Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, turned Iowa politics upside down Saturday, announcing that he won’t seek another term in 2014.

The longtime force in the state said he came to the decision because he wanted to fulfill a promise to his wife, Ruth, and that after 40 years in Congress, it was time for him to give somebody else a turn.

Harkin, who is 73, has been in the Senate since 1985 and the U.S. Congress since 1975.

In an interview Saturday, he said his health is fine, even laughing as he noted he’d just undergone his latest colonoscopy. And he said he wasn’t worried about his re-election prospects, either. Harkin said he and his wife have just been talking about how they want to live their lives, what they want to do — and how much time they have left to do it.

“As we all know, life is very fleeting,” he said. If he served another term, he noted he’d be 81 by the time it was over.

He said he and his wife were ready for a new chapter in his life. “We want to do it before it’s too late,” he said.

Harkin said he’d been thinking about retiring since the last election, but it was just a few days ago that he firmly made his choice. “Really, the decision was just irrevocably made this week,” he said Saturday.

Harkin’s decision sets up what might well be a scramble, in both parties, for his seat.

On the Democratic side, Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, has long been rumored to be interested in the job. But there also are other Iowa Democrats who could jump into a primary race, too.

In a statement Saturday, Braley called Harkin’s decision a “huge loss” for the people of Iowa but gave no indication whether he’d run for the seat.

On the Republican side, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, has been rumored as a possible candidate for the seat, but as with the Democrats, there also are other GOP possibilities. Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, surely will be talked about as a possible candidate. Former Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn also has been talked about as a possibility.

Harkin said he wasn’t playing favorites in choosing a Democratic successor, but he suggested there wouldn’t be a divisive primary. “I’m just thinking just from talking with people, sometime relatively soon ... by this summer maybe ... Democrats in Iowa will probably be gravitating toward a certain individual,” he said.

He didn’t say who that person might be.

Harkin said he’d like to see a nominee who can raise money, organize a campaign — and who is a “pragmatic progressive.”

President Barack Obama issued a statement Saturday that praised Harkin, noting “he has fought passionately to improve quality of life for Americans with disabilities and their families, to reform our education system and ensure that every American has access to affordable health care.”

Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, called Harkin “my Iowa political hero.” He said Saturday that his “knowledge, compassion and fight cannot be replaced.”

Fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley tweeted out his thanks to Harkin for his service shortly after receiving a phone call from Harkin.

“Senator 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,” the Republican senator said in a statement.

Harkin’s decision will strip the party of its most successful officeholder and top-of-the-ticket presence at a time when it also must find someone to run for governor in 2014, perhaps against another of Iowa’s most successful politicians, Gov. Terry Branstad.

Harkin, the son of a coal miner father and a mother who was a Slovenian immigrant, won a seat in Congress on his second try, in the aftermath of Watergate. Ever since, he’s been a leading liberal voice.

Over the years, perhaps his greatest legislative achievement was the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a groundbreaking law that outlawed discrimination against people with disabilities and is credited with opening more opportunities for them.

It was a fight that Harkin often talked about in light of his own experience. His brother, Frank, was deaf.

Harkin also was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee through the writing of two farm bills, in 2002 and 2007, and he had a role in writing key parts of the Affordable Care Act.

Harkin ran for president, in 1992, but it was a short-lived campaign. As expected, he won the Iowa caucuses, which because of his candidacy, weren’t really a factor in the presidential campaign.

It was one of Harkin’s rare political losses. A fiery campaigner who could raise the roof on a union hall or virtually any other setting, the Cumming, Iowa, native made it a habit of dispatching Republican congressmen who rose up to challenge him.

He defeated U.S. Reps. Tom Tauke in 1990, Jim Ross Lightfoot in 1996 and Greg Ganske in 2002.

