WASHINGTON — Don't take Steve King lightly.
That's the warning from Sen. Tom Harkin for his fellow Iowa Democrats itching for King to jump into a statewide race.
“I've never underestimated Steve King,” Harkin told The World-Herald. “He is a smart guy. He is a tough campaigner.”
Harkin is retiring after five terms in the U.S. Senate, and the race to succeed him in 2014 could help determine the body's balance of power. The race is viewed as a toss-up at this very early stage, before the candidates have been determined.
Iowa is a state that swings back and forth in presidential elections and consistently supports both Harkin, a liberal Democrat, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, a conservative Republican — making it one of 15 states with both a Democrat and a Republican in the Senate.
Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, is already pursuing Harkin's seat, while King and other top Republicans are contemplating a bid.
Rep. Tom Latham, a Republican representing southwest Iowa, said last week that he would pass on the race, raising the stakes for King, an outspoken conservative who represents northwest Iowa.
Latham's decision was a blow to GOP establishment figures who see Iowa as a key pickup opportunity but question King's viability in a general election. King was ranked the 12th-most-conservative member in the 435-member House in a recent National Journal analysis.
To Harkin, the fight for GOP votes in Iowa boils down to who has control — state-level Republican leadership and conservative, grass-roots voters, or the national GOP establishment epitomized by operative Karl Rove. Rove's American Crossroads group has started a new effort to help Republican candidates who can compete well in general elections win Senate primaries.
Republicans lost several races in 2012 that many thought they should have won. Observers blamed undisciplined candidates.
A prime example was Missouri, where Rep. Todd Akin's comments about rape and abortion doomed his Senate candidacy and caused headaches for Republicans everywhere. Steven J. Law, president of Crossroads, told the New York Times that the group was “concerned about Steve King's Todd Akin problem.”
Said Harkin: “We'll see who really controls the Iowa Republican Party. Steve King, a congressman, or Karl Rove. If Congressman King decides not to run, then obviously Karl Rove is calling the shots.”
Many Democrats are licking their chops at the prospect of a statewide campaign by King, who has made plenty of headline-commanding statements.
“King is a very charming fellow who says, at times, very inflammatory things, and he enjoys that and he gets a lot of TV time because of that,” said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University. “Cable loves him.”
King's comments would be certain to see television airtime in Democratic attack ads seeking to portray him as too conservative for Iowa moderates.
Although King is not yet an official candidate, he is already being attacked like one.
Braley recently posted online a series of slams against King focused on women's issues. He pointed to King's endorsement of Akin, whose campaign imploded after his comments about “legitimate rape.”
Braley said King defended Akin's comments. King said that's simply not true and that Braley is spreading misinformation. He suggested that Iowans will see Braley's attacks as politically motivated.
“Does he want to have that kind of relationship? He's just inviting retaliation. So it seems to me he probably doesn't have an issue that he'd like to run on,” King told The World-Herald.
Braley was ranked the House's 102nd-most-liberal member in that National Journal analysis.
Braley also noted King's recent vote against reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. Braley touted his own early support for the chief federal legislation aimed at helping victims of domestic violence.
King noted that while he opposed the version of the Violence Against Women Act that ultimately passed, he supported a Republican alternative.
The Senate version that went to the president's desk had “a whole lot of left-wing junk in it,” King said. Among the Senate version's provisions were new protections for gay, bisexual and transgender victims of abuse.
Grassley said he was surprised that Latham decided not to run, based on a conversation with the congressman and his belief that Latham would have been Iowa Republicans' strongest option.
“He's got a temperament, I think, that fits in well with Iowans and even though he votes conservative, I think that he is considered as a person (who is) open,” Grassley said. “I think you appreciate people that don't have radical views.”
Potential Iowa U.S. Senate candidates
Still, he praised King and said the congressman works hard. He noted, however, that King would face the challenge of having never run for office in eastern Iowa. “I don't think other people know him,” Grassley said.
King, who has won most of his elections by double-digit margins, noted that he has been underestimated before and that in his last election he fought off a well-funded challenge by Iowa's popular former first lady Christie Vilsack, winning re-election by 8 percentage points.
He suggested that those who think he doesn't have any foundation in some parts of the state could end up being surprised.
“There's a network in eastern Iowa that they are not fully aware of,” King said.
Goldford said a King-Braley race would probably be viewed as a toss-up at the start, or possibly leaning toward Braley. He said King's victory in the most recent election was not quite as impressive as it might seem given the district's conservative makeup.
Still, 2014 will be a midterm election likely to feature better turnout among Republicans. And Democrats could end up wishing they had heeded Harkin's warning to take King seriously.
Harkin said King could win a primary on his conservative credentials, then start moving toward the center for the general election.
“I would say: 'Be careful what you wish for,' ” Goldford said.
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