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Harkin's Departure Jolts Hawkeye State Politics Harkin's Departure Jolts Hawkeye State Politics

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Harkin's Departure Jolts Hawkeye State Politics

February 1, 2013

Take one long, last look at Iowa. Two years from now, the state's long-static political landscape could be nearly unrecognizable. Plenty of dominoes have yet to fall following Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's decision to retire next year, but when they do, they'll fall fast -- and the effects will likely be felt as far down as the state's legislative races.

Harkin will step down in 2014 after 30 years in the Senate, and three of the state's four representatives are seen as likely contenders to replace him (all have been elected to at least four terms). "[The next election] could drastically change who sits in what seats in Iowa," said state GOP Chair A.J. Spiker.

Meanwhile, Democrats express confidence they can knock off five-term Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, but Harkin's exit will have repercussions on their candidate pool in that race as well. And as Iowa's established politicos weigh bids for statewide office, up-and-comers in the legislature are keeping a close eye on their decisions, some mulling statewide campaigns of their own -- while waiting to see if their House district suddenly has a vacancy.

"Earthquaky," was how former Iowa Democratic Party Chair Sue Dvorsky described the state's political landscape. Let's look at the races, and the shake-up that's sure to come:


Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley seems likely to run, having met Thursday with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and DSCC Chair Michael Bennet to discuss a bid. Democratic insiders say Braley has a good chance of clearing the field; he possesses crossover appeal capable of picking up Republican votes, but can also martial key liberal constituencies -- including labor groups and progressive coalitions. Most political observers would be shocked if Braley opted not to run for Harkin's seat.

Other Democratic possibilities -- though insiders say a primary is not likely -- include two former governors: Chet Culver, who lost to Branstad in 2010; and Tom Vilsack, who currently serves as President Obama's Secretary of Agriculture. Democrats have mixed opinions on Vilsack's interest in the race; he brings proven statewide appeal but has held executive positions for some time and may not be amenable to the idea of serving in Congress. As for Culver, some Hawkeye State observers think a run for the Senate -- where his father served for a term -- would be more appealing than a rematch with Branstad. One Iowa Democrat told Hotline On Call that Culver has few friends in organized labor and is seen as soft on key progressive issues -- weaknesses Braley does not share.

On the Republican side, all eyes are on Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King. While both have indicated they're considering running -- and most GOP insiders think at least one will -- Spiker pointed to King's safe seat and Latham's seniority in the House as potentially dissuading factors. Democrats acknowledge Latham's own crossover appeal -- noting the number of Obama-Latham voters in his district -- and statewide recognition (he's represented a majority of the state's counties). No one doubts King's ambition for the seat, but some observers say he and Latham will try to avoid a primary, with King showing deference to Latham if he chooses to run. Spiker, on the other hand, offered: "I'm not sure that either one of them would be openly deferring to another." One Iowa Democratic operative had this to say of a King bid: "That would be fun. ... If Latham can't beat Steve King, then there's a problem with the Republican Party in Iowa. [King] would offer a vision that would be very easy to pick apart."

Elsewhere, former gubernatorial candidate and Christian conservative leader Bob Vander Plaats hasn't ruled out a run but is seen as a lesser-tier candidate unlikely to pose a threat to Latham or King if they choose to join the race.


The race for Terrace Hill finds a more fluid field. Branstad has yet to announce a reelection bid, but most observers view Branstad's bid for a sixth (second consecutive) term as imminent. And while he's certainly a formidable candidate, Democrats -- both on- and off-the-record -- expressed confidence they can beat him.

Braley, who was recently considering a bid, would have been the party's first choice. But now that he's likely to join the Senate race, the field is a mix of big-name candidates with uncertain interest and state lawmakers who are simultaneously eyeing soon-to-be-vacant House seats.

Vilsack, some Democrats say, might be inclined to run if he felt a responsibility to the state party, what with their best candidate likely running for Senate. He'd also start with a great deal of name recognition, important when challenging a political fixture like Branstad. But Democratic strategist Greg Hauenstein, isn't counting on a Vilsack candidacy. "I feel like he [thinks he] could get more done for the country in his current position," Hauenstein said. Vilsack could mount a formidable campaign, but he's a wild card until his level of interest in the race is determined.

Meanwhile, his wife, Christie Vilsack, is "a strong candidate in her own right," said one national Democrat. But again, her level of interest in the race is a mystery. She earned plaudits for her 2012 congressional campaign, despite losing to King in a tight race. Hauenstein said Iowa's former first lady "may give it some consideration; I don't see her going for it."

As for Culver, he's "somewhat of a wild card," said one Iowa Democrat. Hauenstein said Culver would be in "frontrunner position" if he entered the race, noting his "deep contact list" and statewide name recognition. Another Democratic strategist said Culver's decision will set the tone for other potential candidates. "Culver's going to make a decision, and then everybody else is going to have to decide where they fit in," he said. There's a consensus that Culver would be far likelier to win a gubernatorial primary than a Senate primary. Still, insiders acknowledged the vulnerabilities he would bring to the former race, especially considering his losing 2010 effort.

Another Democrat, state Sen. Jack Hatch, has made a name for himself by targeting Branstad's reluctance to implement certain elements of Obama's health care law. Hatch made clear this week that he's interested only in the governor's race, and Democrats say he's effectively leveraged the health care issue to boost his name recognition. "I think [running for governor is] something he's been pushing towards for a little while now, and now's the time to do it," said Hauenstein. Still, Hatch would have to speak to a wider spectrum of issues to become a credible candidate.


Democrats on the local and national level also mention three state lawmakers -- all in Braley's district -- who they say could mount strong campaigns for Congress, or possibly even governor.

State Rep. Tyler Olson, the newly elected state party chairman, isn't ruling out a challenge to Branstad. One colleague noted his position will allow him to travel the state and boost his name recognition, particularly in rural Iowa. Other Democrats see him as more likely to run for Braley's seat. Still, Hauenstein noted that Olson's many hats -- chairman, lawmaker and father to two young children -- might make any high-profile campaign impossibly cumbersome.

State Sen. Liz Mathis was touted by a national Democrat who cited her "statewide appeal" and name recognition (she's a former TV anchor). Still, other Democrats view her as a strong candidate to run for Braley's seat.

Senate President Pam Jochum was also noted by the national Democrat as someone who "would have a lot of support in the legislature and statewide." Again, other insiders preferred her prospects of running for Congress.

Finally, in Latham's third district, Republican House hopefuls are anxiously awaiting his decision. Those names include State Sens. Brad Zaun and Jack Whitver, Party Co-Chair David Fischer and Secretary of State Matt Schultz. Schultz is already facing a formidable challenger for his current post -- Obama's Iowa campaign manager Brad Anderson -- and may decide a favorable congressional race is more palatable than a bruising reelection fight. Zaun, Schultz and Fischer are also mentioned as lower-tier Senate candidates should Latham and King opt not to join the race.

With Iowa's top posts all up for grabs in 2014 -- and each race interconnected -- look for Harkin's retirement to trigger a domino effect that tips the balance of power and realigns the state's political structure in rapid fashion.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated the number of years Harkin will have served in the Senate at the end of his term next year.

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