Tom Harkin Retires – Instant Analysis


By Steve Deace

One of the long-standing liberal lions of the U.S. Senate, Tom Harkin, is retiring rather than run for re-election next year. This is a game-changing announcement in Iowa politics that will likely trigger a fascinating chain of events in both parties.

Chuck Todd of NBC News is one of the best political analysts in the country for my money, whether you agree with all his conclusions/ideology or not, because he does his homework. On Saturday he tweeted that Harkin’s retirement “doesn’t make Iowa more competitive because he was already going to face a serious challenge anyway.”

This is correct. Harkin was going to face a tough re-election if for no other reason than the average mid-term election loss for the party in power in the White House during a second term is five seats, and Republicans have made considerable statewide gains both organizationally and electorally in Iowa in recent years. Still, give the devil his due. Saying Harkin would’ve faced a tough re-election is not the same as saying he would’ve lost. He has taken on all comers — well-funded name candidates like Jim Ross Lightfoot, moderates like Greg Ganske, and conservatives like Chris Reed — and defeated them all.

But an open seat changes the dynamics considerably on both sides.

Democrats in Iowa were previously wrestling with whom to run against Terry Branstad, who will be going for a fifth four-year term next year. Their dream candidate is popular former governor Tom Vilsack, who I think would be very difficult for Branstad to beat. However, it seems as if Iowa Democrats are more excited about Vilsack being back in the governor’s mansion than the current Secretary of Agriculture is. The other noteworthy option on the Democrats’ otherwise thin bench is Congressman Bruce Braley.

But with Harkin stepping aside, Democrats may not have to choose between either Vilsack or Braley. Both can now run at the same time — one for governor and one for the U.S. Senate. This scenario is probably the Democrats’ best hope of not getting overwhelmed in a 2014 environment that will be more similar to 2010 than 2012.

As for the Republicans it’s not nearly as cut-and-dried because there are more options.

It is unlikely that Congressman Steve King would have challenged Harkin, and in fact King has never really shown any tangible evidence he’s interested in moving beyond being a conservative firebrand from a safe congressional district. He’s never run for leadership in the U.S. Congress, and despite a lot of anticipation he would run for governor in 2010 he never made any tangible moves to do so. I spoke to two staunch conservatives who admire King, and both of them expressed doubts he could win a statewide election for U.S. Senator (although both would love to see him traumatizing the stodgy Senate).

Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey already has a statewide organization and is well-liked. He probably wouldn’t have any issues raising the money to run, but his views on issues beyond agriculture are not well-known.

Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz is a rising star in the conservative ranks, and already pulled off a shocker to win his office two years ago when he upset one of the first families of Iowa Democrat politics. Schultz was the only Republican newcomer to win statewide office in 2010, and he did it without the establishment’s help in either the primary or the general election.

Bob Vander Plaats is one of the state’s most influential conservatives. He’s run for governor three times, was Jim Nussle’s running mate in 2006, and has a knack for picking Iowa Caucus winners. However, my guess is there’s a better chance Vander Plaats would run if Harkin was not retiring. Vander Plaats strikes me as the type of guy that would enjoy mixing it up with Harkin in a campaign much more than cloture votes in the U.S. Senate for the next six years.

Don’t underestimate Congressman Tom Latham. If the relationship between the Republican Party establishment and the grassroots in Iowa were a Facebook status it would be “it’s complicated.” Branstad may be the only governor in America in either party who has absolutely no control of his own state party whatsoever. Any candidate seen as “his guy” is going to have a very hard time winning a primary. But Latham is a guy with an establishment temperament but also a fairly conservative voting record (I’m a conservative complainer, and I can’t remember the last time I complained about him). He may be one guy that could easily coalesce the party for a united front next fall, and he just defeated former Democrat Congressman Leonard Boswell in a new district in what was otherwise a bad year for Iowa Republicans.

Furthermore, Iowa law provides a wildcard. If no candidate gets at least 35% in a statewide primary campaign then the nomination is determined via convention. Keep in mind that in 2008 the Republicans avoided this scenario in the U.S. Senate primary by less than one half of one percent.

It’s no secret there is zero love lost between Republican Party of Iowa Chairman A.J. Spiker and his Ron Paul-style state central committee and the establishment, big government Branstad Administration. If the nomination goes to convention then Spiker and his state central committee will wield a lot of influence. Many of the delegates are their people, and they will determine all the rules.

In fact, at that stage convention delegates can pick any candidate they want as the Republican U.S. Senate nominee — whether they ran in the primary or not. For example, they could pick a name like successful Campaign for Liberty activist and state party treasurer Drew Ivers.

Finally, there will likely be a lot of money poured into this race. Not just because control of the U.S. Senate may be at stake, but also because both parties have an open fight for the presidential nomination in 2016 and Iowa is first-in-the-nation in that process. That means anybody thinking about 2016 will likely play in this race in an effort to establish themselves in the state for the next one.

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