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Harkin’s retirement shakes up Iowa’s political scene

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 12:32 p.m. CDT

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As much as folks across the United States focus on Iowa every four years for the first stages of the presidential nominating process — and let’s face it, with a “lame duck” Obama presidency coming in 2016, the next time around is going to be wild — all eyes will be focused on the Hawkeye State’s political landscape for the foreseeable future.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin’s announcement Saturday that he will not seek re-election in 2014 has shaken the figurative ant farm that is the Iowa political scene. Democrats assumed Harkin would run again and had been focusing on how to unseat Gov. Terry Branstad during this “off-year” cycle. Now they have to find top-flight candidates for both of the top-of-the-ballot races.

And it’s not as though they’re lacking of candidates. And this early in the process, there are no “short lists.” Everyone who is anyone in the Iowa Democratic Party has to be weighing his or her options for both gubernatorial and senatorial runs.

And then you have Tom Latham’s congressional seat, which now represents Des Moines. Democrats can ill afford any Republican holding that seat for long and were likely to throw a big name and big-time money in an effort to bring down the 10-term incumbent. Adding Harkin’s seat into the mix certainly creates a few challenges there, not the least of which is money.

But the lynchpin on the Democratic side rests in Rep. Bruce Braley’s hands. He was already considered by many to be the frontrunner for the gubernatorial nomination. But, running for the U.S. Senate may be equally enticing. If he should decide to run for either post, a secondary cascade of events could begin rolling in Northeast Iowa.

Another key player in all of this could be U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who previously served as the 40th Governor of Iowa. Or, his wife, Christie, could decide to take another shot at politics, as well.

On the Republican side, there had already been rumblings of possible grassroots efforts to primary Branstad. It’s no secret the old-guard types who have huddled around Iowa’s 16-year governor (two in his current term as 42nd Governor of Iowa plus 14 as the 39th) have been at war with the new-blood party officials, led by Iowa GOP Chairman A.J. Spiker since the Ron Paul-aligned Central Committee took over after the 2012 caucuses.

Harkin’s announcement will only create further intrigue for the Republican Party of Iowa. Will some who may have considered primary runs against Branstad instead focus on Harkin’s seat? Will some who considered a primary run against Branstad “too dangerous” politically find the courage to run in a wide-open senatorial primary field?

Will there even be a primary effort against Branstad now?

The short answer to all those questions is simple: it’s too early to tell. As is the case with the Democrats, everyone who is anyone in the Iowa GOP has to be weighing his or her options. And the Republican list of potential candidates is quite long, as well.

Rep. Steve King is often touted as a possible Senate candidate, but I have my doubts as to whether or not he could actually win a statewide race. He would first have to prove he is even interested in such a run. But if he did run, he would certainly be a polarizing force, both in a primary and the General Election.

I think it’s more likely you could see Latham take a run at Harkin’s open seat. He just handily defeated a fellow long-term incumbent, Leonard Boswell, in a newly formed district that really favored no one. The majority of his voting record helps him appeal to grassroots conservatives while he has maintained his loyalty to the old-guard establishment within the party.

If he does decide to run, he would be labeled the frontrunner. But, it would create a secondary chain of political moves similar to if Braley ran for the Democrats.

What will make this all the more intriguing, however, is a provision in Iowa’s election laws requiring a primary election winner to receive at least 35-percent of the vote to win his or her party’s nomination. Otherwise, the matter is taken to a convention — in the case of a senatorial race, a state convention — in which literally anyone (you didn’t have to be on the ballot to be considered at the convention) could emerge with his or her party’s nomination.

There are two predictions about the 2014 General Election that I can make today:

• If you hate campaign commercials, you’re going to have a very long 2014 — a lot of money is going to be spent in what is usually a low-cost “off-year” election cycle, possibly on levels eclipsing the run-up to the 2012 Iowa Caucus.

• Expect Iowa to get talked about a lot in the national media throughout 2014 — a lot of very big names in Iowa politics on both sides of the political spectrum and everywhere in between are going to be spending a lot of time on the airwaves, talking about Iowa and Iowa issues.

Beyond that, all I can say is hang onto your hat; it’s going to be a wild ride.

If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading this in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Editor Bob Eschliman may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at beschliman@newtondailynews.com via email.

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