Plains Region Roundup

Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota Top GOP’s Senate Wish List

Posted March 16, 2012 at 2:54pm





Gov. Terry Branstad (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 6
2008 Presidential Vote: Obama 54%/McCain 45%


2nd district |
Incumbent: Dave Loebsack (D)

3rd term (51 percent) | Outlook: Likely Democratic

Redistricting weakened Loebsack’s district, as it picked up some of the GOP voters the 1st district shed in the redraw. He was forced to move into the district, but Loebsack kept his stronghold of Johnson County, which includes the college town of Iowa City.

Most recently, state Sen. Joe Seng (D) suggested he’d challenge Loebsack in the primary. Seng doesn’t have a good chance of winning, but he could force Loebsack to spend money and make him weaker for the general.

Several Republicans have announced bids for this seat already. The most prominent are John Deere senior counsel John Archer and real estate developer Dan Dolan.

But Loebsack still has the advantage in this district, even with new turf.

3rd district | Member vs. Member: Leonard Boswell (D) and Tom Latham (R)

8th term (51 percent); 9th term (66 percent) | Outlook: Leans Republican

Boswell might regret seeking re-election here. A race that once seemed like an even matchup now leans in Latham’s favor.

Most recently, Republicans took the voter registration advantage in the redrawn 3rd district, which includes Des Moines and the southwest quadrant of the Hawkeye State.

Secondly, Crossroads GPS has spent more on advertisements blasting Boswell than almost any other House candidate in the country. The deep-pocketed conservative organization had already aired $370,000 worth of negative spots against Boswell by mid-March.

Finally, the fundraising gap between these two Members is stark enough to make any candidate gasp. Boswell had $494,000 in the bank at the end of 2011, while Latham, an ally of Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), boasted almost $2 million in cash on hand.

The good news for Boswell is that he has a geographical advantage in this district. About half of his current district is part of the redrawn 3rd district, compared with just 20 percent of Latham’s current territory. But on the whole, Latham holds the upper hand in this race.

4th district | Incumbent: Steve King (R)

5th term (66 percent) | Outlook: Leans Republican

The former first lady of Iowa, Christie Vilsack (D), is planning on running a very local race, which bodes well for her in this mostly rural northwestern district. But her husband, Tom, a former governor and now the secretary of Agriculture, has a national profile that could put her on the defensive.

King also has an elevated national stature given his social conservatism and outspoken nature. King has not had a difficult race since coming to Congress, but he is taking Vilsack’s challenge seriously and has the advantage.

Both candidates are fundraising at an aggressive pace. Vilsack had $752,000 in the bank at the end of the year, while King had $529,000 in cash on hand at the same time.

Given that almost half of the new district includes portions of the Republican’s current district, territory that has traditionally voted for GOP candidates, the lay of the land works to his advantage. The new 4th is a difficult climb for any Democrat, so Vilsack will have to run a nearly flawless campaign to defeat King.


Gov. Sam Brownback (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 6
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 57%/Obama 42%


Redistricting should be an easy task in this state, which experienced only minimal population changes. But a logjam in the state Legislature has prevented much movement on a new map.

On the surface, the 1st district has a population deficit of more than 60,000 people, while the 3rd district has a surplus of about that same number. But these two districts don’t border each other, which means state legislators face some creative mapmaking.

Lawmakers have proposed several versions of a new Congressional map. One of them draws the 1st district north along the state’s northeast border like a hook grabbing the populous Kansas City northern suburbs.

But mapmaking is a sensitive proposition among the Congressional delegation. Two of the state’s four House seats have switched party hands once in the past three cycles. As a result, any changes could affect the competitiveness of seats held by GOP Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Kevin Yoder — and not to their benefit, either.

Kansas Republicans estimate the final map might not be passed until late May.


