Grassley faces race of his life
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After decades of coasting to reelection, Sen. Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyTop security officials issue stark warning of Chinese espionage efforts Lame-duck Congress should pass First Step Act The Hill's Morning Report — Takeaways from the battle royal in the Oval Office MORE is facing his toughest race yet. 

Iowa political observers say the 82-year-old Republican senator known for his independent streak could be in danger in a turbulent, no-holds-barred presidential election year. 

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A Loras College poll released Thursday had the Iowa lawmaker in a statistical dead heat against Patty Judge, his Democratic challenger. Grassley led by only one point, 46-45, against the former lieutenant governor. That nominal advantage was well within the poll’s four-point margin or error.

Public Policy Polling, a left-leaning firm, released a survey earlier last week showing Grassley with a 7-point lead. But even that margin hardly suggests safety for the incumbent.

“When I see a poll like the Loras poll or the [Public Polling Policy] poll, if I'm Grassley that makes me nervous. ...That's trouble,” said David Peterson, a political science professor at Iowa State University and editor of the academic journal Political Behavior. "I think he's clearly more vulnerable than he's been in past elections.”

Democrats and outside groups pounced on the polling.

Judge’s campaign blasted out the Loras College poll, noting Grassley “is consistently polling in the 40s for the first time since his election to the Senate in the 1980s.” 

“We’re obviously excited about that poll,” Sam Roecker, Judge’s campaign manager, told The Hill. “This is unprecedented for Chuck Grassley.” 

But Bob Haus, Grassley's campaign manager, said the Iowa senator is in a "strong position" ahead of the election.

"Given Loras College’s history of wildly inaccurate polls, this one will not keep us awake at night," he said.

Democrats and outside groups striving to unseat Grassley believe their message — that Grassley has lost his independent streak and has fallen into line behind presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpActivists highlight Trump ties to foreign autocrats in hotel light display Jose Canseco pitches Trump for chief of staff: ‘Worried about you looking more like a Twinkie everyday’ Dershowitz: Mueller's report will contain 'sins' but no 'impeachable offense' MORE and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Overnight Defense: Senate moves toward vote on bill ending support for Saudi war | House GOP blocks Yemen war votes for rest of year | Trump throws uncertainty into Pentagon budget | Key Dem to leave transgender troop ban to courts Senate moves toward vote on ending support for Saudi-led war MORE (R-Ky.) — is sticking with voters. 

Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, said that Grassley will have a fight on his hands, even if the Loras College poll comes to be seen as an outlier.

“Judge will present a stronger candidate… than other candidates Grassley has faced,” he said. “[Also] it does mean that Democrats think they have a better shot, especially when you've got a candidate at the top of the Republican ticket like Trump.” 

But unseating the senator won’t be easy. 

Grassley—who unlike Judge didn’t have a primary fight—had amassed a war chest of nearly $5.3 million as of mid-May, the last FEC filing deadline. He is a formidable political force in the state. 

Most national and Iowa handicappers — including Hagle and Peterson — believe Grassley will ultimately eke out a win in November.

Christopher Budzisz, an associate professor of politics at Loras College and director of the Loras College Poll, said even with Grassley narrowly leading, he’s hesitant to believe the Iowa senator will go down without a fight.

“I think it’s really early still,” he added, referring to the poll. “Part of that might be a volatile year, part of it might be the early campaigning by outside groups against Sen. Grassley… and it might also be a kind of settling right now in terms of where Iowa is.” 

Republicans largely dismiss the poll, noting a previous survey from the college had Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCohen once teased Hillary Clinton about going to prison. Now he's been sentenced to 36 months The Hill's 12:30 Report — Cohen gets three years in prison | Fallout from Oval Office clash | House GOP eyes vote on B for wall Contest offers 'Broadway play and chardonnay' with Clinton MORE up nearly 30 points over Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersOcasio-Cortez on call to run for president: ‘How about … no’ GOP-controlled Senate breaks with Trump on Saudi vote Amazon workers in Staten Island launching campaign to unionize MORE about two weeks before the Iowa Democratic caucuses earlier this year. Clinton won that contest by less than half a point in the end.

Greg Blair, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the race is unchanged since Judge decided to challenge Grassley in March. 

"Patty Judge is not a credible candidate. She is not running a credible campaign,” he asserted. 

The Loras College poll had one bright spot for the senator. Despite the headline number that had the race in a de facto dead heat, more than 70 percent of respondents said they expected Grassley to win.

But strategists argue that even a closer-than-expected election could mobilize outside groups and force Republicans to spend more money and resources on what was considered a safe seat. 

“[Republicans are] probably going to have to kick some money into Iowa, which they don't want to do,” Peterson said. “Even if they don't believe the poll...I'm sure Grassley's calling people." 

Both sides are also trading early tactical volleys.

Grassley’s campaign has raced to link Judge to former Iowa Gov. Chet Culver, a Democrat. 

Judge served as Culver’s second-in-command and the two ran on a ticket together in 2010, losing by nearly 10 points to the GOP ticket headed by now-Gov. Terry Branstad. 

But Democrats have had Grassley in their crosshairs for months, arguing that the nomination of Trump, as well as the stalemate over President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court, could be the recipe to unseat the senator after six terms.

Unlike other incumbents, Grassley doesn’t shy away from Trump’s candidacy.

Asked if he was standing by Trump, Grassley told a local radio host—after suggesting a Democrat would not be asked the same question about Hillary Clinton—“I’m going to support Trump, yes, because I don’t want a third term of an Obama administration.” 

Democrats have tried to capitalize on Grassley’s comments, arguing he’s changed and is no longer a maverick looking out for Iowa. 

In particular, they point to his refusal, in his role as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, to consider giving a hearing to Garland, whom Obama nominated to the court following the death of Antonin Scalia in February. 

Grassley’s office has repeatedly pushed back against the attacks, asserting that he’s merely embracing a standard that the Iowa senator calls the “Biden rule.” 

This refers to a 1992 speech made by Vice President Biden, then a senator representing Delaware. In it, he suggested that the Senate should not proceed with any Supreme Court nomination made by incumbent President George H.W. Bush until after that year’s presidential election.

Still, Peterson argued Grassley’s stance puts him at odds with Iowa’s get-things-done mentality.

“There are billboards all over the state about this,” he added. “This is something that Democrats... are pushing hard.”