The rush to anoint Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds as the Iowa GOP's best alternative to Rep. Steve King -- should he not run for Senate -- drew pushback Thursday from the state's grassroots Republicans. Their message: Don't count on us backing Reynolds if King opts out.
After Rep. Tom Latham's announcement Wednesday that he won't seek the Senate seat held by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, establishment Republicans -- led by Gov. Terry Branstad's office -- moved quickly to tap Reynolds as a viable alternative. That signaled some Republicans were still eager to find a candidate with broader general election appeal than King.
Reynolds's spokesman said Thursday that she wouldn't seek the nomination if King becomes a candidate, and that the two officials will soon meet to discuss the race. But the state's grassroots conservatives -- evangelicals and libertarians -- appeared to be caught off-guard by the sudden buzz around her candidacy and expressed skepticism that she would be a frontrunner. "If there was something to it, wouldn't I have heard about her 48 hours ago?" asked Chuck Laudner, a former chief of staff to King. "Wouldn't I have heard about it 48 days ago?"
State GOP Chair A.J. Spiker, reached after Latham's decision Wednesday, sounded surprised at her rapid emergence. "I haven't heard any talk of that," he said. Spiker served as a state vice chair on Ron Paul's 2012 campaign.
Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler said in a phone interview that he isn't buying the Reynolds hype. "My guess is she probably won't [run for Senate]," he said. "She probably wants to run with Branstad one more time, then run for governor."
Reynolds's 2010 opponent for the lieutenant governor nomination -- social conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats -- pushed back on the notion that she could jump into the primary as a top-tier candidate. "If Steve King chooses not to get in the race, then it's going to be wide open," he said. "There will be a very strong candidate representing those factions of the grassroots of the party in a primary."
"My vote would be on that [grassroots] candidate ... to be successful in a primary," Vander Plaats added.
Asked if Reynolds could be a successful candidate, Scheffler responded hesitantly. "I suppose so," he said. "I don't think she's going be unopposed. ... If she gets in the race, she's not necessarily going to clear the field."
While the party is divided on Reynolds' prospects, King's status as the frontrunner remains unchanged. "Everybody -- including Tom Latham -- viewed it as Steve King's race," Vander Plaats said. "King will have the primary locked up if he chooses to get in." Likewise, the stipulations Reynolds placed on her potential candidacy mean she won't be a threat to King's nomination. Still, some sources expressed doubt that King is a sure bet to join the race.
If he chooses not to run, the party's grassroots elements are unready to concede that Reynolds would jump to the forefront. While Latham was considered a strong conservative alternative to King, the hesitance expressed about Reynolds indicates she won't be embraced by the state's evangelicals and libertarians. Those groups, Vander Plaats said, know they're "stronger together," and King draws support from both. But while he remains the frontrunner, his likely supporters -- unlike Latham’s -- have yet to identify a contingency plan if he opts out.
One possibility: state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, who said Thursday he'd take a look at the race if King chooses not to run. Several grassroots leaders identified him as a potential primary contender. Northey "would appeal to Republicans of all kinds," the Des Moines Register wrote in its coverage of his announcement.
Still, until King makes his decision, the rest of the primary field will be frozen, and any moves to promote or play down other candidates will be moot if he joins the race. "We don’t have a sense of what's he's going to do," said Tim Albrecht, spokesman for Branstad. "We can only go based on the statements he's put out."