Iowa Restless: 2014, 2016 in Play

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, left, and Senate candidate Joni Ernst during the grand opening of the Scott County Republican Headquarters on June 4, 2014 in Davenport.

Photograph by Kevin E. Schmidt/Quad-City Times/Zuma Press

Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, left, and Senate candidate Joni Ernst during the grand opening of the Scott County Republican Headquarters on June 4, 2014 in Davenport.

In Iowa, the hog-cutting candidate for Senate — a woman in a state that never has sent a female representative to Congress — is running neck-and-neck with a Democratic congressman seeking an open Senate seat.

The governor of New Jersey, a Republican with an eye on the White House, is making a three-day tour of the state that hosts the first presidential nominating caucuses. And the Republican governor of Iowa, who’s on a fundraising roll in his bid for a sixth term (not all consecutive), is welcoming the visitor working to shed his Bridgegate shackles for some more fundraising help.

And the president of the United States, who carried Iowa in both of his elections, is slipping in the eyes of Iowans — with just 37 percent saying they approve of the job he is doing.

Iowa, in short, is restless.

This is one of just four states that’s never sent a woman to Congress — not the Senate, not the House.

Now a woman’s in a dead heat with an incumbent congressman in the contest to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a long-serving Democrat. Republican Joni Ernst and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley each drew the support of 43 percent of the registered voters surveyed by NBC News and the Marist Poll. Ernst gained some national notoreity from her campaign ad touting her skills as a farm girl, including some experience with hog castration.

The NBC/Marist Poll shows that Ernst is running better among men — by eight percentage points. And Braley has an eight-point advantage among women.

The gender gap typically breaks with men favoring a Republican and women a Democrat. Yet Ernst is managing to hold the race to a narrow gap — unlike the 25-point advantgage that New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen holds in her contest with Republican Scott Brown in the NBC/Marist polling.

“The party factor seems to be trumping gender as far as how voters are assessing these two candidates at the moment,” Lee Miringoff, direct of the Marist polling institute, tells NBC News.

Christie’s arrival in Iowa is his first in two years, and it follows the months of scrutiny he has faced over the forced lane closures at the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, N.J., last fall — a saga of political retribution conducted by an aide and ally in which Christie has maintained innocence. Christie appeared at an East Coast fundraiser for Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in May, and will appear with him at “an evening at the fair” in Davenport tomorrow.

The Des Moines Register notes that “all 11 of the GOP’s potential 2016′ers have planted a flag in Iowa since the end of the last presidential cycle — either by visiting here or by trying to link arms with influential Iowa Republicans.”

Iowa has posed a challenge for mainstream Republicans competing in caucuses that lately have favored representatives of the religious right and other social conservatives — Mike Huckabee in 2008, over Mitt Romney (by 34-25 percent); Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer ran better than John McCain in 2000, though he didn’t compete there. The born-again George W. Bush prevailed in the caucuses that year. Pat Buchanan gave Bob Dole a close contest in the 1996 caucuses.

Yet it has swung between Democrats and Republicans in presidential contests since 1976 – and more toward the Democrats since 1988.

Yet now, with an open Senate seat in reach of another Republican and President Barack Obama dragging in the state that backed him twice, the chance of this state giving the Republicans an additional chip for control of the Senate  puts the state front and center in 2014 and raises the question of where it’s headed in ’16. Which makes it all the more inviting to that visiting governor from New Jersey.

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