Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, has decided not to run for the Senate seat being vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, he told supporters in an email on Wednesday. With Latham out, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, becomes the center of attention in a race that has become a flashpoint in the fight over the GOP's candidate recruitment and selection, and some Republicans are eying other options.
"I cannot in good conscience launch a two-year statewide campaign that will detract from the commitment I made to the people who elected me, at a time when our nation desperately needs less campaigning and more leadership," Latham wrote.
Public polling showed that, even if Latham had run, King would have been the party's favorite in a primary. But a source close to Latham disputed that Wednesday, saying Latham "definitely saw polling that showed he would have been on a clear path to the United States Senate, not only in a general ... but in a primary."
Latham's statement led some to speculate that he was ruling out an immediate announcement, but he wasn't ruling out a candidacy entirely. Latham's chief of staff, James Carstensen, did not flatly deny that. "It's interesting what people are reading into the announcement," he said in a phone interview. "It's pretty clear to me. You announce the sky is blue, and someone finds 15 different theories on what you're really saying."
King's potential candidacy worried some Republicans, including Karl Rove and his Conservative Victory Project, who think his penchant for controversial remarks would hurt him in a general election. After Rove's group questioned his electability, King pushed back, saying he wouldn't be bullied out of the race.
"A potential Senate race remains an analytical decision first and then one that requires deep conviction," King said in a statement Wednesday, released after Latham's announcement.
"Such a decision includes, of course, my family and the best interests of Iowans and Americans. It is too big a decision to be rushed," he added.
"All eyes now turn to Congressman King," said Iowa Republican strategist Bob Haus. "He would enter a primary a prohibitive frontrunner."
But as the focus shifts to King -- and whether he is viable in a general election -- other Republicans are also quietly suggesting he may yet have competition in the primary. They're pointing to Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds as a possible entrant to the race, someone GOP insiders suggest has the profile of a strong general election candidate. One source close to the lieutenant governor said she is "very seriously" looking at the seat.
Another senior Republican official in D.C. singled out Reynolds, who was Gov. Terry Branstad's running mate in 2010 and is seen as a rising star in the Iowa GOP, as an "excellent candidate."
The flurry of buzz around Reynolds signifies that despite Latham's decision, senior Republicans both in the state and in Washington remain apprehensive about King's candidacy. And they're working quickly to ensure that his nomination doesn't take on the aura of inevitability.
"I think there are a number of other candidates looking at it," said Tim Albrecht, Brandstad's spokesman.
Albrecht's boss has been bearish on King before, telling Hotline On Call last November that the congressman's candidacy would be a "tough uphill climb." But of late he's vowed to back either King or Latham in the primary, and Albrecht reiterated on Wednesday that opponents should underestimate King at their own peril.
Other Republicans haven’t heard anything about the Reynolds buzz.
"I haven't heard any talk of that," said A.J. Spiker, the state GOP chairman. "She has indicated that she plans on running for lieutenant governor again, and I haven't heard anything the other way."
And not every Hawkeye State operative is sold on Reynolds, or any other King alternative. Craig Robinson, a former political director for the state GOP, said the other potential candidates lack King's fundraising capability or network of allies. He said any scenario in which King doesn't run, though remote, is "very scary."
"We don't necessarily have a bench of possible candidates in Iowa who are prepared for that kind of race," said Robinson, who now runs a news-and-commentary website for Iowa Republicans.
Other rumored candidates include Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey and Secretary of State Matt Schultz.
Democrats have been open about their desire to see King run, saying he'd be vulnerable in a general election. A King bid "would be fun," an Iowa Democratic operative said late last month. "[King] would offer a vision that would be very easy to pick apart."
Guy Cecil, the executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, criticized both Republicans in a statement following Latham's announcement. "This is yet another potential candidate in a long line of Republicans who have decided not to face down the extremist elements within their own party," he said.
Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley announced earlier this month he would vie to replace Harkin.
Latham's announcement reverberated downballot, as well. Businessman Mike Sherzan, a Democrat challenging Latham in the 3rd District, said in a statement that he's not backing down. Sherzan has been recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and Democrats hoped he would be running in an open-seat race.
"With Congressman Latham's announcement it is clear that there are two very different visions for Iowa’s Future — more of the same or a new approach," said Sherzan. "I entered this race to give Iowans a new voice and a chance to turn the page in Congress. I welcome the coming debate with Congressman Latham."