Bruce Braley: Kingmaker in the Making

Steve Pope/AP

You wouldn't know it by his dad jeans or the earnest manner he uses when talking about his bipartisan legislative accomplishments, but Bruce Braley is poised to become one of the more influential Democrats in the country.

As the only Democrat in the race, the Iowa congressman is the presumptive heir to Tom Harkin when Harkin retires next year after serving as one of the most vocal liberals in the U.S. Senate for the past three decades. And with Republicans holding on to Iowa's governorship and the other Senate seat, Braley could be the most powerful Democrat in Iowa come 2016—a potential kingmaker in the first-in-the-nation caucus state.

Braley is exceedingly proud of his state and, in an interview with Newsweek, waxed enthusiastic about Iowa's two current senators—the liberal Harkin and conservative Republican Chuck Grassley—saying, "There are qualities in both of Iowa's current senators that I would try to emulate."

Known as a congressional workhorse, Braley emphasized his work getting legislation passed in Washington. Though hardly sexy or headline grabbing—one law helped further partnerships between businesses and community colleges to train more workers in the biofuel industry—Braley expresses pride in his bipartisan efforts and happily name-dropped the Republicans he had worked with. But, then, in a state where more than a third of the voters identify themselves as independents, it's good to be able to reach across the aisle. Braley himself describes Iowa as "the quintessential swing state." "That's what makes Iowa so interesting," he says.

It's unclear who his Republican opponent will be next year—a half dozen have already announced their candidacy, and more are expected to jump in—but certainly this will be an important race for the Democrats. "This is a critical seat for Harry Reid to continue to be the Senate majority leader, and it's a critical seat if Mitch McConnell wants to be the new Senate majority leader," Braley said, sounding like he might relish the fight.

A former trial lawyer who built up a prosperous practice before he was elected to the House of Representatives in 2006, Braley has been in the ring before. In his 2010 reelection bid, more than $2 million in outside money was spent on negative campaign ads against him—a lot of money for a congressional race in northeast Iowa. "You have to prepare for an onslaught of secret outside money," he said. "You can't afford to take anything for granted."