Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility Chuck Grassley towers in Iowa politics, but these 3 Democrats think they can beat him - Admiral Mike Franken for Iowa

Chuck Grassley towers in Iowa politics, but these 3 Democrats think they can beat him

Brianne Pfannenstiel // Des Moines Register May 16, 2022

Rarely in Iowa politics has an adversary loomed so large as Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.  

Grassley has held office continuously since he was first elected in 1958. His approval numbers have occasionally topped 80%. He’s won each of his last six elections by more than 20 percentage points. He’s banked more than $4.5 million to aid his reelection campaign this fall. And he’s got the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, helping to shore up his conservative base as he faces a long shot primary challenge from state Sen. Jim Carlin.

Still, Democrats are clinging to a glimmer of hope that they can defeat him in November.

A June 2021 Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed a growing desire among Iowans — both Democrats and Republicans — to see someone new hold the seat. And Grassley’s approval ratings have ebbed to historic lows.

Former U.S. Rep. Abby Finkenauer, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral Mike Franken and rural physician Glenn Hurst all are hoping to capitalize on the dip in Grassley’s popularity.

Finkenauer, the youngest woman to have flipped a congressional seat from red to blue, is drawing a generational contrast as she emphasizes Grassley’s longevity. Franken, who has deep experience in Washington, D.C., is focused on persuading centrist voters, including Republicans, who may have soured on Grassley. And Hurst is putting his progressive bona fides front and center, arguing that Democrats need to stop playing it safe by nominating moderates.

The candidates have met once for a statewide televised debate and are set to face off again at a live debate hosted by Iowa PBS on May 19, making their best cases directly to Iowans a day after early voting begins. The primary is June 7. 

Abby Finkenauer draws generational contrast

The smell of butter wafts over the crowd at the Butler County Popcorn and Politics Party as Abby Finkenauer takes the microphone. Sixty seconds into her speech, her voice is already rising in a passionate crescendo, projecting her words forcefully across the roomful of rural Democrats.

“I’m sorry, folks, I just have to say it,” she says. “Forty-seven years in Washington, D.C., is just too damn long for anyone.”

She punctuates the word “forty-seven,” giving weight to the number of years Grassley has served in Congress.

At 33, Finkenauer would be one of the youngest members of Congress if elected in November. Grassley, who is 88, is the second oldest.

Finkenauer emphasizes the contrast repeatedly — not just the difference in their ages, but in their outlooks. After so many decades in Washington, Finkenauer argues, Grassley has forgotten his roots.

“Imagine getting to replace the guy who’s been there for 47 years with a young Iowan who, quite frankly, doesn’t need nor want 47 years to get the job done,” Finkenauer says later in her speech. “And it’s why honestly I support term limits.”

Finkenauer is a native of Sherrill, Iowa, “where there are more cows than people,” she quips. At 24, she ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives, serving two terms in the district that represents parts of Dubuque. And at 28, she ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, dislodging incumbent Republican Rod Blum and becoming the second-youngest woman ever elected to Congress.   

In Shell Rock, she touts legislation she helped pass through the House’s Democratic majority — policies around voting rights, child care access and prescription drug costs.

“Yet, where would it go?” she said. “To the United States Senate, where you have people sitting there, again, for decades, like Chuck Grassley, who has lost sight of why he was there in the first place. He was so obsessed with power that they refused to do anything that was moving us forward.”

She asks members of the audience to raise their hands if they’ve ever voted for Grassley, and a good portion do. But then she asks how many won’t ever again, and the rest of the hands rocket up.

Afterward, members of the audience use words like “dynamic,” “fired up” and “enthusiastic” to describe her presence.

“She certainly had a fiery speech,” said Ellen Crayne, a 73-year-old Waverly resident. “I like her youth and her enthusiasm, and I also think she has a lot of grit. I think she’s not afraid, and I don’t think she’ll fold.”

Finkenauer lost her 2020 reelection bid to Republican Ashley Hinson. She said she had ruled out running again but became convinced after the U.S. Capitol riots on Jan. 6 that she needed to step up for democracy.

She entered the Democratic Senate primary as the perceived front-runner, garnering the endorsement of U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne, the sole Democrat in the Iowa congressional delegation, and raising more than $1 million in the first quarter of her candidacy.

But in May, Finkenauer very nearly missed making it onto the ballot after Republicans challenged three of the signatures on her candidate petition.