Gov. Jay Nixon (D)

2012 Electoral Votes: 10
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 49.4%/Obama 49.3%


Incumbent: Claire McCaskill (D)

1st term (50 percent) | Outlook: Tossup

McCaskill was never going to have an easy time winning re-election. She squeaked out a victory in the Democratic wave of 2006, and the state has grown more Republican over the past six years. But eight months before the election, the GOP still doesn’t have a knock-it-out-of-the-park candidate who can definitely unseat her. National Republicans believe any candidate could beat her given the unfriendly turf. But McCaskill, who has been disciplined and gaffe-free since the “Air Claire” public relations debacle in which she billed taxpayers for nonofficial travel on her private plane, has raised enough money to be very competitive.

The three Republicans vying for the nomination — businessman John Brunner, Rep. Todd Akin and former state Treasurer Sarah Steelman — have faltered. So much so that in recent weeks, state Auditor Tom Schweich was seriously considering jumping into the field, recruited by GOP heavyweights such as former Sen. John Danforth.

Steelman raised a paltry $84,000 from individual donations in the fourth quarter but boosted her fundraising figure with a $400,000 personal loan in the third quarter. Her campaign has struggled for more than a year, but she recently picked up the endorsements of Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) and Missouri Speaker Steven Tilley.

Akin had to apologize last year for saying the heart of liberalism “is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God,” a comment that reinforced Republican worries that his discipline as a candidate was wanting.

His fundraising has been wanting, too, with his campaign taking in only $232,000 in the fourth quarter. Yet Akin has a strong base of support near St. Louis and, in a four-way primary, he could manage to find enough votes to win.

Brunner, a partial self-funder, won’t be hurting for money. In fact, he contributed more than $1 million to his campaign in the fourth quarter. But his St. Louis-based family company, manufacturer Vi-Jon, began a round of layoffs in late October that undercut his job-creator image. And unaffiliated Republicans in the state see him as still working to get into a full campaign stride. How he performs over the next few months is worth watching.

All that leaves McCaskill in fighting shape, though still weak. McCaskill was an early and active supporter of President Barack Obama, who is deeply unpopular in the Show-Me State. It’s the one state he targeted in 2008 and lost, and Team Obama is unlikely to invest much time or money here again.

So McCaskill is on her own.


1st district | Member vs. Member: William Lacy Clay (D) and Russ Carnahan (D)

6th term (74 percent); 4th term (49 percent) | Outlook: Safe Democratic

National Democrats really, really, really didn’t want this race to happen. House leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.), did their best to persuade Carnahan to run in the 2nd district, but to no avail.

Carnahan filed to run in the urban
St. Louis-based district last month, setting up a potentially racially charged primary with Clay that pits two Missouri political dynasties — one white, one black — against each other. Redistricting essentially eliminated Carnahan’s district and drew him into the 1st. That means Clay starts with the advantage of having most of the residents in the newly configured district. But Carnahan is battle-tested, having squeaked out a re-
election victory in 2010.

Given the liberal nature of the primary electorate, watch for each candidate to emphasize his progressive bona fides. Both Members have pledged to keep the contest cordial, but longtime political observers expect it to be a hard-fought and potentially polarizing race.

“Everybody has seen this day coming,” said a St. Louis Democratic source familiar with the political contours of the city. “But the powder’s lit now.”

2nd district | Open seat: Todd Akin (R) is running for Senate.

Outlook: Safe Republican

Democrats don’t really have a chance here now that Rep. Russ Carnahan (D) has decided to run against his colleague in the heavily Democratic 1st district. His decision means former Republican National Committee Co-Chairwoman Ann Wagner is likely to be coming to Congress next January. Ed Martin, who barely lost to Carnahan in 2010, dropped out of this race to run for state attorney general. Wagner is an impressive candidate, and Missouri insiders tip her, a former ambassador to Luxembourg with deep roots in the state and within the national GOP, to win for several reasons. She has posted continually boffo fundraising numbers, raising $1.4 million in eight months, and has racked up a series of impressive endorsements.

“We all tease her and call her Member-elect,” one unaffiliated Missouri Republican said with a laugh.


Gov. Dave Heineman (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 5
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 57%/Obama 42%


Open seat: Ben Nelson (D) is retiring.

Outlook: Leans Republican

Just when the Democrats thought they were out, former Sen. Bob Kerrey pulled them back in.

