Tom Harkin announces retirement, sets stage for key race

Tom Harkin announces retirement, sets stage for key race
Tom Harkin announces retirement, sets stage for key race
Associated Press

A day after conservative Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) announced he would retire, one of the chamber’s progressive champions said he’d do the same.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin said Saturday he will not seek a sixth term in 2014, a decision that frees a new generation of Iowa Democrats to seek higher office and eases some of the burden Republicans face in retaking the Senate.

Harkin, chairman of an influential Senate committee, announced his decision during an interview with The Associated Press, and said the move could surprise some.

But the 73-year-old cited his age – he would be 81 at the end of a sixth term – as a factor in the decision, saying it was time to pass the torch he has held for nearly 30 years.

The news comes as something of a surprise – Harkin had already raised plenty of money for a re-election bid and was all but certain to win a sixth term if he wanted one. The Iowan also has plenty of influence, given his chairmanship of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

But it appears Harkin is simply ready to enjoy retirement, and he’s certainly earned it after a terrific career in public service. The senator will be missed.

The next question, of course, is what might become of his seat. Iowa supported President Obama by fairly strong margins in 2008 and 2012, but it’s also a key swing state with a record of electing Republicans to top statewide offices.

With that in mind, Democrats hope to rally behind a strong candidate, and Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term incumbent from northeastern Iowa, clearly wants the gig. It is not yet clear whether Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, is interested.

But it’s the Republican field that’s likely to be more interesting.

Guess who’s eager to run for Harkin’s seat?

[Rep. Steve King] strongly suggested he may run with a statement late Saturday.

“Iowans now have a real opportunity to elect a true Constitutional conservative to help lead us out of our crisis of debt and deficit,” he said.

This is hardly shocking, since King had already expressed interest in running for the Senate anyway. Now that it’s an open-seat contest, of course the right-wing congressman is eyeing the race.

To be sure, King would face a crowded GOP field that’s likely to include other Republican congressman, conservative activist Bob Vander Plaats, Secretary of State Matt Schultz, some state legislators, and some Iowa GOP officials.

But what continues to fascinate me is the larger pattern. In 2010, Republicans had clear opportunities to win Senate seats in Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, but they nominated extremists who couldn’t win statewide races. In 2012, it happened again in Missouri, Indiana, and Connecticut.

And in 2014, we’re likely to see the same scenario all over again. Chambliss is stepping down in Georgia, and Rep. Paul Broun is a leading Republican contender. Sen. Mark Begich (D) is generally considered vulnerable in Alaska, but Joe Miller is now considered the leading GOP candidate to take him on.

And in Iowa, Steve King is already one of the leading Senate candidates in a winnable race for the Republican Party.

Yes, a GOP primary may ultimately pit King against the less-right-wing Rep. Tom Latham, but the folks who show up for Republican primary contests in Iowa are not known for their pragmatism or moderation.