IA-Sen: Tom Latham speculation thread

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.

  • Latham

    What you write makes a lot of sense. If he were ten years younger, I’d say he’d be going for it. But he’s got too good a gig right now at this point in his life.  He just beat the Boz, clearing the way for a nice easy coast into retirement..

    Let’s set aside King for the moment. Other candidates? I see Brad Zaun out there in the weeds, looking in. Not exactly a rocket scientist, but no one will work harder than Brad. Great campaigner. Dirty laundry has already been aired. Standup guy who hung with Bachmann when the chips were down. Plus he won’t have to give up his State Senate seat when he loses to Braley.

    And don’t discount this Peter Cownie rumor.  Young guy, pretty smart, attractive young family, good campaigner, good family name with money attached.  I know it is a stretch, but the GOP might coalesce around a young candidate who, if successful, could carry its water for many, many terms.

    Another name? Kraig Paulsen – reportedly looking at 01, but who knows?  If the dithering continues, he might take a look around and say “Know what? Why NOT me?”

    I’m sure there are names in other parts of the state I am not familiar with. Who are they?

    • Cownie might run

      but no way will the GOP coalesce around someone like him. If King and Latham don’t run, it will be a free for all with perhaps four or more candidates. I think Matt Whitaker will go for it, and he’s at better-connected than Peter Cownie.

      • Yeah Whitaker

        Forgot about him.  

        • Indeed

          Whitaker’s certainly got a good resume.  I think Latham may be the only candidate that can beat Braley barring some major misstep on a particular issue.  

          • tough to say

            We have no idea what the political atmosphere will be like next fall. If it’s toxic for Democrats all over the country, Braley could have a tough race regardless (unless he’s lucky enough to get an opponent in the Steve King mold).

      • I can't imagine a way

        to get Matt McCoy and his many supporters more fired up to work and fund the Senate race than for Whitaker to run.  

        • no kidding

          For those who aren’t aware, when Whitaker was U.S. attorney for the southern district of Iowa, he embarked on a ridiculous politically-motivated prosecution of State Senator Matt McCoy. It took the jury less than two hours to acquit McCoy.

  • Bob Vander Plaats?

    if King and Latham don’t run. He could, conceivably, win a GOP primary in spite of the efforts of the Republican establishment to keep him out. Having Vander Plaats for an opponent would be a huge gift to Braley, maybe even more than running against Steve King.

    • I think his ship sailed

      If we’d had an open seat in 2008 or 2010, I think he would have been well-positioned, but people are getting tired of his act. I would love to see him run and win the nomination, though. Agree with you, that would be an easy win for Braley even in a bad year for Democrats.

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