Rep. Steve King's "Todd Akin problem" -- as dubbed by Karl Rove's Conservative Victory Project -- isn't limited to potentially destructive soundbites. While both King and Akin are known for their outspoken ways, they also ranked among the House's most conservative members in National Journal's 2012 vote ratings. But is King's No. 12 ranking really a problem if he runs for Senate in Iowa next year?
Conventional wisdom -- and Democratic hope -- is that it won't be until the general election. King's conservative reputation, the thinking goes, will be a boon in a potential Senate primary with Rep. Tom Latham, who at No. 134 fell solidly in the middle of the House Republican caucus.
Come general election time, however, King would have to expand his right-wing appeal in a state that is, at its most Republican, solidly purple. Latham, on the other hand, won reelection in 2012 in a district carried by President Obama. But are primary voters willing to pass up the more conservative choice in order to field a candidate palatable to swing voters?
"It's a party primary," said Republican strategist Bob Haus. "It's all about motivating that most fervent base of your party. Your voting record and where you stand on the key issues to conservatives [will] matter a great deal." Still, he added, "Ultimately, they want to win [the seat]."
King, said Iowa Republican editor Craig Robinson, is "the standard-bearer for conservatism in the state, and Latham's not. ... [King]'s already perceived as that, and he is that, and no one questions that." Latham's argument, Robinson said, is simply, "good for Steve King, but I'm more electable in a general election."
That argument, Haus said, will be "a factor, but not the factor" for primary voters. The GOP primary outcome will also impact Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley's ability to gather support from independents and moderate Republicans, said Democratic strategist Greg Hauenstein. "If Steve King is the nominee, then yes, Bruce Braley will be able to pick up crossover votes," he said. "When it comes to Tom Latham, then that will be more difficult."
While some Republicans may be taking general election prospects into account, King possesses a unique ability to excite the GOP base, said Iowa Republican National Committeewoman Tamara Scott. "The crowd erupts when he walks out," Scott said. "He's a rockstar on the issues. ... You're going to need someone who will come out with vim, vigor and fervor."
Consultant and former Iowa GOP Chair Steve Grubbs said the choice boils down to the candidates themselves, not where they fall on the conservative spectrum. "Iowa seems to not be bothered by ideology," Grubbs said. "We seem to be more interested in the individual and whether we like them or not."
But that likability, once again, may prove much different within a primary electorate than with general election voters. And both candidates, consultants say, can bring in sizable amounts of fundraising from very different sources. "Latham will have a lot of access to establishment money," Grubbs said. Meanwhile, said Robinson, "if King puts his hat in the Senate race, I think Club for Growth will be involved." King netted more than $54,000 from the group's PAC during the 2012 cycle.
Hauenstein said he sees a King-Latham matchup as a win-win for his party. A King victory would give Braley an easy target in the general election, he said. "I don't think Steve King will be able to play in Eastern Iowa at all," Hauenstein said. "It's going to be very difficult for him to play to independent districts."
But for Latham to win, he'll have to move to the right to woo an electorate that voted for Mike Huckabee in the 2008 presidential caucus and Rick Santorum in 2012. "I think it's the same problem that Mitt Romney had," he said. "He's going to have to take some positions that go against what he believes. That might offend some independents and conservative Democrats."
Republicans, for their part, say they'd be happy with either candidate, but acknowledge the choice a potential primary would offer: a staunch conservative who can ignite the party's base or a pragmatic candidate with proven crossover appeal. In the earlygoing, it appears voters are more concerned with where the two are positioned on issues rather than who's better positioned against Braley. "Midterm elections tend to be when your conservative or base members are more vocal," Scott said. Added Robinson: "In a primary, King's conservatism gives him a pretty clear advantage."