IA-03: Will Brad Zaun's stealth campaign pay off?

During the 2010 Republican race to represent Iowa’s third district, State Senator Brad Zaun was running radio and television commercials nearly a month before primary day. At that time, he faced six rivals, but only one, Jim Gibbons, had superior fundraising, more television advertising, and substantial support from the Republican establishment. Zaun won the primary easily, despite getting out-spent by Gibbons, thanks to a crushing performance in Polk County.

Zaun is now one of six Republicans seeking the IA-03 nomination. Four of his rivals have been running tv ads for weeks. To my knowledge, Zaun has not run any paid advertising this year, and the primary is only a few days away. CORRECTION: In the comments, Bleeding Heartland user rockm saw a Zaun ad on tv. I haven’t seen it, nor have I seen it announced on Zaun’s Twitter feed or Facebook page, but I will add to this post when I have the video.

I see the IA-03 nomination being decided at a district convention, but some locals think Zaun has a realistic chance to win the primary outright with at least 35 percent of the vote. Craig Robinson even calls Zaun the “heavy favorite” in the GOP primary. I examine that argument after the jump.  

Zaun has repeatedly told journalists this year that he is better-prepared for this Congressional campaign than he was in 2010. He released a slick video in February, suggesting that he was ready to run a professional operation.

Having been a GOP Congressional nominee should have given Zaun a huge network of potential donors for this race. He should be way ahead of his 2010 numbers. Yet remarkably, he has raised less money. By the end of the first quarter of 2010, Zaun had raised a little more than $80,000 for his Congressional bid. By mid-May of that year, he had raised more than $120,000. As of March 31, he had raised only $58,246 for his current campaign–less than what four of his five rivals managed during the first quarter of this year. As of mid-May, Zaun had raised only $88,212 for his current campaign.

Republican donors voted with their feet already. They are looking for better options.

Few policy differences separate the IA-03 contenders. Zaun promises to tackle the national debt and not to raise taxes, but so does everyone else. Watching the candidates debate on Wednesday night on KCCI TV, Zaun didn’t do much to separate himself from the proud. Probably his most memorable line was saying that if you want to send someone to Congress to bring home the most pork for the district, he’s not your candidate.

Zaun’s biggest asset then and now is his relatively high name identification in Polk County, where about half of the registered Republicans in IA-03 live.

Robinson notes that as in 2010, none of the other Republican candidates have gone negative against Zaun. That’s understandable, because it would be risky to be seen as the first to attack in a six-man field. Moreover, the other candidates had much lower profiles going into the race, so their top priority needed to be raising their own name ID, not attacking Zaun. Robinson concludes,

Zaun entered the 2014 race with far less fanfare than he did in 2010, but his main advantage in the race remains intact.  Even though Zaun’s opponents have spent impressive amounts of money in the race, they have refused to challenge his strength in Polk County. Instead of forcing Zaun to run a different type of campaign than he did in 2010, the 2014 race has unfolded perfectly for Zaun.

With a week to go, the only question that remains is whether or not Zaun can garner 35 percent of the vote and avoid a special nominating convention.

True, Republican voters have not heard any explicit case against Zaun going into the primary. I’m not sure they need to hear a case, though. If this guy couldn’t beat Leonard Boswell in the biggest Republican landslide year, why should he get another chance?

Zaun’s spin on that loss is absurd. Speaking to WHO TV’s Dave Price recently, he referred to the “incumbency protection plan” and the fact that the current IA-03 is (in his view) a “Republican-leaning district.” In contrast, according to Zaun, “Last time, I really didn’t have a chance, because it was more of a Democratic-leaning district.”

False. The partisan voting index of IA-03 in 2010 was D+1. Meaning, in the previous two presidential elections, IA-03 voted about 1 point more Democratic than the nationwide vote. That’s barely a Democratic lean, and hardly different from the current district’s even PVI. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee put Boswell in its program for vulnerable incumbents in early 2009. Many incumbents lost more Democratic districts than IA-03 in the 2010 landslide. For Zaun to say he “didn’t have a chance” is ridiculous.

Robinson is skeptical about Loras College polls, which have no track record before this year and have shown a very high percentage of undecided voters in IA-03. He points out that if you double the support of each candidate in the Loras surveys, Zaun would be knocking on the door of 35 percent next Tuesday.

I question that assumption. If one candidate starts a race much better-known than the others, I doubt undecided voters are equally likely to gravitate toward that candidate in the final days. Most active Republicans living in IA-03 have heard of Zaun. If they liked him as a candidate, they’d be supporting him. The failure of many donors to get behind Zaun suggests to me that many Republicans view him as damaged goods.

Zaun won a little more than 42 percent of the primary vote in 2010, but only three of the seven candidates were running strong district-wide efforts that year. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him win a plurality of the vote next Tuesday, but I expect him to be short of the 35 percent threshold.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland? Is Zaun a lock to finish first in the IA-03 primary? Does he have a chance to win the nomination outright?

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