As Iowans prepare to elect their first new senator in 30 years, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, wants them to know he intends to carry on the mantle of the man he's seeking to replace, retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. "I'd be honored if anybody considered me as following in the mold of Tom Harkin," Braley said in a phone interview Tuesday, describing himself as "a Democrat who can walk in and pick up his legacy."
Democrats say Braley, much like Harkin, is a strong progressive voice. But Braley said he realizes the need to reach out to voters of all ideological persuasions. "I understand the concerns of all Iowans," Braley said. "In Iowa, every election has a lot of votes up for grabs. You can't represent my district without reaching out to voters across the political spectrum."
In four elections in his Northeast Iowa district, Braley has already weathered several hard-fought campaigns, including a 2010 race that was decided by just a percentage point. Now, he'll have to test that appeal in the western half of the Hawkeye State, which features a more conservative voting base and two representatives who are considered likely contenders for the GOP Senate ticket. "It's incredibly important to be well known in all parts of Iowa," Braley said. "I don't take any county, any region for granted."
Braley said his current seat "is always a tough election. ... Having tough campaigns gives you experience to draw on." Braley also plans to draw on the guidance of Harkin, who he considers a mentor. "I will never be able to fill his shoes," Braley said, pledging to "continue to seek out Tom's counsel."
While many considered him the next in line should Harkin retire, Braley said the five-term senator made the decision on his own. "I was surprised as anyone when Sen. Harkin called me the morning he announced he was not going to run," Braley said.
As for the GOP frontrunners, Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King, Braley avoided the temptation to take an early shot. "No matter who my opponent might be, I certainly plan to continue to work with them," he said. "I think they would both be tough candidates."
Braley also noted the work of the Iowa delegation in addressing issues important to the state, adding that he has distinguished himself with his own accomplishments in the House -- which he plans to make a point of emphasis in the campaign. "One of the things that's unique to me is, even serving in the minority last term, I was able to get legislation passed and signed into law by President Obama," Braley said.
He emphasized the relationships he has built with House members of both parties, an asset he said could help bridge the gap between the Senate and House as they craft legislation.
Braley declined to get into the early specifics of the campaign -- such as the likelihood of a competitive Democratic primary -- but said senior adviser Jeff Link, who has also worked on Harkin's campaigns, gives him an advantage. "The fact that he has that background I'm sure will be enormously helpful," Braley said.
While he doesn't expect an early endorsement or involvement from national-level Democrats, Braley said he's had "preliminary conversations" with DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet and Democratic Senate leadership.
"It seems like Democrats in the state are coalescing around Braley," said one national Democrat. "Republicans are looking like they're going to have a contentious primary, and it doesn't look like that's going to happen on the Democratic side."
Braley declined to endorse a candidate to replace him in the 1st Congressional District, but he said he'd be willing to advise any Democrat about the challenges of a bid.
While acknowledging the hard work ahead of him, Braley sounded energized as he discussed his campaign. "I'm excited about this opportunity. I love the state of Iowa, I love the people of Iowa," he said. "I plan to work very hard over the next two years to be able to convince the entire state that I am best capable of representing them in the U.S. Senate."