Terry Branstad Briefly Causes Iowa Senate Race Freak-Out With 'Problem-Solver' Comment

04/29/2013 06:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 29, 2013

The coming race for the Senate seat of retiring Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) continues to be a source of drama even before the competition is officially set. On the Democratic side, it's expected that Rep. Bruce Braley will emerge as the favorite for nomination. On the Republican side ... well, that's been a little contentious. Rep. Steve King is held to be his party's frontrunner -- but other members of the Iowa GOP have given him a goodly helping of static. And on Monday, Senate-watchers began wondering if Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) had joined in the effort to sideline King's ambition.

King's aspirations to join the Senate were met with disapproval almost from the outset. Around the same time he first started testing the waters for a Senate run, GOP establishment consultant-guru Karl Rove started to working to poison them. Rove, fronting a new group called the Conservative Victory Project -- dedicated to keeping Todd Akin-esque loose-cannon types out of primary battles -- identified King as precisely the sort of Republican contender who'd done little more than tarnish the Republican Party brand. Rove's partner in the Project, Stephen Law, told The New York Times, “We’re concerned about Steve King’s Todd Akin problem ... This is an example of candidate discipline and how it would play in a general election. All of the things he’s said are going to be hung around his neck.”

For a time, Rove's taking up an oppositional stance only seemed to fuel King's fervor for the battle. And as recently as the beginning of April, King was touting a "path to victory." The fact that Representative Tom Latham (R-Iowa), balked at making a run for Harkin's seat didn't hurt -- it deprived Rove's group of a go-to contender, leaving only long-shot hopefuls mulling a primary challenge to King. More recently, however, King's talk of victory has become more muddled, and he now projects himself as undecided on joining the race.

Enter Terry Branstad. During a Monday news conference, the Iowa governor weighed in on the 2014 Senate race and, as Alexis Levinson of the Daily Caller reported, opined thusly:

“I really believe that Iowans want somebody that will serve in the Senate that will be an Iowa problem-solver, not another congressman,” Branstad said.

“You know Congress is a mess. We’ve seen them spend a trillion dollars more than they take in every year and so the Democrats have decided, ‘Well, we’re going to send up another congressman.’ That’s the last thing we need is another congressman in the United States Senate,” he went on.

Branstad continued on, saying, "The contrast of having an Iowa problem-solver versus somebody that’s had all of their service in Washington, D.C. in the Congress would be a very good thing for Republicans.”

As messages go, it was a pretty mixed one. Branstad clearly referenced Braley, but the shoe seemed to fit King as well. Levinson reported it like a slight that hits King on the rebound. Her lead: "Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad took a jab at fellow Republican and Iowa Rep. Steve King Monday, suggesting that the congressman should not run for Senate next year, something he has said he is pondering."

And Levinson wasn't the only one who came away wondering. The Des Moines Register begins its report on Branstad's remarks by posing a question: "Did Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad just throw cold water on a U.S. Senate run by fellow Republican Steve King?"

Of course, per the Register's own reporting, the answer seems to be in the negative:

Branstad’s barb was actually aimed at U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, the already-announced Democratic candidate in the race to replace retiring incumbent Tom Harkin. But it could apply just the same to Steve King, a six-term congressman who has indicated more interest publicly than any other Republican in seeking the seat in 2014.

Branstad hastily added that he didn’t intend the comment as a slight toward King, however. He distinguished between King and Braley by noting that King also served six years in the Iowa Senate, in addition to his nearly 11 years in Washington D.C. Braley’s elective experience, by contrast, is comprised of four terms in Congress.

“Steve King did serve in the state Senate and was very effective here,” Branstad said. “That’s a little different than Braley.”

Right about now, you're wondering if everyone just ran with the most hype-filled story angle. In their defense, however, it was reported two weeks ago that a "top Republican insider from Iowa" was expressing doubts that King would run, telling the Register that he doubted whether "any of the Republicans considered to be top contenders in the 2014 contest — King, Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey — will throw their hats in the ring." That "top Republican insider from Iowa?" Branstad's former chief of staff, Doug Gross.

So doubts remain in a race still in its formative stages -- and still beset on all sides with contention. One thing is for sure, however: Branstad doesn't consider himself to be the "Iowa problem solver" for which the Senate is looking. “I’m not going to do it," he told the Register.

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