Iowa Republican Caucus To Test Conservatives In Senate Race

In one of the first skirmishes of 2014 between opposing wings of the Republican Party, conservatives and moderates vie on Tuesday for an early lead in the fight to nominate a candidate to run for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin.

Republicans need to win six seats to gain a majority in the U.S. Senate in congressional elections in November. If they retain control of the House of Representatives, they would gain considerable leverage in dealing with Democratic President Barack Obama.

But the party's path to victory is complicated by the conflict between the moderate "establishment" wing and the conservative Tea Party movement, with a number of conservative challengers running in primaries against moderate incumbent senators. Both sides favor lower taxes, spending cuts and smaller government, but while moderates are willing to compromise in many cases it is anathema for Tea Party-backed politicians to do so.

Rural Iowa's convoluted process of caucuses starts on Tuesday, with political analysts viewing them as an early test of the strength of the conservative movement, well ahead of the primary election battles that are set to take place in more than half a dozen states.

Iowa's process of nomination by caucus is unusual, but the threat of bruising primary contests undermining mainstream Republican candidates is a national issue.

"If the conservative base pulls too far to the right in a couple of states, it could cost the party," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell.

"Iowa should definitely be in play, and Republicans could win if they choose someone electable and do it wisely," O'Connell said. "The problem is that rock-ribbed conservatives tend to do very well in primaries in Iowa, but they do not fare as well in general elections."

The most recent government figures show nearly 720,000 registered voters in Iowa are independents, with about 616,000 Republicans and 615,000 Democrats.

Republican strategist O'Connell said selecting a conservative Senate candidate could push independents toward the Democratic candidate.

That is also a risk in Georgia, where a number of candidates for retiring U.S. Senator Saxby Chambliss' seat are trying to outdo each other as conservatives and may move to far to the right, O'Connell said.

Read more from Nick Carey at Reuters

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