IA-03: Monte Shaw's strengths and weaknesses as a candidate

State Senator Brad Zaun won a crowded primary in Iowa's third Congressional district in 2010, and he has led the only public polls in IA-03 this spring, but my best guess is that Iowa Renewable Fuels Association Executive Director Monte Shaw will end up becoming Staci Appel's competition in the general election campaign. I assume no candidate will win 35 percent of the vote in tomorrow's primary, forcing a special district convention to select the nominee. From where I'm sitting, Shaw's strengths as a candidate outweigh his potential weaknesses with Republican voters and delegates.

I see several big pluses for Shaw in this race.

1. He has strong connections with Republican activists. He's never run for public office before, but he has worked on some major Iowa campaigns and gotten to know many GOP activists as a party leader. Excerpt from his official bio:

Upon graduation from Simpson, Monte managed multiple campaigns, including those of Jim Ross Lightfoot for House and later Senate and Chuck Grassley for Senate.  He also served as the Iowa Campaign Manager for Elizabeth Dole for President and as Deputy National Spokesperson for Steve Forbes for President.

But it wasn't all about political advocacy.  In 1997, Senator Grassley asked Monte to work with him on the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging where he fought to protect seniors.  Monte also spent time in Washington as the national spokesperson for the Renewable Fuels Association where he advocated for rural economic development and energy independence for our nation. [...]

In 2005, Monte took on a new challenge to serve as the executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association during a time of tremendous transformation for Iowa's rural economy.  For the past 8 years, Monte has advocated for a better, more prosperous future for Iowa's families and rural communities.

During this time, Monte also returned to the grassroots. He served on the Guthrie County Republican Central Committee before being elected to three terms on the Republican Party of Iowa's State Central Committee.

Shaw's latest television ad highlights some of his most prominent endorsements, making the case that he can unite the party and get things done in Congress.

Greg Ganske represented many of the counties now in IA-03 in the U.S. House between 1995 and 2003. The Des Moines Register's seal of approval may not impress many GOP primary voters, but it does prove Shaw would be taken seriously and not caricatured in the media during a general election race. In contrast, the Register's editorial board has been harshly critical of Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz, one of Shaw's rivals for the IA-03 nomination. The Register's coverage of Zaun was generally not sympathetic during his 2010 Congressional bid.

The most striking proof of Shaw's appeal to both establishment and conservative Republicans is this: he has been endorsed by both Jon King, brother of Representative Steve King, and Chuck "Iowa Boy" Offenburger. Offenburger caused a mini-scandal in Republican circles during the 2012 election cycle, when he supported King's Democratic challenger Christie Vilsack and even recorded a radio ad for her campaign.

A number of interest groups in the agriculture and renewable fuels sector are backing Shaw's campaign. While not formally aligned with the Republican Party, those constituencies have clout in GOP circles.

2. Shaw has less baggage than most of his competitors in the GOP field.

Zaun may win a plurality of votes on June 3, but he was part of a leadership team that failed to win back the Iowa Senate majority. He has raised even less money this year than he did at a comparable point in his first Congressional race. Finally, he could be vulnerable to attacks over the domestic incident that happened more than a decade ago, but first made news in August 2010. Zaun whines that it's unfair for the media to keep bringing this up, but harassment that leads to the police being called will be a red flag for many women. Shaw's second television commercial subtly alludes to this problem, ending with a female announcer saying, "Monte Shaw: No dirty laundry."

Schultz's tenure as secretary of state opens up multiple avenues for attack in a general election campaign, from wasting money on his obsession with "voter fraud" to keeping political cronies on the payroll for months after they stopped doing work for the state.

Robert Cramer has strong ties in the business community, but his close connection to Bob Vander Plaats may be a red flag for some convention delegates. At the four GOP district convention in April, only two of the FAMiLY Leader's endorsed candidates won seats on the State Central Committee, and just one of them lives in IA-03.

David Young seems capable but has spent most of his career as a Congressional staffer. That background won't appeal to most Iowa GOP delegates.

I'm disregarding Joe "Mr. G" Grandanette, because he would not be a factor in any nominating convention.

I would guess delegates will need multiple ballots to settle on an IA-03 nominee. Shaw could easily find himself the last man standing.

3. Shaw has shown that he can raise enough money to run a strong campaign. Among the six IA-03 Republican candidates, he raised the most money during the first quarter of the year. (It helps to have good contacts among Washington lobbyists and Congressional staffers.)

Shaw may not spend the most before the primary, as Cramer is self-funding a large share of his campaign expenses, and Schultz has received substantial help from outside conservative groups. But no one will be able to claim he couldn't raise enough to run a credible district-wide race. Zaun won't be able to say the same.

4. Shaw has a coherent campaign message.

Not much daylight separates the IA-03 contenders on the issues. They're all for cutting the deficit by reining in government spending. They all want to repeal Obamacare. All are downplaying social issues in their campaigns.

