Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin will be retiring after his term ends in 2014, the Associated Press reports, a decision that sets up another competitive Senate contest and a potential pickup opportunity for Republicans.
Harkin, who has served in Congress since 1974, told the AP's Tom Beaumont: "It's just time to step aside," adding that he wanted a new generation of Iowa political leaders to step forward. But Harkin's retirement is a setback politically for Democrats. A reliable liberal, he won 10 straight Congressional elections in a competitive state and swing district.
Harkin’s retirement further improves an already encouraging landscape for Senate Republicans in 2014, giving them a credible chance to win back the majority. Seven Senate races are being contested in states that Mitt Romney carried last year -- six them carried by Romney by double-digit margins. With Harkin running for re-election, Republicans would have faced long odds in winning his seat. But now, Republicans feel like they have a decent chance at picking up an open seat in a perennial battleground state.
"Today's announcement by Senator Harkin immediately vaults Iowa into the top tier of competitive Senate races next year," said National Republican Senatorical Committee executive director Rob Collins. "With Democrats already on defense in a number of key states such as West Virginia, Louisiana, South Dakota and others, there is no question that this is very troubling news for Harry Reid and his liberal friends in Washington."
Iowa provided good news for both Democrats and Republicans in 2012: President Obama narrowly carried the state with 52 percent of the vote, but Republican Tom Latham picked up a battleground House district against another sitting member of Congress, Democrat Leonard Boswell.
Democrats boast a strong bench of prospective candidates in Iowa, led by Rep. Bruce Braley, a former vice chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the founder of the House Populist Caucus. Iowa Democrats have long been bullish on Braley's statewide appeal and were urging him to consider the governor's race in the event Harkin ran for reelection. Now that the senator is stepping aside, expect Hawkeye State Democrats to coalesce quickly around Braley. The Des Moines Register also floated several other possible names, including former Gov. Chet Culver, who lost his reelection bid in 2010, state Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal, insurance executive Fred Hubbell and former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack, who unsuccessfully challenged GOP Rep. Steve King last year.
“I appreciate that Senator Harkin has made this decision so early in the cycle, giving us ample time to recruit a strong Democratic candidate for this seat," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman Michael Bennet said in a statement. "Iowa has a strong record of electing great Democrats, and I'm confident that we will elect a new Democratic senator next November."
On the Republican side, two of the leading contenders are King and Latham, though others may emerge. Last November, Republican Gov. Terry Branstad told Hotline that he was worried about the conservative King's prospects in a general election, but he called Latham "a formidable candidate." King, an anti-illegal immigration hardliner, hasn’t ruled out making a statewide bid.
Latham's Congressional office released a statement Saturday on Harkin's retirement, but didn't offer any clues about whether he's running.
"Congressman Latham respects Senator Harkin's decision. He looks forward to continuing to working with him and the rest of the Iowa delegation for the best interests of the people of Iowa over the next two years," said Latham spokesman James Carstensen.
Tim Alberta and Ben Terris contributed to this report.