In Iowa, Scramble Begins to Fill Outgoing Sen. Harkin's Seat

Senator Tom Harkin leaves hole in Iowa's Senate delegation as a long list of potential candidates emerges.

Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin will not seek a fifth decade in the Senate, setting off a race to snatch his reins.
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In Iowa, the scramble has begun to find a replacement for outgoing Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

"It livened up a sleepy news Saturday morning," says Timothy Hagle, a professor of political science at the University of Iowa, about Harkin's surprise announcement to call it quits on his political career. "This opens up a lot of possibilities for Democratic and Republican folks who are interested in moving up."

With Harkin's retirement, Iowa will loose powerful positions on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee and Harkin's nearly 40 years of experience on Capitol Hill.

"He leaves big shoes to fill," says University of Northern Iowa political scientist Christopher Larimer. "It takes a long time to get anything done in the senate, and he has been there long enough to get some pretty significant policy done there with the farm bill, education and for people with disabilities."

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Harkin and Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley are currently the longest-serving team of senators in Congress.

"Iowa became the state with the most seniority in the senate. Now with Harkin's retirement, that is going away," says Hagle. "When you have senators of separate parties, it gives the state the opportunity to chair committees and subcommittees no matter who is in power. He adds that is something Iowans will have to think about when they choose Harkin's successor.

The move surprised many politicos in the state who say Harkin could have easily won a sixth term with an already booming $3 million war chest and fundraisers already on the calendar in month of February. But Harkin said he wanted to give some newbies a stab at the Senate game.

"After 40 years, I just feel it's somebody else's turn," he said in a public statement. "I can't put into words what an honor it is to serve Iowa. And I don't by any means plan to retire completely from public life at the end of this Congress. But I am going to make way for someone new in this Senate seat. I think that is right not just for me, but for Iowa, as well."

[READ: Sen. Rockefeller Announces 2014 Retirement]

Sitting Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is at the top of many expert lists of who could keep the seat for the Democrats.

Meanwhile, Republican Reps. Steve King and Tom Latham are circulating as potential GOP challengers for the Senate seat in 2014. Latham surfaces as a moderate and a GOP insider. House Speaker John Boehner stumped for him several times during his competitive re-election bid against fellow incumbent Democratic Rep. Leonard Boswell.

King, on the other hand, has a loyal Tea Party following, socially conservative principles, and was already considering a run against heavyweight Harkin.

But there are some Capitol Hill outsiders who have statewide name recognition as well. Both Secretary of Agriculture and former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and his wife Democrat Christie Vilsack have potential as statewide candidates. Christie Vilsack ran unsuccessfully against King in Iowa's most conservative 4th District in November, but could have a better chance of garnering support in the state's more liberal eastern half.

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Former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, a Republican who served the Bush Administration and a former Iowa Hawkeyes college football star, announced over the weekend he is looking at the seat. And if Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds ran, it could give the GOP the first woman senator from the state.

"No matter who runs, we will have quite the primary for that Senate seat," Hagle predicts.

Some in the state have even mentioned five-term GOP Gov. Terry Branstad as the Republican with enough statewide popularity to turn the seat red.

"It is possible he would run, but he is an executive kind of guy. As the governor, you have the ability to make a lot of decisions that as a Senator, you don't," Hagle says.

Harkin's announcement comes as five-term Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry departs to become the Secretary of State and West Virginia Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller retires. All three could be potential pickups for Republicans looking for a road map to take back the Senate in 2014.