Vilsack out of IA Senate race

The Des Moines Register drops a rather significant surprise on Iowa Democrats looking forward to 2014.  Former Governor Tom Vilsack will not seek the Democratic nomination for the US Senate seat held by retiring incumbent Tom Harkin:

Tom Vilsack has ruled out running U.S. Senate in 2014, clearing the way for the early Democratic frontrunner, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, to press forward and raise money for what’s expected to be one of the most fiercely competitive races in the country.

“He will not seek the open seat,” Matt Paul, a longtime Vilsack aide, told The Des Moines Register this morning.

The DMR had just published a poll showing Vilsack with a substantial amount of support for the nomination.  In fact, their Iowa poll numbers were so good that the pollster remarked that they would usually launch a campaign, not discourage one:

The Register’s most recent Iowa Poll stirred up buzz about a possible Senate bid by Vilsack, a former Iowa governor who is now a member of President Barack Obama’s cabinet. The poll shows 56 percent of Iowans say Vilsack would be an appealing Senate candidate, while 35 percent say he wouldn’t be.

“This is the kind of poll finding that launches campaigns,” said J. Ann Selzer, who conducted the poll of 802 Iowa adults Feb. 3-6.

One advantage Vilsack has is that he has significant name recognition.  He won two state-wide races for Governor in 1998 and 2002, and has served as Barack Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture since the beginning of the Obama administration  — a very high-profile Cabinet position in farm country.  The poll shows, too, that his appeal goes beyond just simple name recognition:

One striking poll number: The percentage of Iowans who like Vilsack as a Senate candidate exceeds those who don’t by 21 points. That’s evidence his approval runs deeper than just simple name recognition, Selzer said.

The DMR refers to Braley as “the front runner” on the Democratic side, but that’s a bit … charitable.  Only 36% of respondents to the Iowa Poll called Braley “appealing,” a full twenty points below Vilsack, and four points below his Republican House colleague Tom Latham.  Democrats will have a tough time in the midterms, and need a candidate of real political clout.

So why isn’t Vilsack interested in protecting this Democratic seat?  His spokesperson claims that Vilsack wants to remain at Agriculture, and that’s certainly possible, but at the expense of joining The Club?  Perhaps Vilsack doesn’t believe that Democrats will be able to defend it after two years of Obama’s second-term agenda … and he may well be right.

Addendum: The NRSC seems pleased to see Vilsack depart, too.  Here’s their official statement:

“The DSCC tried and failed to prevent Senator Harkin’s hand chosen candidate, Rep. Bruce Braley, from a clear path to the nomination because they know his brand of liberalism is too far outside the mainstream for most Iowans.  Now Democrats are stuck a slick former head of the trial lawyers association and one of the most partisan members of Congress as their candidate, Bruce Braley.”