Iowa Dems say Wall Street, mood against incumbents will help topple Grassley

Iowa Democrats are cautiously optimistic that simmering anger over the Wall Street financial bailout and voters’ anti-incumbent mood will help them defeat Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

“What I hear most is how angry people are about the Wall Street bailout,” Democratic Senate candidate Roxanne Conlin told The Hill. “They clearly see the connection between the fact that they, their family, their friends are unemployed, and Wall Street. They know what happened here, Wall Street drove the economy off a cliff.”

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Conlin pointed to Grassley’s vote for the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act in 2008, which set up the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). “Grassley has done everything he can to conceal that he voted in favor of the Wall Street bailout,” she said.

Some financial institutions that received taxpayer money through the TARP program subsequently paid bonuses to their employees, which caused widespread anger.

Conlin is one of three Democratic candidates vying to challenge Grassley in November. She’s expected to win the June 8 primary.

Republicans agree that Grassley faces a tough reelection fight this year. “He’s a strong candidate, he’s a strong senator, he’s doing a good job and people will respect that but it’s an environment maybe we haven’t seen before,” said Bob Haus, an Iowa-based Republican consultant.

Many senators are facing harder reelection battles this cycle and some, such as Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah), have lost their primaries to upstart candidates.

“It’s a tough environment for any incumbent, not just Chuck Grassley,” Haus said. “There is a growing weariness here that every time the word reform comes out there’s no cost-savings associated, it’s just costs. And I think that’s what people are getting really tired of.”

Grassley may have tried to avert renewed criticism of his 2008 TARP vote by voting in favor of the Wall Street reform bill, which recently passed the Senate.

Conlin pointed to Grassley’s vote as an example of election-year politics. “He is a rock-ribbed partisan on almost every issue,” she said.

But the five-term incumbent joined Democrats to vote for the legislation — becoming one of only four Republicans to vote “yes.”

Grassley had previously voted against closing debate on the sprawling 1,500-page bill, which could have allowed it to move forward sooner.

Conlin said some 61,000 of her supporters contacted Grassley’s office to encourage him to vote for the bill. “We put political pressure on him,” she said. “We very much wanted him to vote right.”

Haus disputed Grassley was playing politics with his vote, noting he has a history of breaking with his party to vote for legislation he thinks is right for Iowa.

Conlin is also hoping to capitalize on that long history.

“There are certainly people who think 36 years in Washington is really enough. I hear that a lot,” she said. “As much as he pretends to be an outsider, the man has been in public life for 51 years. His principle occupation in his entire life has been with the government. So I just don’t think he can qualify, ever, as someone who has the perspective of a small-business owner, which is what I am.”

Conlin is a successful consumer lawyer who gained notoriety when she won a class-action lawsuit against Microsoft. Success in the courtroom has given her some financial resources to funnel into her campaign.

Conlin has lent her campaign more than $250,000 and “paid some of the bills,” she said.

But she doesn’t plan to self-fund significantly. “I’m not Carly Fiorina or Meg Whitman. We’re just not in that category. Much of our net worth is in buildings,” she said.

Still, having some ability to self-fund could help her close the money gap with Grassley. He reported having $5.5 million cash on hand in his pre-primary fundraising report, while Conlin had just $870,643 banked.

Conlin said she’s focused on the general but isn’t taking next week’s primary vote for granted. “We’re working very hard, we’re running TV ads,” she said.

It may be a close vote. On Sunday, the Des Moines Register’s editorial board endorsed attorney Tom Fiegen for the Democratic nomination.