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January 26th, 2013

Harkin announces retirement from Senate, shocking political class

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Written by: Jeff Patch
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DES MOINES—Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has announced he will not seek reelection in a shocking Saturday morning interview from his Cumming bungalow with Associated Press reporter Tom Beaumont. Harkin’s decision comes after sustained controversy related to fundraising for the Harkin Institute of Public Policy at Iowa State University.

The news floored the Iowa political class, especially Democrats.

Party officials heard the news just before the start of the party’s State Central Committee meeting Sat. morning. Michael Hunt, the party’s communications director, kicked this reporter out of the meeting just after the news broke. Hunt said party officials decided was not a legitimate news outlet even though they agreed days in advance to let a reporter attend, outgoing chairwoman Sue Dvorsky and incoming chairman Tyler Olson welcomed the reporter, and staffers offered this journalist coffee and the building’s Wi-Fi access code.

At around 9:30 a.m. when the story hit the Associated Press wire, Des Moines Register political reporter Jennifer Jacobs jumped up out of her chair and raced out of the room to take a phone call. Harkin told the Register that he decided against running for reelection Wednesday. “I’m going to learn to dance,” he said.

Hunt sheepishly informed this reporter that he had to leave while panicked Democrats wondered aloud what was happening. No other reporters attended the meeting, which Democrats had said would likely be a boring, pro forma session.

Conventional wisdom held that the 73-year-old Harkin, considered the dean of Iowa’s Democrats, would seek a sixth term in 2014. He has around $2.7 million in his campaign committee and no Republicans have announced challenges. Harkin’s announcement will set off a furious round of speculation among Republicans and Democrats about who will seek the U.S. Senate nomination.

Prominent liberal blogger desmoinesdem described the development as “terrible news for Iowa Democrats” as the “Democratic Party won’t be able to count on Harkin’s millions to fund a decent coordinated GOTV campaign in a midterm election year.” Gov. Terry Branstad also seems buoyed by Harkin’s decision, as potential challengers, such as Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Waterloo, seem likely to seek an open Senate seat rather than take on a popular incumbent governor.

“This. Changes. Everything,” wrote John Deeth, a Democratic activist from Iowa City. “[I]n the calculus for next year’s elections it amps every race in Iowa, from the courthouses to the Capitol, up to eleven as the national political infrastructure will descend on Iowa for a must-win race.” and other news outlets have scrutinized the role of Harkin and his wife Ruth, a member of the state Board of Regents, in establishing and fundraising for the Harkin Institute. Harkin’s retirement announcement changes the dynamic of the scandal at the institute, which will hold a board meeting to discuss its future Feb. 4 in Ames.

Several factors likely weighed on Harkin’s decision to retire. Although he chairs the powerful Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, he has been frustrated at the pace of progress of liberal policies. This week the U.S. Senate approved changes to the filibuster that Harkin derided as “baby steps.”

“I said to President Obama… ‘Look, if you get reelected, if we don’t do something significant about filibuster reform, you might as well take a four-year vacation,’” Harkin said.

Instead, it’s Harkin who decided to take a permanent vacation from elected office.

The news worried Democrats, who seemed cocky going into the 2014 cycle after winning the presidential race in Iowa and holding the state Senate. They also seemed imbued with swagger after state Rep. Tyler Olson, D-Cedar Rapids, secured the party chairmanship in a collegial, uncontested race after constant infighting in the Republican Party of Iowa.

Before the meeting, Olson mocked Republican state legislators in a conversation with a Democratic activist. Olson suggested that “crazies” in the GOP would be the party’s own worst enemy as they debate issues in the legislature.

“They can’t help themselves,” Olson said. “They’re going to stand up and start railing away, ‘Everybody needs to carry an AK-47!’ We should just let them talk.”

Olson, though, seemed concerned that the woes of the Republican Party of Iowa, led by chairman A.J. Spiker, would hurt Iowa’s first in the nation caucus status. 

“On Monday I’m going to call A.J. and sit down with them and offer to help them along. We need to help them,” Olson told the activist, noting that the 2011 Ames Straw Poll “killed” the party and advanced “crazy” activists.

update: Sen. Harkin’s office issued this statement Saturday:

“I have been thinking hard about the decision whether to run for a sixth term in the United States Senate for a number of months—even more these last few weeks. I’ve reached a decision, and what I’ve decided really boils down to two things. First, I’m going to fulfill a promise that I made to my wife Ruth, and that I also made to myself. It’s a promise that we’re going to do certain things together—and that we’re going to live together in a way we’ve often talked about—before it gets too late. That’s a decision I believe many Iowans can relate to, either because of their own circumstances, or perhaps those of their parents. I have the privilege to be able to make this decision on my own terms, which not everyone can, and I’m deeply grateful to the people of Iowa that I do have that opportunity. I’ve been extremely fortunate. I was born here in Cumming in modest circumstances. My father was a coal-miner with just an 8th-grade education. My mother arrived to this country as an immigrant with virtually no earthly possessions. This state and this country have allowed me to enjoy a life and career beyond anything I imagined as a boy or young man.

Second, I’m 73 years old right now. At the end of this term I’ll be 75. When the current Congress is over, I will have served in the United States House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate for a total of 40 years. After 40 years, I just feel it’s somebody else’s turn. I can’t put into words what an honor it is to serve Iowa. And I don’t by any means plan to retire completely from public life at the end of this Congress. But I am going to make way for someone new in this Senate seat. I think that is right not just for me, but for Iowa, as well.”

About the Author

Jeff Patch

Jeff Patch is a correspondent for He’s a communications, research and political consultant for Iowa candidates, causes and companies. E-mail questions, comments, insults or story ideas to jeff [at]

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