DES MOINES — U.S. Reps. Tom Latham on the Republican side and Democrat Bruce Braley are seen as the early front-runners in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin.
However, GOP leaders and insiders are uncertain Latham, a 10-term House member is interested in giving up his seniority to run for the Senate.
There’s little doubt Braley, 55, will consider running for the Senate seat, even though he said Friday he’s planning to run for re-election in northeast Iowa’s 1st District.
“But things can change,” he added.
And they did Saturday when Harkin, a five-term Democrat, announced he would retire at the end of his current six-year term rather than seek re-election in 2014. His retirement sets up the first open-seat Senate race in Iowa since Democrat John Culver defeated Republican David Stanley in 1974.
Republican Party of Iowa Chairman AJ Spiker sees an opportunity to pick up a seat and help the GOP win control of the U.S. Senate in 2014.
“Yes, the Republican Party can and, with enough hard work, I’m confident we will,” Spiker said to questions about Republicans’ ability to win the seat Harkin has held since 1985. He points out the president’s party historically loses seats in the mid-term elections after a re-election.
Republicans will have a strong state ticket likely led by Gov. Terry Branstad and the open-seat Senate race will attract the support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
It also will attract the attention — and money — of Super PACs, added Brian Dumas of Victory Enterprise, which advises many GOP candidates.
“My media buys just got a lot more expensive,” he said, predicting that Super PACs backing candidates in both parties will spend $25 million or more on the contest.
Newly elected Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Tyler Olson is confident the party will have a great candidate, whether it’s Braley or someone else.
“I’m focused on building the infrastructure we need to hold on to the seat,” Olson said Saturday. “Over the next few weeks, there will be people who will indicate interest.”
Greg Hauenstein of Groundswell Creative, a public affairs and political campaign firm, says 2014 is a long time from now, and there’s plenty of time for someone to get into the race.
“The excitement will still be there if someone announces in six or eight months,” he said.
Former Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, 47, also is mentioned as a possible Harkin successor.
“The Senate is in the family blood,” Tim Moran, a former GOP State Central Committee member, said about the son of John Culver, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1975-81.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, an Iowa City Democrat, brushed aside questions about whether he might run for the Senate and declined to speculate about the party’s prospects without Harkin at the top of the ticket.
“It certainly mixes things up, there’s no question about that,” Loebsack, 60, said. “It certainly makes that seat more competitive.”
Over on the Republican side, the buzz about Latham, 64, of Clive — who defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Leonard Boswell in November — is that he’s represented about two-thirds of the state during his tenure. That gives him a head start over other Republicans who might be interested in the Senate seat.
Among them is six-term Rep. Steve King, 63, a conservative from western Iowa who has represented about half of the state’s 99 counties. He’s never ruled out a Senate bid, even if it meant challenging Harkin. Moran believes the prospect of an open seat race would be appealing to his former boss.
For King, one GOP strategist said, the primary would be easier than the general election. A top party official speculated some Republicans would have reservations about running King in a statewide ticket.
Despite those misgivings about the outspoken King running on a statewide ticket, Moran thinks the party — both on a state and national level — might find it “refreshing to have Steve King at top of ticket to drive the message and definition of the party.”
Other speculated King is in a safe seat in conservative western and northwestern Iowa and could hold that seat for at least another 10 years.
“I’ve never known Steve King to sit back and be comfortable,” said Moran, a former GOP State Central Committee member.
Also on the list of potential GOP candidates are statewide officeholders Secretary of Ag Bill Northey, Secretary of State Matt Schultz and Auditor David Vaudt. However, it’s not known if any of them are interested in moving to Washington.
Beyond that, it’s a veritable who’s who of Republicans being mentioned as possible candidates including Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, the former GOP speaker of the Iowa House, and West Des Moines Mayor Steven Gaer.
Other names tossed into the hat include three-time gubernatorial candidate Bob Vander Plaats, former state representatives Steve Sukup of Sheffield and Danny Carroll of Grinnell, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, Republican Party of Iowa Co-Chairman David Fischer and former state party Chairman Matt Strawn.
(Ed Tibbetts of the Quad City Times contributed to this story.)