By Craig Robinson
In an article published on Thursday that speculates on the political ambitions of a number of Iowa Democrats, the Des Moines Register used the phrase, “virtually unbeatable,” to describe U.S. Senator Tom Harkin.
Having continually held elective political office since 1975, it is true that Senator Harkin has been victorious on Election Day more times than not. However, Harkin has actually had two unsuccessful political campaigns. The first was an unsuccessful congressional campaign in 1972. The second loss is Harkin’s failed presidential run in 1992. In all, Harkin’s win loss record stands at 10-2.
The problem with the distinction the Register choose to give Harkin is that it’s never used to describe two Republican office holders with impressive election records—U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley and Governor Terry Branstad.
Branstad often touts his 12-0 record in contested elections, which includes five victorious gubernatorial campaigns. Branstad also has defeated an incumbent governor, something that no other modern Iowa politician can claim. If Harkin is virtually unbeatable with a 10-2 record, I can’t wait to see how the Register plans to describe Branstad in every horserace article in the upcoming year.
If Branstad is the gold standard in Iowa Politics, Sen. Grassley is at the platinum level. Since getting elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1958, Grassley is 17-0 in general elections campaigns. One of those victories also came against an incumbent U.S. Senator, who just happens to the father of the incumbent governor that Branstad defeated in 2010.
The only thing more impressive than Grassley’s longevity is how he has dominated his opponents. Grassley’s average margin of victory over his opponents in six U.S. Senate elections is 32 points. Harkin’s average margin of victory in his five U.S. Senate races is just 12 points. So does that mean if Harkin is “virtually unbeatable” then Sen. Grassley is just plain unbeatable?
The practice of assigning such descriptions to our elected representatives is silly. Congressman Tom Latham is 11-0, Congressman Steve King is 7-0, and King kicked off his run at elected office by beating an incumbent in a primary. Calling someone “virtually unbeatable” is what people expect to read on partisan websites or blogs, not in one of the state’s largest newspapers.
There are also plenty of examples of when incumbent politicians have been defeated despite being perceived as being “virtually unbeatable.”
Take for example the former U.S. Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska. Stevens was appointed to his Senate seat in 1968 and won re-election seven times. Not once did he receive less that 66 percent of the vote, until he was defeated in 2008.
What brought down Stevens? An ethics scandal.
What does Tom Harkin have in common with Stevens? An ethics scandal.
Like Stevens, Harkin represents a conservative-leaning state and has done so for a very long time. Harkin is also involved in a developing ethics scandal that revolves around the Harkin Institute at Iowa State University. The Des Moines Register has chosen to basically ignore the scandal that involves foreign companies with an interest in legislation pending in front of the U.S. Senate being asked to contribute to the institute. Others, such as this website, the Associated Press, and the Washington Free Beacon, have reported on it and continue to investigate.
Maybe one of the reasons Sen. Harkin is “virtually unbeatable” is because the Des Moines Register refuses to scrutinize him like they scrutinize other elected officials in the state, especially Republicans.
After seeing a number of incumbents lose in primaries and general elections since 2010, the last thing a newspaper should do is say that a long-serving politician is unbeatable. This is especially true when that politician refuses to answer questions involving a growing scandal and continually cancels media availabilities.
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