Grassley straddles fence in Iowa GOP Senate primary

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is looking to balance his personal affection for a former staffer with a promise to stay neutral in Iowa’s GOP Senate primary.

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Grassley will headline a late July fundraiser for former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker (R), the candidate’s campaign announced Monday morning. 

The announcement comes shortly after it was reported that Grassley will host two June fundraisers for his former Senate chief of staff, David Young (R), who's also in the race.

"I'm glad that Senator Grassley is lending his name to our event," said Whitaker in a statement. 

"I look forward to his help and his counsel. Next June we need to have everyone pulling in the same direction in order to beat [Democratic candidate Rep.] Bruce Braley and the Obama machine."

Grassley had told The Hill that he planned to stay neutral in the primary despite his connection to Young.

"He's been loyal to me. He's been a good chief of staff for two senators, and I hated to see him go, but if I can have a Republican colleague, I want a Republican colleague," Grassley said in early June as explanation for why he’d stay neutral.

The decision to offset his Young fundraisers with an event on Whitaker’s behalf shows Grassley's intention to help Republicans win the seat being vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), while avoiding being seen as choosing sides in the GOP primary.

A number of Iowa Republicans close to Grassley are involved in Young’s campaign.

“Yes, Grassley says he's neutral, but nearly everyone connected to him is supporting Young. Appearance and perception are two different things. The perception around here is Grassley is not as neutral as he might claim to be,” said Craig Robinson, a former Iowa Republican Party political director. 

“The whole Grassley operation is helping Young.”

Conservative radio host Sam Clovis (R) is also in the race, and Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) is also considering a bid for the seat. 

The crowded primary could pit Grassley loyalists against Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R)’s political machine. Sources say Branstad wants Ernst to run.

Grassley's decision to help Whitaker also shows he's working to address his biggest concern about Republicans' chances for the seat. 

Braley has the Democratic field to himself and is raising substantial funds for the race.  Grassley told The Hill he was worried Democrats would be "way ahead of us on money."

Grassley's office did not return requests for comment.

This story was originally posted at 9:54 a.m. and has been updated.