URBANDALE, Iowa – In a setback for the tea party and libertarian forces in Iowa, establishment Republicans on Saturday nominated their candidate for a House seat in one of the nation's most competitive congressional districts.
The nomination of David Young in Iowa's 3rd District punctuated the efforts of Republicans in the party's mainstream who had desperately worked to avoid repeating embarrassing losses suffered in congressional races in other states in 2010 and 2012. It also marked a rollback in influence of libertarians who had controlled the state GOP in recent years.
"There's a strong sense of pragmatism in the Republican Party today," said Doug Gross, a longtime adviser to Gov. Terry Branstad and a delegate to Saturday's congressional nominating convention.
Young, 46, a former chief of staff for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, will face Democratic former state Sen. Staci Appel in the general election. Democrats must gain a total of 17 seats to retake the House, a challenge even House Democratic leadership says is a tall one.
Young overcame an early lead from state Sen. Brad Zaun, a tea party-backed legislator whom Democrats were already targeting for comments they characterized as extreme.
On Saturday, Zaun said President Barack Obama "pales in comparison" to President Richard Nixon, who resigned amid a political scandal. Referring to the deadly terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Zaun said, "This president has blood on his hands."
Young beat not just Zaun but tea party-backed Secretary of State Matt Schultz and evangelical conservative Bob Cramer. In all there were six candidates including, renewable fuels executive Monte Shaw and GOP activist Joe Granadette.
Despite GOP House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's surprise loss on June 10, the House primary season has so far favored Republicans perceived as having fundraising strength and institutional support over those viewed as the most devout conservatives.
The Iowa convention echoed GOP House primary results in swing-voting districts in northern Virginia, central Arkansas districts and New Jersey, where veteran Republican representatives are retiring but where Obama won or lost narrowly in 2012.
"This is about the general election," Young said. Knowing that Democrats had been preparing to attack Zaun were he nominated, Young said, "What have they got on me?"
"The worst they can say is that I've been working for the people of Iowa, and can reach out to Democrats and independents," he said. "This is a swing district."
In 2012, Republican candidates' awkward comments about rape and reproduction cost them winnable U.S. Senate races in Missouri and Indiana. Republicans' move toward the party establishment could dampen House Democrats' hope that GOP primaries would pull the party to the right and produce candidates who would struggle to win over swing voters in November.
To be sure, Republican Tom Latham's retirement after 20 years made Iowa's 3rd District – it includes Democratic-leaning Des Moines and the Republican-leaning rural southwest – more competitive.
The same is true of the northern Virginia district where 30-year Republican Rep. Frank Wolf's retirement altered the chances of Democrat John Foust. "When I got into the race, I literally thought I had about a 10 percent chance of winning," said Foust, a supervisor in Fairfax County, Va. "I feel now it's better than 50-50."
Foust will face Republican Barbara Comstock, a conservative state lawmaker, not her tea party-backed primary opponent Bob Marshall, who said in 2010 that God punishes women who have abortions.
House Democrats aren't giving up their strategy. They've fielded candidates in all 13 districts where incumbents are retiring, with plans for being prepared for anything, said Rep. Steve Israel of New York, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Several "brutal Republican primaries" remain ahead in places such as New Hampshire, New York and Michigan where establishment Republicans are competing with tea party conservatives, Israel said.
"They are doing a good enough job fighting this civil war for us," Israel told The Associated Press.