This Senate election has worried Democrats from the beginning of the cycle, and their hopes to hold the seat have ebbed and flowed over the past few months. First, Nelson announced his retirement, and Democratic prospects for keeping the seat evaporated. Then it seemed as if Kerrey was in. And then out. And then back in.

Republicans will probably pick up this seat, but Kerrey will make them work and spend to keep it — which is just how the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wants it.

State Attorney General Jon Bruning is the undisputed frontrunner, but he has had some stumbles and gaffes along the way. His main GOP rival is state Treasurer Don Stenberg, who has the backing of Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), the Club for Growth and other conservatives. State Sen. Deb Fischer is also running but has had lackluster fundraising.


2nd district | Incumbent: Lee Terry (R)

7th term (61 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Terry, the most vulnerable of the state’s three incumbents last cycle, won re-election by 22 points, and this year is unlikely to be much different.

President Barack Obama narrowly carried this Omaha-based district in 2008 — and won a single electoral vote for it because Nebraska splits its electors. Terry took just 52 percent that year. But the district slightly improved for him in redistricting, and national Republicans are not concerned about him. Obama is less likely to compete here this time around.

Terry’s top Democratic opponent is Douglas County Treasurer John Ewing, who had $45,000 in the bank at the end of the year. Terry had nearly 10 times that amount.

North Dakota

Gov. Jack Dalrymple (R)

2012 Electoral Votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 53%/Obama 45%


Open seat: Kent Conrad (D) is retiring.

Outlook: Leans Republican

National Democrats believe that former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp will make this a competitive contest, but freshman Rep. Rick Berg (R) remains favored to win this comfortably Republican state that went 53 percent for Sen. John McCain
(R-Ariz.) in 2008.

Although she hasn’t held office for more than a decade, Heitkamp has proved herself to be a good candidate. She’s a strong fundraiser and demonstrated political savvy by separating herself from the president on a couple of policy issues since she started her campaign. Republicans disagree and are quick to label Heitkamp one of the president’s most ardent supporters.

Democrats often point to their own polling that shows Berg with low job-approval ratings as proof that this race is competitive. Republicans are much more bullish and cite this open seat as one of their top few pickup opportunities. It’s worth noting that Berg must defeat businessman Duane Sand, a perennial statewide candidate, in the primary. But the Congressman is highly favored to win his party’s nod.

Berg still has the advantage in this race, but Heitkamp is a formidable challenger, and it will be interesting to see how this race develops over the coming months.


At-large | Open seat: Rick Berg (R) is running for Senate.

Outlook: Likely Republican

A litany of Republican candidates lined up to succeed Berg. The most notable of the pack are state Rep. Bette Grande, state Rep. Kim Koppelman, former Commerce Commissioner Shane Goettle and Public Service Commissioner Brian Kalk.

Former state Rep. Pam Gulleson will likely be the Democratic nominee, and she’ll sell herself as a “proven independent voice” for the state. A former aide to then-Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), Gulleson has national Democrats hopeful that she can significantly outperform President Barack Obama in a state that won’t vote for him in 2012.

Gulleson has the advantage of a head start over Republicans who are battling it out for the nomination — but not as big of an advantage as in other states. Republicans typically endorse their eventual nominee at their spring convention, and the GOP field will winnow significantly following that event. Another GOP candidate, Public Service Commissioner Kevin Cramer, has indicated he’ll run outside the convention system.

It’s a tough race for Gulleson, and Republicans are likely to keep this seat.

South Dakota

Gov. Dennis Daugaard (R)

2012 Electoral votes: 3
2008 Presidential Vote: McCain 53%/Obama 45%


At-large | Incumbent: Kristi Noem (R)

1st term (48 percent) | Outlook: Safe Republican

Noem will win re-election barring any major unforeseen circumstances.

Two Democrats are running to challenge her, Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth and Matt Varilek, a former staffer for Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.).

Varilek is the more formidable of the two challengers, but either faces an extremely difficult task in knocking out Noem, a rising GOP star on Capitol Hill.