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What If: All GOP Senate Candidates Receive Less Than 35%?

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — For the millions of dollars being spent by the five Republican campaigns in pursuit of the U.S. Senate nomination, what if Tuesday’s primary vote doesn’t even have a binding result?

“Everybody’s talking about it,” said David Chung, who will be at the Iowa GOP Convention in Des Moines on June 14. “Nobody hopes that happens.”

Chung has a rather amplified reason for watching Tuesday’s primary vote closely. He is the chairman of the State Convention Rules Committee and is a focal point for what happens if none of the five Republican candidates for the open U.S. Senate seat reaches the 35% threshold, as mandated by state law.

Rather than more TV ads filling the airwaves in Iowa, the influence would take on a more personal path.

“Backroom dealing might not be the best word,” said Chung before adding, “lobbying. Candidates will make calls to people to support them, show up to convention and stay for what could be a very long day and vote for them.”

There is a recent precedent for deciding on a nominee at convention. In 2002, Steve King won the Republican primary for what was then Iowa’s 5th District. However, he was under the 35% benchmark in the four-candidate primary. At a later convention, King was able to attain 51% support of the delegates present and, ultimately, became the nominee.

Instead of wooing the hundreds of thousands of registered voters leading up to June 3, Chung said, for the 11 days until the state convention, a much more narrow band of people will have the candidates’ attention should none receive enough to take the nomination outright.

“It’s really only 2,000 (people) and it’s committed Republicans,” Chung said of the “voting bloc”, should the nomination go to convention.

Here is how the process would work, according to Chung:

“After each ballot, the candidate with the lowest number of votes will drop out and any other candidates may choose to drop out and they’ll be given the chance to address the convention, thank supporters and maybe throw their support behind someone else,” said Chung. “It will take a majority of the votes for someone to be selected.”

Recent polling could make all of this strictly a “what-if” scenario. An Iowa Poll, released by the Des Moines Register late Saturday night, has State Senator Joni Ernst with 36% support from 400 Republican voters likely to vote in the June 3 primary. As Ernst’s lead in recent polls has expanded, the scenarios of a brokered convention could be fading.

“I don’t think the Senate race will go to convention,” said Bruce Nesmith, a longtime professor of political science at Coe College. He said the purpose behind this 35% threshold is to ensure the winner has wide support in a deep field of candidates.

“You don’t have a winner who is a niche candidate or has narrow appeal and not with broad appeal to members of the party,” said Nesmith.

The Iowa Poll has Ernst leading retired businessman Mark Jacobs by an 18-point margin (36%-18%), with former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker picking up 13%, talk-show host Sam Clovis at 11% and Ames auto executive Scott Schaben at 2%.

The GOP Senate primary isn’t the only one that might not be decided on June 3rd.

Two House primaries could face this distinct possibility. Iowa’s 1st District Democratic primary, where there are five candidates with at least one from each of the three major metro areas, and the Iowa Republican primary in the 3rd District, which focuses on the Des Moines metro area.

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