In the intervening years, Harkin has steadily gained seniority and now chairs one of the most influential committees in the Senate — the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

It’s a panel with a wide portfolio from which Harkin says his last two years will be spent aggressively seeking change in the areas of education, health care, improving retirement security for seniors and employment prospects for individuals with disabilities.

In fact, the committee has such a sizeable influence — and fits so well with issues that motivate Harkin — that his decision to step down was a shock to many in the state Saturday.

Sue Dvorsky, the outgoing Iowa Democratic Party chairwoman, told Radio Iowa the news was “earthquaky.”

Harkin met with members of the state party’s central committee in Des Moines on Saturday, breaking the news as they were preparing to choose their new party chairman.

“There were a lot of tears today,” said Susan Frembgen, the chairwoman of the Scott County Democratic Party and a member of the central committee. “It’s a sad day for Democrats in Iowa.”

In the interview, Harkin said leaving wasn’t easy, noting the seniority he’d built up. “It’s tough,” he said. “I’d be lying to you if I said it was easy to walk away from this.”

He said his decision was made Wednesday, before the Senate decided on a filibuster reform that wasn’t as far-ranging as Harkin had proposed. But, unlike others who have left Congress, Harkin said he wasn’t going to complain about the partisanship or difficulties in getting things done.

“I’m not going to bash the Senate,” he said. “I love the Senate.”

(14) comments

Deep sea

Really QC Times? Turned politics upside down?! He will not be missed in the least.


I guess the guy has received enough kickbacks, bribes and special favors that he can retire comfortably now (thank goodness).

Let's just be glad that another old school drone is leaving the institution,.. his drone replacement can hardly do any more damage than he did.

Isoenksen,.. no disrespect meant here,.. I'm glad that you received a response to your letters and it gave you a certain amount of hope that somebody was listening (at least you have hope). However,.. if you actually believe that Harkin himself actually answered your letter or even has the vaguest clue as to who you are or what your concern is,.. you may be setting yourself up for a disappointment (beware).

To the commenters hoping to replace this drone (Harkin), with a conservative drone,... PAAALEEEEEEEZE,... it's as if it makes a difference if we (the people) are getting the left hook or the right hook,.. both are trying to knock us out of the competition in their own way. There isn't a dimes worth of difference between the two.


Barley vs. Latham would be a good race. Both intelligent, neither belonging to the extreme fringes of their parties.

If the Iowa GOP is smart (a gigantic if) they will strongly encourage Steve King to stay put.


It is about time! 40 years is about 30 years too long for any person to be a senator!


Tom Harkin has ALWAYS answered every letter we have ever written to him concerning an issue. His concern and consideration for the "working man" has been one thing that we could always depend on. He will be sorely missed. Please put another Democrat in his place!


I sent him 3 regarding the current gun-ban craziness sweeping DC. I've received responses from EVERY state and US Rep/Senator I've sent them to, EXCEPT Harkin.


Good riddance, one less liberal in washington.


Harkin has been a pretty good Senator overall, but 40 years is enough.
It will make for the first interesting Senate race in Iowa in a long time.


I presume he will retire to his real home in the Bahamas now. Is there anything more disgusting than a carpetbagger like Harkin?

senor citizen

Anything more disgusting than a carpetbagger? Yes a old no choice, no birth control ignorant mid-westerner like yourself who gives the Tea Party and true Libertarians and Conservatives a bad name by pretending to be one of us.


Great. Now if we can get rid of Grassley and Steve King, we'll be in business.


sen. harkin has been in way to long people that have been in office as long as him are the reason we have the problems we have now limit the terms just like the president 2 terms then your out no benefits and no pension


I'm a big fan of term limits. I also hope Mr. Harkin won't be replaced by another Liberal politician. We have too many of them in Washington now.

Big Gus

Yes Mr. Harkin, 40 years is long enough...please step aside. I would sure like to see term limits for ALL of our senators and represenatives, along with the removal of any benefits that go along with the job (pension, healthcare, etc.). I doubt it will ever happen though.

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