The Harkin Retirement

It wasn’t a complete surprise since he is currently 73 years old, but there wasn’t much warning before Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) announced he’s not running (as Sam Knight noted over the weekend) for a sixth term in 2014. Harkin’s legacy–particularly his leading role in the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–is safe enough. And the early sounds of celebration from Republicans over their prospects for flipping the seat (echoed by much of the MSM) may be a bit premature.

Right now the most likely development on the Democratic side is a consolidation of support behind the potential candidacy of Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term incumbent from the most Democratic area of the state. If Braley doesn’t run (and possibly if he does), one of the Vilsacks–Tom, the former governor who is now Secretary of Agriculture or Christie, who ran a well-financed if unsuccessful House race against Steve King last year–could start feeling a draft. There’s been some talk of former Gov. Chet Culver running for the Senate where his father, John, served during the 1970s. But most of that talk is from Republicans, who probably see Culver as the easiest candidate to beat.

The logical thing for Iowa Republicans to do, so long as the candidate is willing, is to clear the field for Rep. Tom Latham, who flipped a Des Moines-based House seat in 2012 after being redistricted out of the seat he had held since the last reapportionment (he’s been in the House since winning a seat in 1994). He’s generally considered a “moderate” by contemporary Republican standards, but that may be because he is being constantly contrasted with the other Iowa Republican congressmen, Steve King, who ranks right down there with his close friend Michele Bachmann (and another close friend, former congressman Tom Tancredo) in the ranks of fiery wingnuts. King is also being mentioned for the Senate seat, and would probably win a primary against anyone you could think of.

Even if Latham runs and King doesn’t, the odds are reasonably high someone from Iowa’s perpetually mobilized right-wing ranks would jump in, perhaps Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats, who has managed to burnish his influence by backing the winners of the Iowa presidential caucuses two cycles in a row.

Two things are for sure: the open Senate seat will draw attention and dollars (and possibly candidates) from what was looking to be a red-hot governor’s race in Iowa, and will also jump-start presidential candidate appearances in the state. Iowa’s grip on the presidential nominating process extends to the ability to coerce would-be Leaders of the Free World into helping them raise money and win downballot races. So the minute the candidate field for Harkin’s seat firms up–and particularly if there’s no serious intraparty competition–you can expect to see 2016 candidates acquainting (or in some cases reacquainting) themselves with the state’s many must-see venues.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.