GOP likely to gain from Harkin’s exit

The second Democratic U.S. senator so far to announce he isn’t running in 2014 has given hope to Republicans that they can add seats to the 45 they already hold—and, possibly, next year win the six seats they need to reach a majority in the Senate.

In a surprise announcement Saturday morning, Iowa’s Sen. Tom Harkin told the Associated Press that, after 30 years in the Senate — and 10 in the House before that — he would not seek re-election in 2014. At 73, he said, “it’s time to step aside” and thus permit a new generation of Democrats to step up.

Most state Democrats took that as a wink to Secretary of Agriculture and former two-term governor, Tom Vilsack. Like Harkin, Vilsack is popular with the far left of the party and in the farm community. He did get something of a black eye last year when wife Christie Vilsack lost a bid against Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Also increasingly on the radar is Rep. Bruce Braley, a “populist-liberal” cut from the cloth of Harkin and past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association.

Beyond Vilsack and Braley, the Democrats receiving the most mention for now as Harkin’s possible heir are either close to the senator or have political scar tissue. Former Gov. Chet Culver, for example, was once considered a rising star in state and national Democratic politics but was defeated for re-election in 2010–in part because of his handling of disaster relief after floods ravaged Iowa two years before. The 46-year-old Culver, son of former Rep. (1964-74) and Sen. (1974-80) John Culver (D-Iowa), now runs an energy consulting firm.

Culver’s lieutenant governor, Patty Judge, is also getting early mention for the Senate race. Judge, like Culver, was ousted two years ago.

Iowa’s “Eternal General”–longtime Attorney General Tom Miller–could probably keep Harkin’s seat in Democratic hands. But at 68, there are serious doubts that Miller would want to start a new career as a freshman senator.

Among Republicans, the picture is quite different. Present Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, former state senator and strong conservative, is regarded as a strong contender. Popular among grass roots Republicans for her frequent Lincoln Day speeches statewide (“Kim would go to the opening of an envelope,” said one GOP operative), Reynolds almost moved voters a few years ago with her public admission of battling years of alcoholism.

Reynolds had also been mentioned as the heir to five-term Gov. Terry Branstad if he decided to step down in 2014. Now there is also some talk of Branstad making the Senate race. The governor is 66.

“Terry Branstad has had several opportunities to become U.S. senator in the past and turned them all down,” Kim Schmett, former Polk County (Des Moines) GOP chairman, told Human Events. “He loves being governor and he’s very good at it.”

At least two House Members who are popular with the tea party and conservatives in general are getting some attention, too: seven-term Congressman Steve King, best known for his opposition to illegal immigration, and 10-term Congressman Tom Latham, who just won in a newly-reconstituted district against Democrat and fellow Rep. Leonard Boswell.

Iowa Republicans do have a bumper crop of potentially strong Senate hopefuls who are now in lower offices. Secretary of State Matt Schutz, a strong proponent of voter I.D. laws, comes to mind. So do state House Speaker Kraig Paulsen and House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer, both considered strong conservatives.

It will probably take a few weeks or even months for both parties to sort out their candidates. One thing is inarguable now: Republicans are far happier about running for an open seat than they would have been against Harkin, a fixture in state politics who had $2.7 million in his campaign coffers.