Ultimately, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously in her favor, allowing her onto the ballot. But the near miss rattled Democratic activists who questioned why her campaign would have cut it so close.

She also made some Democrats privately uncomfortable when she attacked the district court judge who had kicked her off the ballot as a partisan. Finkenauer has repeatedly dismissed those concerns, saying instead that the move shows Republicans are fearful of her candidacy.

“We got the signatures. We met the requirements,” she said in an interview. “For it to be a unanimous decision, I think, spoke a lot.”

In the weeks since, Franken surpassed her in fundraising and was the first to launch TV ads in the state — leading Storm Lake Times Pilot Editor Art Cullen to declare him the new front-runner.

Finkenauer, though, says she is building a digital communications network designed to combat misinformation, rather than focusing entirely on traditional media.

“That was one of the commitments I made running in 2022,” she said. “I did not want to run the exact same campaign that everybody ran in 2020 that honestly Democrats have been running across the country for the last how many cycles where we haven’t talked to people in the digital space at all.” 

At a meet and greet in Anamosa on a rainy March morning, former state Rep. Andy McKean introduces Mike Franken to the 30 people crowded into the back of a local restaurant.

“In order to defeat Chuck Grassley, we need to have an extraordinary candidate,” he says. “And I believe that Mike Franken is that extraordinary candidate.”

McKean was the longest-serving Republican in the Iowa Legislature before he switched parties in 2019, making a high-profile break with the GOP. He ran as a Democrat in 2020 and lost.

He tells the Anamosa group that he believes Franken is the best candidate to take on Grassley because he can compete in rural areas where recent Democrats have failed, he can reframe the narrative around patriotism, and he offers political courage and political moderation.

“I think people are growing very, very wary of strident partisanship and are looking for leaders who can work for consensus to attack the problems that face our country,” McKean says. “I think Mike would view issues with a spirit of scientific inquiry and try to come up with common-sense solutions that would bring people together and not separate them.”

If Finkenauer is offering a contrast to Grassley, then Franken is trying to neutralize him by stealing away pockets of voters who like some of what Franken offers.

“I’m a tough target for the GOP,” he said at a Des Moines candidate forum in April. “I’m a problem. I steal from them their entire narrative. It doesn’t exist. It’s laughable.”

At a separate event, he offers a shorthand assessment of the qualities he offers that he thinks will appeal across party lines: “Very rural. Very bootstrappy. Iowa values. I’ve had a security clearance since 1978.”

Franken was born in rural Lebanon, Iowa, where he was one of nine kids and worked on farms and in a slaughterhouse. He went to college on a U.S. Navy scholarship and served for nearly 40 years before retiring as a three-star vice admiral.

He held a variety of roles in Washington, including as the first military officer on U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff, at the U.S. Department of Defense and as chief of legislative affairs for the Navy.

Franken returned to Iowa in 2019 to run for the U.S. Senate, though he lost his primary race to businesswoman Theresa Greenfield.

He has a calm, steady presence and a deep voice. The 64-year-old doesn’t ever suggest his age and gender would give him a leg up in Iowa, where Democrats have yet to send a woman to the U.S. Senate. But, occasionally, others do.

A man at the Anamosa meet and greet says he can’t see Finkenauer beating the venerable Grassley.

“It’s going to take an old white guy to beat an old white guy,” he says.

According to a March Des Moines Register Iowa Poll, Franken was viewed favorably by 21% of Iowans and unfavorably by 11%. That leaves about two-thirds of Iowans who didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.

The same poll showed Finkenauer with a 30% favorable rating and 24% unfavorable rating and just under half who didn’t know enough about her to form an opinion.

Franken said in a March interview that his internal polling showed he needed to boost his name ID across the state — a feat he’s trying to accomplish through events and a pair of TV ads that have since hit the airwaves.

“Although I ran a statewide race before, we weren’t on the network to the degree necessary where we achieved full saturation,” he said. “So we’re rectifying that now.”

At events, he says he prefers to forgo a stump speech, instead introducing himself and hosting question-and-answer sessions. Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this spring, Franken has focused on his military credentials and addressing the crisis overseas.

Despite his play for the middle, Franken has endorsed some progressive policies, including supporting a version of universal health care and abolishing the filibuster to codify abortion rights into federal law.

