Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's surprise announcement last week that he won't be running for re-election to his U.S. Senate seat in 2014 has set off wide-ranging speculation as to who will be the candidates in that election. A number of names on both the Democrat side and Republican side are being mentioned.
Harkin, a Democrat, has served five terms in the senate. He has decided to retire in two years and will not run for a sixth term in 2014. Harkin is 73 years old and by the end of his current term he will have served in Congress for four decades -- 10 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and 30 in the U.S. Senate.
His decision to retire is far-reaching. It may play a role in which party holds the majority in the U.S. Senate. It could affect numerous political races. It opens up opportunities in Iowa politics on all levels. Iowa hasn't had an open Senate race since 1974.
Farmers are losing a major agriculture supporter on Capitol Hill
With Harkin's decision to retire, Iowa farmers are losing a major advocate in Washington. During his nearly 40 years in Congress, Harkin has been a key player shaping farm policy and fostering the ag sector's future in renewable energy. From 2001 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2009, the Democrat from Iowa chaired the U.S. Senate Ag Committee, a prominent role for an Iowa lawmaker representing a state where agriculture is the leading industry.
Since he became a member of Congress in 1974, Harkin has helped pass eight farm bills. Two of them (in 2002 and 2008) were passed while he was leading the Senate Ag Committee. But Harkin didn't simply re-authorize the traditional farm programs. Indeed, the Iowa landscape has been directly affected by Harkin's work. While heading the Senate Ag Committee, he wrote two farm bills that focused on the need for better soil and water conservation in exchange for government subsidies to farmers.
Harkin also understood the potential of the ag sector's future as a source of alternative energy. For example, in the 2002 Farm Bill, Harkin put in a section that focused largely on promoting and expanding the use of renewable fuels such as ethanol. Iowa now has 41 ethanol refineries capable of producing more than 3.7 billion gallons annually.
IRFA thanks Senator Harkin for his unwavering support for renewable fuels
The Iowa Renewable Fuels Association issued a press release this week thanking Harkin for his unwavering support of Iowa's renewable fuels industry. "Sen. Harkin has been a staunch supporter of the renewable fuels industry in Iowa, and the work he's accomplished in renewable fuels policy serves as a benchmark," says Rick Schwarck, president of IRFA.
Schwarck adds, "Sen. Harkin's role in implementing the first energy title of the farm bill, strong support of the Renewable Fuels Standard, and personal calls to the White House to increase the 2013 renewable volume obligation for biodiesel have been instrumental in ensuring that Iowa's renewable fuels industry can compete against the highly subsidized and mandated petroleum industry."
Iowa Senator also a very strong advocate for soil and water conservation
Harkin is credited with aggressively pushing to expand USDA soil and water conservation programs throughout the nation. He authored or supported numerous pieces of legislation that provided federal cost-sharing for farmers to encourage them and help them put more soil-saving and water quality improving practices on the land.
Farm organization and renewable fuel groups say whoever replaces Harkin will be expected to be ready to defend and speak out in support of agriculture. The criticism of Harkin in recent years is that he hasn't been quite as friendly to agriculture in terms of his tax policy and in reducing government spending.
Ed Greiman of Garner, president of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, says he's looking forward to a Senate race like this, because agriculture will play a big role in it. Bruce Rohwer of Paullina, president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association, says it's important to elect someone who understands the significant role renewable fuels such as ethanol and biodiesel play in our state's and our nation's economy and energy policy. Hopefully, Iowa will elect someone as a U.S. Senator who truly understands agriculture.
Who are front runners among potential candidates for the open Senate seat?
It appears you can take Gov. Terry Branstad's name off the list as a potential candidate for the Senate seat. At his weekly press conference January 28, Branstad, a Republican who has served 18 years as governor of Iowa, said "I appreciate Sen. Harkin's long service to the people of Iowa and I want to thank him for what he has accomplished, especially for people with disabilities. He's been a real champion in that legislative area."
During his Senate career, Harkin has tirelessly worked for Americans with disabilities; his focus has also been on health care, education, energy and agriculture issues.
Branstad added, "Over the years, I've been encouraged to run for the U.S. Senate a number of times. I've always said I'd love to run bit I don't want to serve." He said Washington D.C. is a great place to visit but he wouldn't want to live there. "I love the state of Iowa and I want to keep my focus on the task at hand and the many policy decisions that need to be made here in 2013."
Many potential candidates keeping their options open -- Democrats and Republicans
Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, said she's flattered to be on a list of possible U.S. Senate candidates, but she's also focusing on her work at the Statehouse. A reporter asked, "Are you ruling it out? Are you saying no to a possible U.S. Senate candidacy?" Reynolds replied, "Well, I will keep my options open."
On the Republican side, Congressmen Steve King and Tom Latham are mentioned most often by political analysts as the top names of possible candidates for the Senate seat. On the Democrat side, U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, from Waterloo, seems to be first in a long line of potential Senate candidates representing his party. That is, unless former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack should seek the senate position. Vilsack, now U.S. agriculture secretary, seems to be content in his position as USDA chief.
Open seat in U.S. Senate also creates new possibilities among candidates for governor
Having a U.S. Senate seat opening up, also changes the conversation about the race for governor in 2014 in Iowa. Democrats who might have considered a run for governor might now become interested in the open Senate seat or any open congressional seat, if one of Iowa's current congressmen decides to run for the U.S. Senate. If Branstad decides not to run for governor again, the 2014 election could mark a huge generational change in Iowa's political leadership.
Then there's Iowa's Senior U.S. Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, who shows no signs he'll retire when his term is up in 2016. But most people thought Harkin was headed toward a re-election bid. Grassley, by the way, had this to say about Sen. Harkin's decision to retire: "Sen. Harkin and I have rarely agreed on the issues or voted the same, but he and I have gotten along for a long time with open lines of communication, and I appreciate his public service and zeal for Iowa interests. Barbara and I wish him and his family well."