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January 28th, 2013

Winners and Losers from Harkin’s Decision to Retire

By Craig Robinson

Senator Tom Harkin’s decision to retire from the U.S. Senate caught Democrats and Republicans alike off guard.  While the prospect of Iowa’s junior senator retiring has been discussed for years, Harkin’s recent activity convinced many that he was gearing up for a re-election campaign, not retirement.

Even before people could process the news that Harkin is retiring, commentators, pundits, and news entities started obsessing over who will run for the office in 2014.  The speculation is understandable, but it undermines the significance of Harkin’s decision to step away from elected office.

I’m 36 years old and have never lived outside of Iowa.  There has never been an open U.S. Senate seat in my lifetime.  One might say that the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Iowa will also be the most significant campaign in my lifetime.  For a state that plays host to the first contest in the presidential nomination process, that distinction carries some weight.

It is always fun to speculate on who might run to fill the vacancy left by Harkin’s retirement, but doing so immediately following his announcement is meaningless for a couple reasons.

First, every high profile Republican and Democrat is currently entertaining the idea of running.  An opportunity like this doesn’t come along that often.  Just think of all the political careers that began and ended in Iowa between 1980 and 2014.  I’ll be producing a list of prospective candidates later this week, but I hope to provide a little more insight in the list than just throwing out a bunch of names.

Secondly, letting a little time pass before we begin to speculate about who may or may not run allows us to see who is actually serious about running.  It’s not always about who’s thinking about running, but who actually has the ability to run.  There is a big difference between the two.  A lot of Republicans ran for governor in 2010, but only two of them really had the ability to mount a serious statewide campaign.  Now is the time to keep an eye on the most prominent politicians in the state and watch to see if they begin positioning themselves for a run.  What they do could impact what other less prominent Iowans do in the wake of Harkin’s retirement.

In my opinion, the only list more important than a list of potential candidates is the list of winners and losers from Senator Harkin’s decision to retire.  Harkin’s retirement does more than create a open seat contest in a U.S. Senate race, it also impacts every other race on the ballot and so much more.

The Winners:

Governor Terry Branstad:  Branstad was a clear winner when Senator Harkin announced his retirement.  Before Harkin’s announcement on Saturday, top Democrat candidates were all positioning themselves to run against Branstad.  Now they are positioning themselves to run for Harkin’s seat.  Not only has the level of candidate that Branstad will face likely been diminished, but so too has the campaign that Iowa Democrats mount against him.  The focus for Iowa Democrats will now be retaining Harkin’s seat in the Senate, not ousting the popular Branstad.

Congressman Bruce Braley:  Braley is a winner because he is the Democrat best positioned to run for Harkin’s seat.  Timing is everything in politics, and Braley is fortunate that Harkin’s seat comes available following the 2012 race that he won big and not the 2010 contest, which he barely won.  I’m not convinced that Braley is the best candidate for Iowa Democrats, but when you scan the Democrat bench in Iowa, he stands head and shoulders above anyone else they have.

For the record, it’s not a question of whether Braley will run for the Harkin seat, it’s when will he announce.  Braley has to try to seize this opportunity.  He may never have another one like it again.

The Iowa Caucuses: The 2014 Senate race in Iowa will be one of the top, if not the top, senate race in the country.  Since the 2016 presidential contest will be without an incumbent running for re-election, Democrats and Republicans with an eye on 2016 will be traveling to Iowa to help their party’s candidate.  In essence the 2014 U.S. Senate race in Iowa will basically force 2016 presidential candidate to travel to Iowa early and often.  That will only go to help cement Iowa’s First-in-the-Nation status.  It’s also going to get that race started much earlier this time around.

Iowa Republicans: Harkin’s decision to retire is a huge victory for Republicans in Iowa.  While Republicans have dreamed of the day when Harkin is gone from the Senate, the prospects of winning the seat increase since he is stepping away before a mid-term election after a Democrat was re-elected president.  Had this seat become open in a presidential year, Republicans may have struggled to hold on to it.  This is not just a golden opportunity, rather, this is the best-case scenario for Republicans.

Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz: I’m not of the belief that Schultz will run for the U.S. Senate, but removing Harkin from the top of the ballot will help his re-election bid.  Democrats are targeting Schultz in 2014.  They already have a candidate in place to run against him, but to unseat Schultz, they need a strong Democrat ticket and plenty of financial resources.  The absence of Harkin on the ballot hurts the Democrat ticket, and the open Senate seat is going to steer resources away from Schultz opponent.

Professional Pols:  Iowa has a rich history of producing some of the most sought after political workers in the country.  It is a byproduct of the caucuses, but many get their start on local campaigns.  The 2014 senate campaign will provide ample opportunities for individuals who want a career in politics.  These U.S. Senate campaigns will be large, and it is also likely there will be a lot of them since both parties could have contested primaries.  If you ever wanted work in politics, get on board one of these campaigns.

TV and Radio Stations: Every four years Iowa radio and TV stations prosper due to the presidential caucuses.  They are now poised to cash in for the next two years thanks to a U.S. Senate race and gubernatorial contest.

Political Consultants: With the likelihood of multiple senate campaigns in both political parties, political consultants are going to be in high demand.  Whether you are a fundraiser, mail vendor, media consultant, or general consultant, the news that Harkin is retiring is great news for business.  Congratulations, and remember to advertise on

Iowa Senate Republicans: Iowa Republicans were disappointed when they couldn’t wrestle control of the Iowa Senate away from Iowa Democrats in 2012.  Senate Democrats will have to defend 14 seats, while Republicans only have to defend 11 in 2014.  The bad news for Republicans is that they have some difficult seats to defend, and the opportunity to pick up Democrat seats is limited.

The good news is that Terry Branstad is on the ballot, and Tom Harkin no longer shares top billing.  That should help Republicans keep control of districts that are currently held by Sens. Bertrand, Chelgren, and Greiner.  If Republicans nominate a strong general election candidate for the U.S. Senate, the Republican appeal at the top of the ticket could help be the difference maker in a lot of close contests.  Iowa Senate Republicans did exceptionally well when Senator Grassley and Branstad topped the ballot in 2010.  If the ballot is somewhat similar, Republicans could finally win the majority in the Iowa Senate.

The Losers

Iowa Democrats:  Don’t let them fool you.  The removal of Tom Harkin’s name from the ballot severely hurts Iowa Democrats up and down the ballot.  Harkin would have helped negate Branstad’s statewide appeal on the ballot, and now Democrats will likely have an untested statewide name at the to of the ballot.  It’s a huge loss.

Senator Tom Harkin:  There is no reason for Harkin to hang his head as he walks away for the U.S. Senate, but it’s doubtful he wanted to leave this way.  In various interviews Harkin seems tired, and almost sad to be leaving.  He also leaves under the specter of a scandal involving the Harkin Institute at Iowa State University.

Senator Chuck Grassley:  Harkin’s exit will add pressure for Grassley to step aside in 2016 when his sixth term in Senate expires.  Some Republicans groaned when Grassley, who is 79 years old, ran for re-election in 2010.  All that said, Grassley is in excellent health, and unlike Harkin, he is constantly mixing things up in the U.S. Senate and is highly visible.  Nobody is going to force Grassley to retire, but Harkin’s decision to step aside will only put pressure on Grassley to announce his future plans sooner rather than later.

The Current Occupants of The Republican Party of Iowa:  While many people complain about the allegiance the staff and elected officials of the Republican Party of Iowa have to Ron Paul and the liberty movement, their positions with RPI basically prevent them from playing major roles on any primary campaign in 2014.  In fact, the worst place to be during an important primary is at the Republican Party since you are required to remain neutral, and thus, all you can do is sit back and watch.  Unlike the caucuses, Iowa’s primaries are conducted by state and county officials, not the individual political parties.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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