DES MOINES, Iowa — The pending retirement of longtime Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, has given the Iowa GOP its first real shot in three decades at picking up an open Senate seat — and Republicans are hoping to ride the growing unrest over Obamacare to victory next year over Rep. Bruce L. Braley, the leading Democratic contender.
The contest in this swing state could speak volumes about how Obamacare will play in congressional races across the nation in 2014, when Republicans hope to capture the six seats they need to win back the Senate.
“Republicans are going to try to make Obamacare an issue in every race, and of course they will try to target Bruce Braley with such attacks, given that he voted for the bill in 2010,” said Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “More interesting in Iowa is whether Republicans will nominate a good candidate there and the national party will spend what it takes to win. There are big questions about both points. While it’s easy to assume Obamacare and the president will be big liabilities next year, it’s just too soon to know whether that will actually be the way it shakes out.”
What is clear is that Mr. Braley is now trying to distance himself from Obamacare — the same law that he voted for and said “will do for America what we should have done 100 years ago: provide health care for all Americans as a matter of right, not as a matter of privilege.”
Mr. Braley dialed back that support this month. He was one of 39 Democrats who defied the White House by voting for a House bill that would allow insurance companies to keep offering policies that otherwise would be canceled because they don’t meet Obamacare standards.
“President Obama promised that Americans could keep their health insurance if they liked it, and Iowans think that promise should be honored. That’s why I supported [the] bill,” Mr. Braley said in a statement.
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican, said Mr. Braley’s vote for Obamacare, as well as his support for the “cap-and-trade” program to control greenhouse-gas emissions and his opposition to free-trade agreements will prove liabilities in next year’s race.
“I think the Democrats have made huge mistake,” he said.
Mr. Branstad also may have caused some future headaches for Mr. Braley by extending a farm bureau insurance program through 2014 — a move that will delay potential cancellation notices for 70,000 residents until just before the election.
“I think what’s going to happen is that Braley is going to be caught again with five weeks to go to the election, trying to explain why people are going to be so hurting when it comes to insurance and their insurance in the state,” Sam Clovis, a GOP Senate candidate and former radio host, told The Washington Times.
When Mr. Harkin announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election next year to a sixth term, Iowa suddenly became one of the marquee races of the 2014 election. First elected to the Senate in 1985, Mr. Harkin has served in the Senate longer than any other Democrat in Iowa history.
The slate of potential GOP candidates grew to six last week when Mark Jacobs, the onetime CEO of Reliant Energy Co., entered the race. He joins Mr. Clovis, state Sen. Joni Ernst, lawyer Paul Lunde, former car salesman Scott Schaben, former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker and David Young, a former aide to GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley.
Robert L. Vander Plaats, the head of the Christian conservative family leader, is considering a bid.
Mr. Braley, meanwhile, has a clear path to his party’s nomination, giving him the advantage of focusing all of his attention on raising money and laying the groundwork for the general election.
“He will no doubt be formidable,” said Brian Kennedy, a former state GOP chairman. “He will be fully funded. He doesn’t have to go through a contested primary. The challenge for the Republican Party will be, No. 1, can we unify after the primary and, No. 2, can we really pin Obamacare and the rest of the Obama, Pelosi agenda on Bruce Braley.”
But getting Republicans on the same page could be easier said than done, given the infighting between veteran Republicans and the leaders of the state GOP, who have struggled to match the fundraising of previous party leaders.
A.J. Spiker, the state GOP chairman, shrugs off the criticism and says Republicans will be fine.
“I don’t have much faith in government anyway, but I am still surprised at the level of disaster that [Obamacare] is,” Mr. Spiker said. “With 5 million people losing their health insurance, I think Obamacare come next year will still be a major issue. I think it does help us against Bruce Braley. Bruce Braley was one of the last people pushing and speaking for it in the House before its passage. So he owns it.”
The party also will benefit from having Mr. Branstad atop the 2014 ticket. Mr. Branstad is expected to run for re-election, and has deep reservoir of support within various segments of the party.
“So even if a very ‘full-spectrum’ conservative … comes out of the primary, I think the balance will be really good for the party,” Mr. Vander Plaats said.