fact, I’m struggling to think of a high-profile vote in the last five years that put Latham on the “wrong” side from the true believers. He voted against the 2008 Wall Street bailout bills, against the 2011 Budget Control Act that raised the debt ceiling, and against the recent deal to extend most of the Bush tax cuts while raising taxes slightly on the top earners.
Going back further in time, Latham voted for the Medicare Part D prescription drug benefit, for the No Child Left Behind education bill, and for various GOP budgets that included Planned Parenthood funding for contraception and Medicaid funding for abortion in limited circumstances. Perhaps Republicans would give him a pass on those long-ago transgressions. Conservative big mouth Steve Deace wrote shortly after Harkin announced his plans to retire,
Don’t underestimate Congressman Tom Latham. […] Branstad may be the only governor in America in either party who has absolutely no control of his own state party whatsoever. Any candidate seen as “his guy” is going to have a very hard time winning a primary. But Latham is a guy with an establishment temperament but also a fairly conservative voting record (I’m a conservative complainer, and I can’t remember the last time I complained about him). He may be one guy that could easily coalesce the party for a united front next fall, and he just defeated former Democrat Congressman Leonard Boswell in a new district in what was otherwise a bad year for Iowa Republicans.
Latham would go into a primary with a lot of advantages, and his “buddy” House Speaker John Boehner will give him permission to vote against bills that might cause a problem in a Republican primary.
Still, my gut tells me that Latham will stay put in IA-03. I’m not as confident about that prediction as I am about King staying in IA-04, but I see it like this: Latham has a safe Congressional seat, chairs a House Appropriations subcommittee, and is likely to be in the majority caucus for the next decade, thanks to Republican gerrymandering. He doesn’t have to work very hard. Travel around his Congressional district never takes him far from home and grandchildren in central Iowa.
Latham seems uncomfortable with risk. When I have seen him in public forums, he may bend over backwards to avoid taking a clear stand. Whereas King is eager to speak his mind about any issue, Latham is more likely to tell an audience that he wants to hear from all the stakeholders. He sends out fewer press releases and public comments than any other Iowan in Congress. To cite just one example, Latham alone in the Iowa delegation did not respond to media requests for his reaction to bipartisan immigration reform proposals last month.
Running for Senate would be a big risk for Latham. He might lose the Republican primary, caricatured as the stooge of the Karl Rove types. Or, he might lose the general election to Bruce Braley. If he defeated Braley, he’d be low on the totem pole in the Senate, possibly in the minority caucus. It would be a long time before he’d be in a position to chair a committee. He’d have to put in longer hours traveling to all 99 counties.
Latham could be a strong statewide candidate, but I doubt many Republicans believe he’s their only hope against Braley. Why not leave the Senate race to candidates with more fire in the belly?
Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.