Shaw's spin is that he stands alone as the candidate best suited to represent agriculture, a critically important part of Iowa's economy. His barn signs boast that he is "farm-raised" and "farmer approved." In his second television commercial, his wife Tina Shaw mentions that her husband "grew up on a farm with a great work ethic." His latest television spot, launched a week before the primary, includes a voice-over saying, "Farm leaders say Iowa's economy runs on agriculture, but only Monte Shaw has proven ag leadership."

I wasn't a fan of Shaw's first television commercial, a cutesy spot featuring his daughter asking for a bigger allowance, because her share of the national debt has grown so much. But his first four radio ads, which you can listen to here, are brilliant. They are recorded in the style of a newsmaker interview on AM radio. Instead of cheesy music that screams "political ad," they start with a classic radio voice: "We're back with Monte Shaw, Iowa ag leader and a candidate for Congress." He answers a "lightning round" series of issue questions, talks about his background in agriculture and other politically relevant jobs. I suspect that a lot of listeners who would ordinarily change the station to get away from advertising will have listened to these commercials.

Shaw's final radio spot, launched on May 29, departs from the interview format but still hits the ag theme hard. My transcript:

Male voice-over: It's on the line for rural Iowa Tuesday. Tuesday is primary election day, and out of over 20 Iowa candidates for Congress, only one--just one--is a proven ag leader. His name is Monte Shaw. Head of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association. One of us. He's led our fight to pull down market barriers and give renewable fuels a fair chance at the pump. It's boosted Iowa's economy.

But now we're under attack. Washington wants to cut the RFS. If that happens, we will feel it right here, on the farm and on main street. At this critical time for rural Iowa, we may be left without a voice for us in the U.S. House. Can Iowa afford that? Can you afford that?

It will happen if we don't take the time to vote for Monte Shaw on Tuesday. Polls are open from 7 am to 9 pm. Be there. Please.

Shaw's voice: I'm Monte Shaw, and I approved this message. Paid for by Iowans for Shaw.

Although most Republicans in IA-03 live in suburbs or cities rather than rural areas, many retain strong attachments to agriculture. I think Shaw has positioned himself well and made himself stand apart in a primary where everyone basically agrees with everyone else.

Now, Shaw is not a lock for the nomination by any means. I see three big potential weaknesses for his candidacy.

1. He probably won't win a plurality of votes on June 3. Shaw went into this race with lower name recognition than Zaun and Schultz. If anyone gets 35 percent of the primary votes or more, it's over for him. His only realistic chance is in a convention scenario.

2. Shaw may not even finish in the top two or three candidates tomorrow.

Convention delegates aren't bound to pick the person who won the most votes--they can select anyone to be the nominee. In 2012, a special convention in Iowa House district 37 handed the nomination to John Landon. He had finished third in the previous month's primary with barely half as many votes as the top candidate in that primary.

That said, Shaw would have to do reasonably well in the primary to stand a strong chance at a convention. If four or five candidates are clustered close together, his finishing position may not matter, but he can't afford to be a distant fourth or fifth in votes tomorrow.

3. In persuasion campaigns with GOP delegates, Shaw's rivals may use the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association's political donations against him.

I noted above that Shaw has less baggage than most of the IA-03 Republican candidates. However, they've never led a trade association that donated to Democrats as well as Republicans. During the 2012 election cycle, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association PAC gave $1,000 to each of Iowa's five U.S. House members: Democrats Bruce Braley, Dave Loebsack, and Leonard Boswell, and Republicans Tom Latham and Steve King.

Even worse from a Republican point of view, in 2012 the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association PAC gave $5,000 to Iowa House Democrat Chris Hall, who had been thrown into the same district as Iowa House Republican Jeremy Taylor. Hall won that race, and Taylor is now a candidate for Woodbury County supervisor.

Also in 2012, the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association PAC gave $1,000 to Iowa House Republican Mark Lofgren's Democratic challenger. Lofgren was re-elected anyway and is now a Congressional candidate in IA-02.

Shaw is fortunate that Taylor's district (Sioux City) and Lofgren's (Muscatine) lie well outside the IA-03 counties, but that doesn't mean the two men won't have friends and allies among the IA-03 convention delegates. Many people in politics understand that trade associations frequently give to incumbents in both parties, but giving to Democrats running against Republican incumbents looks more like treachery to some ideologues.

Any comments about Shaw or the IA-03 race are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that I think Shaw and Young are a bit unlucky to have each other in the race. My hunch is that they are competing for many of the same voters, drawn to a candidate who knows how the system works in Washington.

  • Monte Shaw

    Republicans who claim to care about rural areas should not fool themselves.  If the free market was the sole tool used in the site selection process for renewable energy projects then poverty, inequality and other issues would be even worse in our rural communities.  The CEOs and boards would select the communities with a large workforce pool every time if incentive programs were not laid out.

    So if Republicans truly care about rural America then they would not hold Shaw's work against him.  They can't win in the population centers here if they keep backing fringe people that don't support growth in all areas.  I understand why a Democrat might be hostile to rural America (particularly if you love mass transit funding), but if Republicans spit on rural areas, who's going to vote for them?

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