Grassley challenger no stranger to defying odds
© Greg Nash

Patty Judge’s quest to unseat longtime Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyGraham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Iowa Democrat drops bid to challenge Grassley after death of nephew Bipartisan senators press FBI, inspector general for changes following Nassar case MORE will likely be the toughest fight of her political career.

But this isn’t the first time the former Iowa lieutenant governor has sought to defy formidable odds.


When Judge mounted her first run to become head of the state’s agriculture department, she was faced with major skepticism — even from her spouse — that a woman could win that election.

“When I ran for secretary of agriculture in Iowa in 1996, people ... were sure that Iowans would not consider electing a woman to that position,” Judge said in an interview with The Hill.

“There had never been a woman on the ballot,” the Democrat said. “My own husband told me I was nuts.”

But Judge defeated her Republican opponent by about 25,000 votes and made history as the first woman to hold the position. She carries that same determination going into her latest uphill battle.

“I always believed that if I could talk to people, if I could tell them what I wanted to do and why I was doing it, that they would vote for me, and I believe that today,” Judge said.

Two decades later, Judge, 72, now faces the daunting task of going up against Grassley, a six-term Republican lawmaker with a high profile nationally who has become a household name in his home state. 

Grassley, 82, has consistently won more than 60 percent of the vote in each of his reelection contests. But this year, he faces his first real competition and a very unpredictable election cycle, with polls showing him as little as 1 point ahead of Judge.

He has acknowledged that this is his toughest race to date and is taking Judge’s campaign seriously, though he goes into the fall with a huge cash advantage.

Judge says one of the main reasons for her campaign is Grassley’s unwillingness, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, to give President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee a hearing. She also noted Grassley’s past “obstruction” to Obama’s legislation such as the Affordable Care Act.

Although Judge believes Grassley is forgoing his legislative duties by refusing to hold a hearing or vote for Judge Merrick Garland, she said he was “helpful” to her while she served in the state agriculture department.

“I have worked with Chuck Grassley off and on through the years, and always had what I considered and what I think he’d consider a cordial working relationship,” Judge said.

But now, Judge believes Grassley has abandoned his responsibilities and reputation as an independent thinker and, in turn, should serve his final term.

She casts herself as having an independent streak, explaining that though Democratic leaders courted her to run, the decision was ultimately hers. Judge said she was initially hesitant because her granddaughter was going to have open heart surgery, but her son encouraged her to do it for the family.

“It was my decision and mine alone, along with my family.”

So far, polls show that Judge is putting up a credible fight. A recent Loras College poll found the race to be in a statistical tie, with Grassley, leading by only 1 point, up 46 percent to 45 percent. Other recent surveys have also found Judge within striking distance.

Some observers have questioned the reliability of the Loras poll, but it’s still a bright spot for a campaign that will have to shift into overdrive to catch up to Grassley’s fundraising. He has almost $5.3 million on hand, and Judge — who recently competed in a four-way primary — has only about $235,000.

Political observers in the state say Judge’s top priority and biggest challenge will be convincing voters that Grassley’s tenure in the Senate should end.

“I think she’s trusted. I think people respect her and like her, but I think she’s got to run a great campaign in order to convince people to make the change,” said David Andersen, assistant political science professor at Iowa State University. “If you’re going to unseat Chuck Grassley, you have to convince people there’s a reason to do it.

“So far it’s been a really quiet campaign,” Andersen added. “That’s just not going to cut it if they’re going to unseat Chuck Grassley.”

But Judge believes she has the credentials and experience to persuade voters that she’s their best option.

Judge served as lieutenant governor under then-Gov. Chet Culver in 2006 but lost reelection in 2010. In addition to serving as Iowa secretary of agriculture, she was also a state senator for six years.

Her career experience extends beyond government. She’s worked as a registered nurse and a real estate broker, and her family owns a farm in southern Iowa about 65 miles south of Des Moines.

“I’ve had a lot of careers in my life. When I think about it, I think every piece of that — from being a nurse, a farmer, dealing with real estate — has added to a skill set that I would have been able to use throughout my political career,” Judge said.

Those who have worked closely with Judge also describe her as capable of taking on the Senate legend.

“She is a pretty aggressive campaigner in getting out and meeting people across the state, which I think particularly going against Chuck Grassley … is really going to be a strong quality in a candidate,” said Norm Sterzenbach, former deputy campaign manager for the Culver-Judge gubernatorial campaign.

“She’s not going to be timid when it comes to Chuck Grassley,” he said.

Judge also has some powerful Democrats in her corner, including longtime Iowa operative Jeff Link, who worked on Obama’s 2008 campaign,  Sterzenbach said.

She also has the backing of two revered Iowa lawmakers: former Sen. Tom HarkinThomas (Tom) Richard HarkinFCC needs to help services for the deaf catch up to videoconferencing tech Biden celebrates anniversary of Americans with Disabilities Act Ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer running for Senate in Iowa MORE (D) and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE.

While Judge plans to tout her time as lieutenant governor, Iowa Republicans are starting to use her tenure as second-in-command, which was during the 2008 recession, against her.

In early June, Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who defeated Judge in 2010, blasted Judge for her administration’s “failed policies,” and Grassley campaign manager Robert Haus painted her as “unprepared” to serve on the federal level.

“Patty Judge’s time as Iowa’s lieutenant governor was mired in mismanagement that nearly bankrupted the state and generated chaos throughout Iowa’s public and private sectors,” Haus said.

“She is unprepared for the job and doesn’t want Iowans to see it,” he added. 

The Senate race may tilt into the GOP column, but on a presidential level, Iowa is a toss-up state, and that could be reflected in down-ballot races. 

Judge has condemned Grassley’s support of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPence: Supreme Court has chance to right 'historic wrong' with abortion ruling Prosecutor says during trial that actor Jussie Smollett staged 'fake hate crime' Overnight Defense & National Security — US, Iran return to negotiating table MORE, who came in second in the state’s caucuses. She has endorsed presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCountering the ongoing Republican delusion Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Poll: Democracy is under attack, and more violence may be the future MORE, who eked out a win there in February and is eager to campaign with Clinton when she next visits Iowa. 

“I think that she’s a strong woman, and I think I’m a strong woman, but I think we both are very, very qualified to take on the jobs that we’re seeking, despite our gender,” Judge said.

Regardless of the national political climate, observers still believe the odds are in Grassley’s favor. But the race now appears much closer than initially anticipated.

“I think probably six months ago I would have said he’s a shoo-in, then it went down to, well, he’s likely to win,” Andersen said. “Now I’m pretty sure he’ll win. I’d say leans Republican.”