This weekend, IA Dem Sen. Tom Harkin shook up Iowa politics with a surprise announcement that he would retire at the end of his term in 2014. The far-left Senator had been widely expected to seek reelection next year and had even built up a $3 million campaign war chest. Harkin’s retirement will likely spark a reshuffle of politics in Iowa and presents the GOP with a prime opportunity to pick up an unexpected Senate seat.
Harkin’s announcement was such a shock because he is reaching a zenith in his political power in the Senate. If Kerry moves over to the State Department, Harkin would be number 7 in seniority in the Senate. He currently chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee with the largest share of the federal budget. He also chairs the powerful Labor-Health Committee, which covers a wide portfolio of federal programs. Popular in the state, he was almost assured reelection.
The move sets off a potential musical chairs in Iowa politics. It is the first open Senate seat in the state in 40 years. State Democrats seem to be leaning towards Rep. Bruce Braley, from eastern Iowa as a candidate to succeed Harkin. GOP Rep. Tom Latham, a close confident of Speaker Boehner, is considering a race for the Republican nomination. Conservative and grass roots activists may seek to enlist Rep. Steve King (R-IA) to run for the seat.
Iowa is home to the most competitive congressional districts in the country. The state uses a truly non-partisan commission to draw district lines. As a result, Iowa congressional incumbents are battle-tested for competitive campaigns. In 2012, Latham defeated Democrat Rep. Leonard Boswell, after being placed in the same district as a result of redistricting. King turned back a serious challenge from Christy Vilsack, the wife of former Governor and current Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack. In a primary, Latham would draw on establishment GOP support while King could tap support from conservative activists across the country.
Iowa’s current Senators underscores the competitive nature of the state’s politics. Senior Sen. Chuck Grassley is among the more conservative members of the GOP caucus, while Harkin is among the more liberal members of the Dem caucus. Yet, both are popular in the state.
The national Dem party’s lurch to the left, however, gives the GOP a real opportunity to pick up a seat. Obama’s aggressive push for gun control, in particular, could put Dems at a disadvantage in a state with a strong tradition of gun ownership.
In the past few weeks two incumbent Democrat Senators who were favored to win reelection, Harkin and WV’s Rockefeller, have announced their retirement. GA GOP Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who was threatened with a GOP primary challenge from conservatives, announced his retirement on Friday.
These three Senators seem to know something the national parties don’t yet seem to realize. 2014 is going to be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year for incumbents.