A World Without Chuck Grassley in the Senate?

The long-serving Senator Chuck Grassley is, for lack of a comparison closer to home, Iowa’s Queen Elizabeth II. This is partly a matter of sheer longevity. At 89, the senator is older than John Deere’s first self-propelled combine, which appeared in 1947. He was 26 when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash in 1959. The year Kevin Costner filmed Field of Dreams in Dyersville, 1988, Grassley was 55.

Age aside, Grassley is simply a part of Iowa’s political furniture—many voters in the state have never known a time without him. When I was born, in 1993, he’d been the state’s senior senator for 12 years; he has held elected office—first in the state House, then in the U.S. House and Senate—since my father was 4 years old. For many Iowans, the day when Grassley would not be their senator has been scarcely imaginable.

Until now, maybe. Every six years, Iowa Democrats have inched closer to unseating the seven-term Republican senator. This time, they seem closer than ever: A recent poll showed Grassley leading 64-year-old Mike Franken only narrowly, suggesting that this will be Grassley’s toughest reelection fight in four decades.

Twelve years ago, he defeated Roxanne Conlin by 31 points. In 2016, he beat Patty Judge by 24. This year’s race against Franken didn’t seem particularly newsworthy until earlier this month, when Selzer & Company, Iowa’s most respected polling firm, released results from a survey showing that Grassley was leading Franken by a mere three percentage points. “It says to me that Franken is running a competent campaign and has a shot to defeat the seemingly invincible Chuck Grassley—previously perceived to be invincible,” J. Ann Selzer, the president of Selzer & Company, told the Des Moines Register.

The poll is only a snapshot in time, and it could certainly prove wrong. But it’s reasonable to assume, given other polling since then, that Franken is closer to unseating Grassley than any challenger before him. The most obvious reason for this is that Iowans may finally be noticing how old their senator is—a veritable crinoid in the creek bed of Iowa politics. Although Grassley seems healthy—he runs several miles each morning and kicks off campaign events by doing push-ups onstage—more than 60 percent of the Selzer poll’s respondents said his age was a real concern. “There are a lot of voters between 75 and 85 who think, I wouldn’t want to be in the United States Senate right now. I wouldn’t want to have that life; why does he?” Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist, told me.

For the first time in the history of this particular poll, more Iowan respondents disapprove of Grassley’s job performance than approve of it. Pair that dissatisfaction with the fact that Franken is a strong candidate. A retired Navy vice admiral from deep-red northwest Iowa, the Democrat could provide a nonthreatening alternative for the independents and Republicans who are reluctant to give Grassley another term. Franken “is energetic, very smart—almost loquacious—but he knows what he’s talking about,” David Oman, a state Republican strategist and a former co-chair of the Iowa GOP, told me. Despite that positive assessment, the recent emergence of an assault allegation from a former campaign manager might cool Democrats’ enthusiasm. (Franken has denied the allegation, and police have closed the case, calling it “unfounded.”)

Undergirding all of these factors is the plain reality that Iowa, like the rest of the country, is becoming more partisan and more polarized. For 30 years, Iowans sent both Grassley and a Democrat, Tom Harkin, who retired in 2014, to the Senate at every chance, no matter which party was in the White House or who was occupying the governor’s mansion. The consensus among Iowans was that such a balance was ideal. But the days of winning big by being part of that balance are over.

Grassley has changed, too. Back then, he was viewed as a kind of farmers-first independent, interested chiefly in restraining federal spending, whistleblower protections, and promoting free trade. Democrats liked him—and often voted for him. In 1991, Grassley was one of just two Republicans to vote against the Gulf War. “That made him seem above partisanship,” David Yepsen, a former reporter for the Des Moines Register, told me. Grassley’s image, among Iowans, was of a man who operated above the partisan fray.

That gloss began to wear off in 2009. At first, Grassley seemed a willing negotiating partner on President Barack Obama’s plans for health-care reform; he worked for months on a bipartisan bill. But he hadn’t bargained for how unpopular the Affordable Care Act would be with his party’s base. During a tour of central Iowa that summer, Grassley was mobbed by Republicans and Tea Partiers who rejected the plan. He buckled under the pressure, abandoned the talks, and ultimately voted against the final bill. “He’d never been treated that way by his own party. It changed him,” Yepsen said. “It made him mindful that there’s a new kind of conservative out there, a new generation coming on—the populists.” And he responded accordingly.

In the ensuing years, Grassley came to recognize that there were fewer and fewer points to be earned by working across the aisle. In 2016, as the chair of the Judiciary Committee, he was party to the Senate’s refusal to give Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing, and along with Republican leadership, he held open more than 100 seats on the federal bench during the final months of the Obama administration for Donald Trump to fill. “You can’t underestimate Democrats in Iowa watching his leadership in the Judiciary Committee putting all these conservatives on the Court, and seeing them now do their thing on the Dobbs decision,” Yepsen said. “Conservatives love it. But it makes him much more of a partisan.”

Whether Grassley would support the candidacy of Donald Trump was initially an open question. The womanizing, scandal-plagued Republican presidential nominee seemed, after all, to be the Iowa senator’s bizarro opposite. Yet Grassley, like most others in the GOP, fell in line. He has stuck by Trump through vulgar comments and allegations. In 2019, Grassley—an actual author of the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act—defended Trump’s firing of the whistleblower and impeachment witness Alexander Vindman. Lately, Grassley has broken from his party only a handful of times, including to gently push back on some of Trump’s “America First” protectionist trade policies and to support the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill. The senator seems altogether untroubled by Trump’s effort to discredit the 2020 election, and continues to appear alongside him at rallies.

“The way that [Grassley] didn’t stand up for much of anything is emblematic of the Republican Party in the years of Trump,” Bill Kristol, the editor at large of The Bulwark, told me. “People you thought would be independent just ended up going along.”

Nowadays, the way Iowans view Grassley simply reflects their politics, not some old-timey desire for balance and comity. Democrats see him as an utter disappointment—a caricature of the man they may once have disagreed with but at least respected. Some Republicans are pleased with the careful line he’s walked, embracing Trump while hanging on to moderates. For other Republicans, Grassley is not nearly MAGA enough. This year, for the first time in his Senate career, Grassley faced a primary challenger. Jim Carlin, a state senator who has criticized Grassley for voting to certify the results of the 2020 election, earned 26 percent of the primary vote.

Given this transformation in how Iowans regard Grassley, defeat at the hands of a Democrat is more plausible than it’s ever been. More plausible, but still not likely. The Selzer poll may have given Franken a jolt of momentum, including a burst of Hail Mary fundraising, but the state is reddening and the gap in party registration is wide and growing: The Iowa GOP has roughly 88,000 more registered voters this year than the Iowa Democratic Party, according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. In 2020, that advantage was only about 20,000. This gap, combined with the historical precedent of higher Republican turnout in off-year elections, seems likely to add up to a Grassley victory. The numbers are “hugely problematic,” Jeff Link, the Democratic strategist, said—even for a three-star admiral.

A world without Chuck Grassley in power is one in which most Iowans have never actually lived. That may be why “Faith in adversity” has recently become the unofficial motto of the state’s Democrats. This year, they even decided to put it on a sign. Orange placards dapple grassy lawns throughout Iowa, each bearing a message of hopeful conviction—We believe Michael Franken will defeat Chuck Grassley, the signs say—as though they can speak such a mammoth upset into existence.

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