While Joni Ernst easily surpassed the 35% threshold necessary under Iowa’s strange primary system to avoid a state GOP convention selection of the nominee, the candidates for the quite competitive 3d District House seat being abandoned by GOP Rep. Tom Latham weren’t so lucky. Five of them, in fact, won between 15% and 25% of the vote. And all of them–indeed, in theory, any Iowa Republican, since the district GOP convention that will choose the nominee on June 21 is not limited to the primary field–are eligible for the nod.

Now normally you’d hear “Republican convention” and “Iowa” and figure the wildest of ideological beasts would be the front-runner. Normally you’d be right. But as part of an effort to purge the Paulites who staged a hostile takeover of the Iowa GOP back in 2012, Gov. Terry Branstad has reportedly wired the whole county, district and state convention process, and that’s especially true of the Des Moines-centered third district. With that in mind, check out the Des Moines Register‘s take on the field:

Most of the Republican candidates have generated significant support within the GOP and the conservative movement.

[Brad] Zaun was endorsed by the Liberty Iowa PAC, which espouses limited government, free enterprise and individual liberty. [IA Secretary of State Matt] Schultz had the backing of the Tea Party Express, a national group, plus the endorsement of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, winner of the 2012 Iowa GOP presidential caucuses. [Monte] Shaw has had the support of key agricultural leaders in the 3rd District and former Congressman Greg Ganske; while [Robert] Cramer has been endorsed by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, 2008 winner of the Iowa GOP caucuses and Bob Vander Plaats, a prominent Iowa social conservative. [David] Young has been backed by former Iowa Congressmen Jim Ross Lightfoot and Tom Tauke, plus former state Auditor Richard Johnson.

Now you’d normally figure Zaun, who ran first in the primary, would be the front-runner, but his Paulite connections and the fact that he lost what was considered a winnable race against Democrat Leonard Boswell in 2010 are two black marks against his name. Schultz is a statewide elected official, but also close to Santorum and to the Tea Folk, neither positive credentials in Branstad-land. Cramer’s another candidate with the wrong friends, from the perspective of Terrace Hill (the Iowa governor’s mansion). So you’d guess (and it’s only a guess) Shaw and Young have the inside track. For all I know, of course, Branstad and his clique could even be interested in some horse trading with other Iowa GOP factions, and he’s got his own-reelection campaign to keep in mind.

But it’s a fascinating situation, and one that must be heartening to the 3d District Democratic nominee, Staci Appel. For all our ever-increasing ability to measure campaign “externals” and crunch numbers, the human element in congressional elections never quite goes away. You simply can’t take the politics out of politics.

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.