WASHINGTON -- When Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, announced Saturday that he wouldn't seek a sixth term, Republicans rejoiced at the possibility of picking up the seat in 2014.
But, that joy soon gave way to political reality -- the likelihood of a primary between conservative, Tea-Party-aligned Rep. Steve King and a more establishment GOP figure such as Rep. Tom Latham or Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds. And, just in case Republicans thought they might avoid that sort of primary fight, Mr. King released this statement Saturday night: "Iowans now have a real opportunity to elect a true Constitutional conservative." (In case you were wondering, he is referring to himself.)
Iowa is one of a handful of states where Republicans have the opportunity to pick up Democratic Senate seats in 2014 -- West Virginia, Minnesota and Alaska are the three other obvious examples. However, the party also seems likely to face a political dynamic that has plagued it for each of the last two elections: The most conservative candidate wins the primary, but then loses the general election.
The names are now famous -- actually infamous -- in Republican strategist circles: Sharron Angle (Nevada), Christine O'Donnell (Delaware), Ken Buck (Colorado), Richard Mourdock (Indiana) and Todd Akin (Missouri). Over the past four years, each of them took races that were somewhere between slam dunks and should-have-wons and managed to lose them. Take those five seats and put them into Republican hands and the Senate is a 50-50 partisan split.
In 2014, just like in 2010 and 2012, the Senate map favors Republicans. Twenty-one Democrats have to stand for re-election, compared with 14 Republicans. And, many of the Democrats seeking re-election will do so in places like South Dakota, Louisiana and Arkansas -- not exactly friendly territory for the president's party.
And yet, caution is the watchword among the Republican smart set; twice bitten, thrice shy -- or something like that.
A look at some of the top Republican pickup opportunities suggests wariness is the best approach for party strategists. Aside from South Dakota, where popular former Republican Gov. Mike Rounds looks as if he will have clear shot at Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, potentially problematic primaries loom.
In West Virginia, polling suggests Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito would be a favorite to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, but some conservatives believe she is insufficiently loyal to party principles to allow her to be their standard-bearer. Soon after she announced her candidacy in late 2012, Chris Chocola, president of the Club for Growth, lambasted Ms. Capito's "long record of support of bailouts, pork and bigger government," adding: "That's not the formula for GOP success in U.S. Senate races."
Then there is Minnesota, where Democratic Sen. Al Franken will stand for a second term in November. The Republican field is largely unformed at the moment, with names like Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline being mentioned. But, a recent Public Policy Polling survey-- an automated poll with a Democratic lean -- showed that one candidate would crush all comers in a Republican primary: Rep. Michele Bachmann.
And, it's not just in seats held by Democrats where divisive primaries won by conservatives with little crossover appeal could be a problem. The retirement of Sen. Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, for example, will almost certainly set off a massive GOP primary scramble. If an ideological purist who can't reach to the middle is nominated, it's possible that Democrats with the right candidate -- Rep. John Barrow, perhaps? -- could have a real shot in what is a Republican-leaning state. (Did anyone think Democrats were going to win in Missouri and Indiana last fall?)
What happens in these Senate races will not only go a long way toward determining which party controls the chamber in 2015, but also will set the tone for the Republican presidential primary in 2016. What kind of the party do Republicans want for themselves: ideologically pure but without governing power or less rigid ideologically but with genuine control?