Open congressional seats don’t come around often in Iowa.
So when Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced his decision to retire in 2014 after five terms, patient members of the Hawkeye State’s farm team unleashed their ambitions.
Four Republicans jumped into the contest, including David Young, chief of staff to Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley; conservative radio talk show host Sam Clovis; former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker; and attorney Paul Lundby. Another Republican is also considering entering the race: state Sen. Joni Ernst, who Republicans say would like a shot as the first female member from Iowa.
For the Democrats, Rep. Bruce Braley announced early that he would leave the 1st District to seek Harkin’s seat. His Senate bid presents another rare opportunity for movement on the Hawkeye State’s political bench.
So far, two Democrats have announced they will run for Braley’s House seat: state Rep. Patrick Murphy, who served as state speaker from 2007 to 2011, and Monica Vernon, a city councilwoman from Cedar Rapids.
But local Democrats say several others are considering bids in the 1st District, one of the strongest parts of the state for the party. Other potential Democratic candidates include:
• State Senate President Pam Jochum.
• State Rep. Anesa Kajtazovic, a Bosnian immigrant who fled the war-torn country at the age of 10. Local Democrats called Kajtazovic a “remarkable” woman whose compelling life story and ambition make her a strong candidate if she decides to run.
• State Rep. Tyler Olson, who Democrats say is also considering a run for governor.
For Iowans, these two open seats seem like a lot of opportunity. But it pales in comparison to the political pandemonium that could have happened this cycle.
Both GOP Reps. Tom Latham and Steve King toyed with seeking Harkin’s seat, and some local GOP operatives believed both might run. As a result, three of Iowa’s four House districts could have hosted open-seat races in 2014.
But both Latham and King declined bids for Senate, halting the ambitions of local Republicans eyeing their seats.
“Those dominoes were set up,” one Republican operative said. “All King or Latham had to do was ping the first one, and the floodgates would have opened.”
There might be more opportunity in 2016, when Grassley will decide whether to seek re-election or retire after six terms. Latham or King would be top candidates for Grassley’s seat if he retires.
Local Republicans named several politicians who might eye their House seats in that case.
These Republicans could run in Latham’s 3rd District:
• Former Iowa GOP Chairman Matt Strawn, also a former chief of staff to Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.
• State Rep. Peter Cownie from Polk County.
• State Sen. Jack Whitver, a former starter on Iowa State University’s football team.
These Republicans could run in the 4th District:
• State Rep. Chip Baltimore, who one Republican operative said had met with the National Republican Congressional Committee before King declined a Senate bid.
• State Sen. Bill Anderson, a former King and Grassley staffer who was also planning to run had King sought the Senate seat.
• State Sen. Randy Feenstra, who is from the most conservative part of the district.
On the Democratic side, operatives said former governor and current Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack might eye Grassley’s seat in 2016, regardless of whether the senator tries for another term.
Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa, was also mentioned as a potential candidate for Senate if Grassley leaves. Whenever Loebsack leaves the 2nd District, Democrats described former Iowa first lady Christie Vilsack as an obvious contender for his seat.
Vilsack unsuccessfully challenged King in the redrawn 4th District last cycle, but she hails from the 2nd District. Operatives said she could clear a primary field if she were to decide to run.
Democratic operatives also touted former state Sen. Staci Appel in the 3rd District.
In any case, Democrats hope the women on their bench ascend to Congress either this cycle or next.
“We’ve got this horrendous record of not electing a woman as governor or in Congress,” said Sue Dvorsky, former chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party. “It’s only us and Mississippi who hold that distinction, and it’s disturbing for us on multiple levels.”
Farm Team is a state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress. The column runs on Thursdays.