No Iowa Democrat has ever served longer in the US Senate than five-term Sen.Tom Harkin, an old-school, liberal progressive best known for his early and sustained support for the landmark Americans With Disability Act. His decision to not seek reelection, announced on Jan. 26, gives Iowans their first open Senate race since 1974.
To Republicans, it's also a more likely shot at a turnover, and, perhaps, an early test of whether national Republican groups, such as Mr. Rove's Conservative Victory Project, can dissuade conservatives deemed unelectable from getting into the race or can diminish their prospects.
Iowa is a classic swing state, with a Republican governor and a split congressional delegation: two Republicans and two Democrats in the House, a six-term Republican and a five-term Democrat in the Senate. The state backed George W. Bush, narrowly, in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
The high stakes of the 2014 Senate election have put pressure on potential candidates to come to a decision quickly. Four-term US Rep. Bruce Braley, the most likely Democratic nominee, announced on Feb. 7 that he will run for Senator Harkin's seat. He's raised nearly $2.3 million for the Senate race, well ahead of his GOP rivals, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He also enjoys higher name recognition that all Republican contenders, all but one of whom he leads by double digits.
The Republican primary is more crowded, including David Young, former chief of staff for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley; former US attorney Matt Whitaker; state Sen. Joni Ernst; and Sam Clovis, a radio talk show host.
The GOP field is also notable for the absence of Rep. Steve King (R) of Iowa, a leading tea party activist who had been favored to become the nominee. Early on, establishment Republicans tried to ensure that Congressman King would not be the nominee.
"We're all concerned about Steve King's Todd Akin problem," said Steven Law, co-founder of the Conservative Victory Project, in comments to The New York Times. On Feb. 7, Representative King responded in an e-mail to supporters: "Nobody can bully me out of running for the US Senate, not even Karl Rove and his hefty war chest.” But in a tweet to followers on May 3, King announced that he would not be running for the Senate in 2014. "A Senate race takes me out of urgent battles in Congress that can't wait until 2015," he wrote.
Tea party groups call the new Rove super PAC a bid to trump conservative grass-roots opinion with a Washington centrist viewpoint that also loses elections. "It's not a war on the tea party," countered Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for another Rove-founded super PAC, American Crossroads, in an e-mail. "Republicans have lost four to seven Senate seats not because of ideas but because of the candidates expressing the ideas," he added. "We're out to find and pick the best candidate."