Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Who's Chris Reed? He's Not Tom Harkin

Who's Chris Reed? He's Not Tom Harkin

Something's missing on Iowa's political landscape this year: Tom Harkin's perennial red-hot race.

Yet despite the low to invisible profile of Harkin's Republican opponent, Chris "Who?" Reed, a recent Research 2000 poll showed the Marion businessman and first-time candidate with 40 percent of the vote, to the four term incumbent's 54. The two week old Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows Harkin with a bit bigger lead, 53 percent to 34 percent. That might not sound like much, but remember, John McCain only got 40 percent in that same Register poll.

So how the heck does Reed, who's raised almost no money, has a campaign website that looks like a homemade nightmare straight out of 1996, and has Republicans openly talking about writing in one of the primary losers, even get to the mid-30s to low 40s in a poll? Who IS this guy?

Simple. He's Not Tom Harkin.

To Iowa Republicans, "Tommy the Commie" is the Democrat they love to hate, just as lefties bristle at the mention of Steve King's name. There's enough of a Harkin hater base that he's never broken 60 percent, let alone seen the 70 to 30 margins Republican Chuck Grassley gets every six years.

Despite his work on the farm bill as chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Harkin was denied the Farm Bureau “Friend of Agriculture” endorsement which went to all five Iowa incumbent House members. Farm Bureau endorsements are determined by votes of each county Farm Bureau, and many Western Iowa counties will simply never back Harkin.

Iowa saw revolving door Senate seats through the 1970s. With four defeats (Miller, Clark, Culver, Jepsen) and two retirements (Hickenlooper, Hughes), no Iowa senator was re-elected from 1966 to 1986. In contrast, we now have two high seniority Senate leaders, one in each party.

Running against Grassley has been the loyal duty of a series of eastern Iowa liberals--Jean Lloyd-Jones, David Osterberg, and most recently Art Small in 2004, who would have been a really good challenger in 1986 when he ran for lieutenant governor instead. They all struggled to break 30 percent. Grassley gets all the Republican vote, virtually all of the independent vote, and even picks up votes from Democrats who like his aw-shucks persona.

In contrast, Harkin has had top-tier battles until now. The senator likes to brag that he's defeated more Republican congressional incumbents than anyone in history--Bill Scherle in 1974 for his first House win, Roger Jepsen in 1984 to take the Senate seat, and Tom Tauke, Jim Ross Lightfoot and Greg Ganske since.

It's safe to say Republican leaders were hoping for a similar profile in 2008. But House members Tom Latham and Steve King saw what looked like a good Democratic year and figured their re-election chances were better. (However, Latham has a real race against Becky Greenwald on his hands, and King has an unflapple opponent in Rob Hubler.) Democrats are likely to pick up five and perhaps as many as ten Senate seats, and only one Democratic incumbent, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, is even remotely in trouble.

So Iowa Republicans saw a three-way flip-a-coin primary between unknowns, and the coin almost landed on its edge. Former legislator George Eichhorn, a late recruit to the race, nearly demanded a recount, but that fell victim to the flood. In retrospect, losing re-election to the state legislature may not have been the strongest launching pad for a U.S. Senate race.

Reed has raised almost no money and didn't even formally organize a campaign committee till after he (barely) won the primary. He got negative attention for spending some of what little he has raised on clothing and haircuts.

Some Republicans are concerned enough, and hopeless enough, that there have been reports of a write-in effort on behalf of Steve Rathje, who spent two years running for the seat only to come in third in the primary. “We need a U.S. Senator who has the ability to think outside the box and respond with real answers based on new ideas, instead of the opinions he happens to hear on WHO, Hannity and Colmes, Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Rielly,” wrote Clayton County Republican chair Gwen Eilers in a mass email.

So, what's a Harkin hater to do--vote for the little-known Linn County businessman who's on the ballot, or write in the other little-known Linn County businessman who lost the primary? “As a Republican leader, Eilers should support our candidate, Christopher Reed — or step down,” writes state central committee member David Chung on his Hawkeye GOP blog, adding, “Nothing personal, but why Rathje? Wasn't Eichhorn second?”

One of the first things candidates are taught is: if someone else can do something for you, let them. A candidate should spend all her or his time doing stuff only the candidate can do--meeting voters, the bulk of the fundraising, and the human being jobs of parent and/or partner. Yet Reed, on his web site, bragged about saving campaign cash by driving to Kansas City to pick up the yard signs. Himself.

That also drew criticism from Eilers, who said Reed should have spent the money with an Iowa vendor. “He cannot and will not win. That is the truth,” writes Eilers, who hopes that Rathje's write-in total will top Reed's votes and send a message.

Chuck Grassley's races have given political sabermetricians useful statistics on straight ticket Democratic voting levels. He regularly rolls up 99 county wins, and even precincts that go for Grassley opponents are few and far between.

For the first time, Tom Harkin has a race like that. The end result of this race will be a set of statistics, a precinct by precinct measure of the base Republican vote, which is probably about 10 points higher in Iowa than the yellow dog Democratic vote. But Reed will likely carry several counties in the northwest, just by being on the ballot as Not Tom Harkin.

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