By Nick DAngelo
Iowa is as purple a state as it gets. Since 1985, it has been represented by the same two men in the United States Senate: Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin. Its four congressional districts are also split evenly—two Democrats and two Republicans. It voted for George W. Bush in 2004, and then for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Consistently ranked as a classic swing-state, the retail politicking involved in Iowa, as well as its famous caucus system, makes it one of the most astutely aware states in the country.
Those politics of moderation will be potentially put to the test in 2014. Tom Harkin, a veteran of four decades in Congress, has announced he will not seek a sixth term. The legendary Democrat has been a temporal and moderate voice in the Senate, working closely with his fellow Iowan, Grassley. The two are currently the longest serving pair in the Senate. His retirement creates another potential pick-up for Republicans (naturally another potential blunder), and could put on display a primary between the two core ideologies within the Republican Party.
The most mentioned candidates to take the GOP nomination to succeed Harkin are both congressmen and both from Western Iowa. The similarities end there. Representative Steve King, a Tea Party darling and close ally of Michele Bachmann, would become the grassroots conservative standard-bearer if he decides to enter the race. Representative Tom Latham, a personal friend of Speaker John Boehner, is the classic mold of a traditional Iowa moderate. The metaphorical significance of a potential match-up should not be lost on anyone. These are two Iowa juggernauts who could determine the future path of the Republican Party, as well as the control of the U.S. Senate.
But wait—this has happened before. After the 2010 census, Iowa lost one of its five congressional districts, placing King and Latham in the same fourth district and creating a bloodbath primary. In the end, Latham opted out of primary, instead moving into the third congressional district to challenge an incumbent Democrat. Despite it being a tougher race, Latham won, and both men are back in Washington.
With King mounting a bid even before Harkin’s announced retirement, two questions remain: Would Latham have the guts to challenge him in a primary? And can King actually win? They’re two good questions that will be consistently debated in the lead-up to this possible campaign. Even if the primary never happens, the questions are still extremely significant in defining the future of conservatism.
The first question, of Latham’s commitment to the race, is tied to the future sustainability of John Boehner in House leadership. Latham is often described as a Boehner loyalist and if the speaker continues to hold on to control of his conference it means more political capital for Latham. Staying in the House, where he already holds significant seniority having served since 1995, could pay off for Latham.
Secondly, could King win? The answer is probably not. With a 100 percent rating from the National Right to Life organization and a history of far-right stances on most everything else, King would have little room to soften his image for a statewide race in purple Iowa. He is also a vocalist of the worst extreme, commenting in the wake of Iowa’s passage of same-sex marriage that it must be stopped so that “Iowa does not become the gay marriage Mecca.” Todd Akin anyone?
In 2012, despite running in the most conservative district in the state, he only received 53 percent of the vote. If he was to face a tough Democrat opponent in the 2014 Senate race, as should be expected, he would surely flounder. The New York Times reported on Sunday that conservative groups are already lining up to prevent a King run, fearing a repeat of 2010 and 2012.
The King-Latham paradox is a manifestation of the true debate for the soul of the Republican Party. Which ideology—true traditional conservatism or social quasi-conservatism—will win and, more importantly, which is sustainable? Will the Republican Party continue to insist on a false, but loud, philosophy of intolerance? Or will our party finally decide that recent history is enough of a lesson and it is time to embrace the true conservatism of Goldwater, Buckley and Reagan?