WAUKEE, Iowa (AP) — Concerned murmurs are rippling through Iowa's Republican circles, worried that the ways U.S. Senate primary candidates are appealing to the base now could haunt the party come November, despite chipper talk that the five-way race is a healthy way to ignite the GOP.
Some Republicans say state Sen. Joni Ernst's recent campaign ad featuring her firing a handgun will not sit well with some swing voters when Democrats resurrect it. Likewise, others say former Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs' past public statements supporting climate-change legislation make him indistinguishable from likely Democratic nominee Bruce Braley.
In what is their best chance to win the Senate seat in 30 years, Republicans have accepted the risks of focusing on GOP-favored issues in the June 3 primary after failing to convince the state's better-known Republicans to run once Sen. Tom Harkin, a six-term Democrat, announced he wouldn't seek re-election.
So, it's become a delicate balance for candidates: Convince the party faithful they have the conservative chops to distinguish themselves from the Senate's longtime liberal lion, then turn around and face one of the nation's most politically balanced statewide electorates in a general election that could determine which party controls the powerful chamber.
"Braley has had the luxury of messaging directly to general election voters, where our candidates are messaging to a narrow segment," former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Matt Strawn said. Each candidate's position is being closely noted by Braley's campaign, and top advisers said those will be used against the eventual Republican nominee.
In an appeal to GOP-leaning gun owners and noting her backing by the National Rifle Association. Ernst is airing an ad where she fires six shots from a handgun on a shooting range. "Give me a shot," she says at the end.
Ernst mentioned her self-described "exciting ads" to a round of applause at a meeting of supporters Wednesday in Waukee. But some Republicans say it could turn off swing-voting women, a group Republicans in Iowa and other closely contested states have lost in recent presidential elections.
Fewer than 20 percent of Iowa adults, across party lines, supported relaxed gun restrictions, according to The Des Moines Register's Iowa Poll in February 2013. "The gun ad is a problem for her, if she wins, in the fall with suburban women," said Des Moines Republican fundraiser Doug Gross, who supports Jacobs.
Ernst dismissed Gross' suggestion, saying that during her time in the state Senate, she has found Democrats who are equally adamant about gun rights. "Our Second Amendment rights transcend" partisan politics, Ernst told the AP in Waukee.
But in the past week, Jacobs has aired an ad reprising Ernst's images, while criticizing her for missing votes in the state Senate. It's been 18 months since Harkin's announcement shook up Iowa's political climate. Behind the scenes, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad had unsuccessfully urged 10-term U.S. Rep. Tom Latham to run; a perennial target and winner. Then National Republican Senatorial Committee leaders courted but failed to land Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Their strengths likely would have prevented a contested primary— a strategy Braley managed by meeting with potential Democratic rivals early and announcing his only a month after Harkin's announcement.
To be sure, Braley has handed his general election opponent ammunition as well. Last month, anti-Braley PAC released a video of the congressman in January telling fellow lawyers in Texas that electing him would put "someone with your background, your experience, your voice ... on the Senate Judiciary Committee," and not "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law."
Braley was a private-practice lawyer before entering Congress in 2007. U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, is not a lawyer in line to become chairman if the GOP gains the six seats required to take control of the Senate.
Whether Iowa can assist in that goal remains to be seen. In the meantime, the five candidates have only a week to stake their claim to the Republican nomination. "Sure, there can be a down side to having a primary," Iowa GOP strategist Sara Craig said. "But the good outweighs the bad in that we're going to have a very fired up Republican base in June."
That is a disingenuous fallback position for a party that fails to avoid a primary, top Braley consultant Jeff Link said. "Anyone who says different is in a primary," Link said.