At an event in Dubuque, several attendees said they were impressed by Franken but torn because they have personal ties to Finkenauer, who is from the area and has represented it during her time in office.

Steve Drahozal, the former county party chair, attended the event and said he’s planning to vote for Franken despite knowing Finkenauer personally.

“He didn’t just talk to Democrats, which I liked a lot, even though I’m a Democrat,” Drahozal said. “Because I know that not everybody in the state agrees with me. And he had an incredible foreign policy experience. He just blew me away, actually.”

Glenn Hurst says Democrats can’t beat Chuck Grassley by being moderate

Glenn Hurst wants to take the Iowa Democratic Party by its metaphorical shoulders and give it a good shake.

“Be brave,” he wants to tell Democrats. “It’s OK to say, ‘I support Medicare for All.’ It’s OK to say, ‘I expect my waterways to be clean.’ It’s OK to stop calling it ‘nitrates in the water’ and start calling it ‘crap.’”

Hurst, who is running as the most progressive of the three Democratic primary candidates, has staked his candidacy on “unequivocally” supporting policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, expanding voting rights and protecting abortion rights — all through the lens of a rural renewal.

The Venn diagram of progressive values and rural values, he argues, actually has a lot of overlap.

“I see Medicare for All as a tool for shoring up those hospitals and those nursing homes, giving everybody access, creating more opportunities for providers, creating better jobs in the communities for health care providers,” he said. “Those things all just kind of fit into rural recovery.”

Things like repairing roads and bridges, ensuring Iowa’s bodies of water are safe, taking on climate change and expanding immigration are all progressive policies that are critical to supporting rural Iowa and rural America, Hurst said.

“There’s another way to grow our communities, right, and that’s through immigration,” he said at an April candidate forum. “And we’ve seen this done very successfully in Iowa. Marshalltown, Columbus Junction, Storm Lake. These communities will speak to you about how their openness to immigrants coming to their communities has strengthened and grown their communities.”

He said he sees it all firsthand. Hurst owns and operates a family medical practice in Minden, and he serves as the medical director at several nursing homes around Pottawattamie County.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said he was on the front lines of health care workers trying to create policies that would protect nursing home residents who were most vulnerable to the virus.

And as the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party’s Rural Caucus, he’s spent time connecting with Democrats all across the state.

“In Iowa, we’ve been continually putting candidates up that try to mirror Republicans,” he said. “We run candidates that say, ‘Republicans should like me,’ or ‘I’m a threat to Republicans because I’m like them.’ And what we’ve seen in rural Iowa is this loss of Democratic voters. And it’s not that people have moved away or died. It’s that they’re not having candidates that speak to their values.”

Grassley will present himself as a moderate in the coming election, Hurst said, regardless of what many Democrats may think of that. Democrats won’t win if they try to emulate him and run as moderates, he argues.

“We’ve got to run somebody with a contrast, and I believe I present that contrast as a progressive,” he said.

Grassley won his closest U.S. Senate election in 1980, his first year in that office. He defeated incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. John Culver by 8 percentage points. In every election since, the Democratic candidate has failed to crack even 40%, giving Grassley winning margins of as much as 42 percentage points. His closest election since 1980 came in 2016, when he defeated Patty Judge by 24 percentage points.

“Einstein says it’s insanity to keep doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results,” Hurst said. “So I fear that if we run those types of candidates again, we should expect the same results.”

Hurst earned the endorsement of Iowa’s top liberal advocacy group, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund.

“Glenn Hurst is a person who actually ‘walks the talk’ and shows that he can play a vital role in solving the problems our planet faces,” CCI Action member Susie Petra wrote in a statement announcing the endorsement. “Glenn has a firm grasp on the issues facing rural and urban Iowans — healthcare, water quality and industrial agriculture monopolies, and how to revitalize rural Iowa.”

But Hurst remains an underdog. Finkenauer has demonstrated electoral success, and Franken has some lingering name ID from his previous campaign. Both have shown significant fundraising capacity; Finkenauer has brought in about $3 million so far this campaign cycle, and Franken has tallied about $1.8 million.

Hurst has defended the $100,000 he’s raised, arguing that a candidate will need roughly $30 million to saturate the airwaves in a general election. The national fundraising structure will ensure that the winning nominee has access to that money, Hurst has said, and “we expect to be there when that happens.”

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