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The Republican Civil War Starts in Iowa

Can Karl Rove keep Steve King out of the Senate?

Win McNamee/Getty Images News

Did Karl Rove fire the first shot in a new Republican civil war? 

After the 2012 election, the GOP establishment has become increasingly worried about nominating Tea Party candidates too ideologically extreme to win a general election. Party elders are now trying carefully recruit candidates who they think have a chance of winning and prevent fiascos where weak and gaffe-prone candidates, like Todd Akin, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. But, when an outside group headed by Rove preemptively bashed a popular Iowa conservative, did the party establishment overstep its bounds and lay the groundwork for yet another intra-partisan bloodbath?

With the impending retirement of Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, Iowa is about to have its first open Senate seat since 1974. This creates a crucial pickup opportunity for Republicans desperate to take control of the Senate. The GOP fumbled away five winnable different races in the past two elections with flawed or gaffe-prone candidates and is wary of doing so again. But will the efforts of the Conservative Victory Project, a spinoff of Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, to bash Steve King, a controversial Iowa Republican congressman, boomerang on the party?

King is a doctrinaire conservative who has long been known for his colorful statements, from alleging in 2008 that Islamists would view Barack Obama’s election as a victory to more recently comparing illegal immigrants to dogs. With Allen West and Joe Walsh bounced from Congress last election, King may be the House of Representatives’ most outspoken Republican (along with Michele Bachmann). But he may also have bigger plans: King has long been rumored to be pondering a bid for statewide office. It has been unclear whether he’ll run for Harkin’s seat or defer to fellow incumbent congressman Tom Latham. However, the calculus may have changed when Steven Law, the President of American Crossroads, bashed King to The New York Times: “We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem. This is an example of candidate discipline and how it would play in a general election. All of the things he’s said are going to be hung around his neck.”

According to state party chair A.J. Spiker, this may end up helping King, not hurting him. “There could be blowback from Karl Rove meddling in a state that’s very politically astute,” said Spiker. He noted that if Rove’s superPAC starts running ads in a primary to “expect Iowans to really take a close look at who is paying for the message” before giving it any credence.

Prominent Republican activist Craig Robinson was less guarded in his assessment, saying “the last thing you want to do in politics is tell someone that they can’t do something.” “Conservative activists are rallying around King,” he says, “not because he’s the best guy,” but out of resentment that Karl Rove would launch a preemptive strike against a fellow Republican. He went on to grouse that Rove “buried more Republican candidates than any other consultant.”

King, while remaining noncommittal about a Senate run, is already capitalizing on the resentment, sending out a fundraising appeal claiming “Karl Rove and his army have launched a crusade against me.” Latham, for his part, has kept quiet, though has changed the name of his fundraising committee from Latham For Congress to Iowans For Latham. As one Democratic strategist pointed out, Latham’s political operations have always been “deliberate and professionally managed” and he’s unlikely to be reprinting all his campaign stationery for kicks. However, former Republican state party chair and 2002 gubernatorial nominee Doug Gross still places the odds of Latham running at “50/50.”  

The fundamental difference between King and Latham is style, not their voting records. Latham is viewed as more of workhorse on Capitol Hill. He’s chair of an Appropriations subcommittee and a close ally and friend of Speaker John Boehner. Latham has been on the Hill for almost twenty years and it’s unlikely that he’s given twenty good quotes in that time. In contrast, King, who was not available to comment for this article, is a quote machine and endlessly voluble. It’s clear, however, that these stylistic differences play a big role in how they’re perceived by the electorate. In the only public poll on the race to be released, King trails presumptive Democratic nominee, Congressman Bruce Braley by 11 points; Latham only trails by three. However, in a Republican primary between King and Latham, King has a two to one advantage over his fellow incumbent Republican, winning 50-27 with 23 percent of Republicans still undecided between the two.

But Latham may be able to call in a favor to keep King out of the race. Two years ago, Latham and King were redistricted together into the same district. Latham moved to run in a more competitive district with an incumbent Democrat. As former state Republican chair Mike Mahaffey described the personal relationship between the two men, “Tom Latham and Steve King get along fine personally and sometimes, in Congress, people don’t, Steve King was very appreciative of the fact that Latham was willing to move and take on an incumbent Democratic congressman and he will remember that if Latham wants to run for Senate.”

Also, for all of King’s outlandish quotes, he’s proven to be a disciplined campaigner in recent years. In 2012, he had the most competitive campaign of his political career against Christie Vilsack, the wife of former Iowa Governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. She was well funded and had a tracker following King at every campaign appearance in hopes of a “Macaca” or “legitimate rape” moment. One never happened. As former Democratic congressman Leonard Boswell noted, King has “proven his re-election capabilities.” The problem is he did so in the most conservative district in the state. Gross worries that King, whom he describes as a friend, would not be able to win statewide. He’s “just said a lot of [controversial] things.”

Braley, meanwhile, has already cleared the field for his party’s nomination. The three-term Congressman from northeast Iowa, who officially announced that he was running on Thursday, has already spent considerable time and effort wooing Democratic elected officials and activists. One Democratic state representative lauded Braley for “casting out a lot of lines in the proper way” including visiting the state capitol for one on one meetings with state legislators. He gushed over Braley’s outreach efforts overall to Democrats, which, while it won’t help much in the general, should keep him from a competitive, let alone a contentious primary.

Spiker doesn’t expect any major Republican candidate to jump into the race until the summer. After all, Election Day is more than 20 months away. But, by playing conservatives against each other and wounding King’s ego, Rove may have turned a process that might have been “Iowa nice” into a messy and divisive primary.