The power of incumbency and the advantages of a large campaign fund were on display at the Iowa State Fair this week when U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and his Republican challenger spoke back-to-back at The Des Moines Register’s Soap Box.
Harkin arrived on the scene with four staff members and over 30 supporters; many were wearing white campaign t-shirts, waving campaign signs and chanting his name. Republican challenger Christopher Reed arrived with one staff member and his mother, Nancy.
Reed is a 36-year-old small business owner from Marion who has never before run for public office. He’s trying to unseat Harkin, who has spent 24 years in the U.S. Senate after six years in the U.S. House. Reed’s speech attracted a small crowd of fairgoers who applauded his tough remarks about illegal immigration. "We need to start punishing employers who knowingly employ illegal immigrants," Reed said. "We also need to start punishing those landlords who knowingly rent to illegals. It they don’t have a place to work and they don’t have a place to live, they’re not going to come here."
Reed criticized Harkin’s stance on gun rights and warned that Harkin would vote to socialize the nation’s health care system. "Free market is the answer to our health care problem, it is not government bureaucracy," Reed said, pausing as a person in the crowd clapped.
"Thank you," Reed said.
Reed said Harkin brags about the "bacon" that he’s bringing home to Iowa, but Reed told fairgoers it’s the other votes that matter. "My opponent is worth $20 million. I don’t think that coincides — I think he is out of touch with Iowans it what I’m trying to get at," Reed said. "I am just the average Iowan. I am not an elitist. I am not a politician. This is my first foray into politics whatsoever, the first race I’ve ever run for and I believe that is my biggest asset in this race."
Reed left the scene after taking a few questions from the crowd. A few minutes elapsed, the Harkin and his entourage arrived. Harkin was quick to rebut Reed’s complaint about his wealth, reminiscing about his childhood.
"I wasn’t born in a hospital, I was born in a house as were all my five brothers and sisters," Harkin said. "My father was a coal miner with an eighth-grade education. My mother was an immigrant who came to this country seeking a better life not only for herself, but for the family that she would have."
And Harkin made no apologies for his wealth. "There’s nothing wrong with making money. There’s nothing wrong with having a better home and a better car and taking nice vacations and having great retirements. That is a big part of the American dream," Harkin said. "But, see, I believe that one of the primary responsibilities of our free government is to make sure that when you get to the top…leave the ladder down for others to climb, too."
The crowd applauded loudest and longest when Harkin wound up his speech with his thoughts on energy policy. "To me this is our future. We can make more ethanol and alcohol than you can shake a stick at with cellulose. We can do more with wind energy and solar energy and all the other things we’ve got out there," Harkin said. "We can make the energy we need in America here in America and that’s the change that I think we have to bring to this country."
As Reed, the Republican, was speaking, one woman passing by asked reporters who he was and she stopped to listen.
After his speech, Anne Grogan of Des Moines told Reed he’d won her vote. "I’m going to vote for this guy, Reed, but I don’t know that his chances are terribly good," she says. "But you know, you can’t thrown in the towel…you’ve got to go out there and vote and if you find him the better qualified candidate, then vote for him."
After Harkin spoke, several supporters hung around, shaking his hand and posing for pictures. Ruthanne Petrak and her husband were among them. The Des Moines woman thanked Harkin for authoring the Americans with Disabilities Act. "We have traveled in some other countries and there are not the accessibility helps — ramps and handrails and so on," Petrak says. "When other people that are traveling with me say, ‘Why don’t we have a handrail here?’ I say, ‘Because they don’t have a Tom Harkin living here in Germany or wherever we are.’"
Harkin is seeking a fifth term in the U.S. Senate. Iowa’s other U.S. Senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, was reelected to a fifth term in 2004.