Game Change

Big Endorsements Turn Iowa's Senate Race Upside Down

Senate hopeful Sam Clovis received two major endorsements this week that have the potential to shake up Iowa's GOP primary.

Jerry Mennenga/Zuma

Endorsements, like late Pink Floyd albums or early-season Duke basketball teams, are invariably overrated in American politics.

But the twin endorsements this week of Iowa Republican Senate hopeful Sam Clovis by prominent social conservative Bob Vander Plaats and former (and perhaps future) presidential candidate Rick Santorum have the potential to turn the state's June 3 GOP primary upside down.

Clovis, who is perhaps as much a Tea Partier as a social conservative in the dichtomy of the right, seemed mired in third place in the battle between businessman Mark Jacobs and first-term state senator Joni Ernst to take on Congressman Bruce Braley in November. But, the twin endorsements of Vander Plaats and Santorum, leave Clovis well positioned to become the candidate of social conservatives in a state where the religious right plays an outsize role in Republican primaries and gives the economics professor and Air Force veteran a clear path to victory.

Vander Plaats, who narrowly lost the 2010 primary to Governor Terry Branstad by a margin of 50%-41%, is considered a kingmaker in Iowa politics, and endorsed both Mike Huckabee and Santorum prior to their Iowa caucus wins. Santorum, who is a potential 2016 candidate, built a strong organization in the Hawkeye State during his 2012 campaign and has kept up ties with the grassroots.

This doesn't mean Clovis is the favorite. The mustached, rumpled candidate has a physique that is more Chris Christie than Chris Hemsworth and had only $54,845 cash on hand in his most recent FEC report. In contrast, Ernst, who drew national attention with her first television ad, has racked up major endorsements from groups like the NRA and Chamber of Commerce and Jacobs, the former CEO of Reliant Energy, has been relying on his personal wealth to fund his campaign. It does give the social conservative an opportunity to consolidate the support of the evangelical grassroots and a chance to force the race into a convention, which happens if no candidate receives 35% of the vote on primary day, if not an upset victory.