Grassley pressured to run as Democrats set sights on Iowa
Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is under increasing pressure to run for reelection as Democrats look to turn around their recent struggles in Iowa next year.
Republicans have publicly and privately encouraged the 87-year-old Grassley to mount one more campaign, seeing his candidacy as a sure-fire way to lock down the Iowa Senate seat. The party is also eager to avoid another retirement after five of its incumbent senators announced that they will not run for reelection in 2022.
Democrats, meanwhile, saw their first prominent candidate, former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa), jump into the Senate race on Thursday.
Iowa will be a difficult target for Democrats, even if Grassley decides to retire. The party suffered a series of setbacks there in 2020: former President Donald Trump won the state by a more-than-8-point margin; Democrats failed in their effort to oust Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa); and the party lost control of two of its House seats – Finkenauer’s included.
But Democrats and some Republicans believe that the race has the potential to become competitive without the longtime incumbent on the ballot.
“In Iowa, there’s not going to be a competitive race if Grassley seeks reelection,” one Republican consultant who has worked extensively on Senate races said. “To that extent, the Republican field is frozen until Grassley decides whether or not to run for reelection, in which case we’re going to be rushing to figure things out.”
Republicans are mostly confident that Grassley will seek an eighth term in the Senate. In an interview on the conservative “Ruthless” podcast this week, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), said that he’s “still bugging” Grassley and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to announce their reelection bids.
“If you announce you’re running, that would be pretty helpful to me,” Scott said. He added that he recently held a fundraiser alongside Grassley in Naples, Fla.
“If he flies all the way from Iowa down to Naples, Fla., I think he’s gonna run,” Scott added.
One Republican familiar with the race said that “all signs point to Grassley running for reelection,” noting that he’s been revving up his campaign team and raising money at a steady pace. He pulled in $625,000 in the second quarter of the year, leaving him with more than $2.5 million on hand for a reelection bid.
The source acknowledged that Grassley’s delay in announcing his intentions for next year is unusual for the longtime senator, but pointed out that “he’s certainly acting like a senator running for reelection.” Grassley himself has said that he will make a decision this fall.
“The signs are that, yes, Sen. Grassley appears to be running,” the source said. “I don’t want to get ahead of anything, but that’s how we are operating.”
Grassley’s campaign was quick to respond on Thursday to Finkenauer’s announcement, casting her as a failed candidate and noting Grassley’s substantial cash advantage over her: “$2,549,206 to just $29,814.”
“Ex-Rep. Finkenauer is too radical for Iowa, which is why Iowans fired her just last year, giving her the distinction as the first member of Congress from Iowa to lose reelection after just one term in more than fifty years,” Jennifer Heins, an adviser to Grassley’s campaign, said in a statement.
If Grassley ultimately decides against another reelection bid, Republicans will likely have a bench of potential candidates to draw from, including Hinson, former acting U.S. Attorney General Matthew Whitaker and Iowa state House Speaker Pat Grassley, the senator’s grandson.
Still, Republicans are eager to avoid another retirement. Already, five GOP incumbents have said that they won’t seek reelection next year, setting off a series of crowded primaries at a time when Republicans are trying to recapture their Senate majority.
Finkenauer, 32, was narrowly defeated by Republican Ashley Hinson in 2020 after ousting former Rep. Rod Blum (R-Iowa) only two years earlier. That loss came amid a broader series of defeats for House Democrats, who ultimately lost 11 seats last year.
In announcing her Senate campaign on Thursday, Finkenauer cast Grassley as a career politician who had abandoned his principles to stay in office, making reference to politicians “who have been there for decades.” Grassley won his first term in the Senate more than eight years before Finkenauer was born.
“It’s politicians like Sen. Grassley and Mitch McConnell who should know better but are so obsessed with power that they oppose anything that moves us forward,” Finkenauer said in an announcement video posted on social media accounts.
While Finkenauer is the first high-profile Democrat to enter the race, she’ll still face at least one primary opponent, former Crawford County Supervisor Dave Muhlbauer, who announced his campaign in May.
She also may not be the last prominent Democrat to jump into the contest. Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa), who was elected in 2018 alongside Finkenauer, hasn’t ruled out running for either the Senate or for governor in 2022. Retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken, who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic Senate nomination in 2020, is also weighing another campaign.
Republicans were quick on Thursday to pounce on Finkenauer, with the NRSC issuing a statement denouncing her as “indistinguishable” from those in her party’s left flank, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).
“Iowa needs a true conservative leader like Chuck Grassley in the Senate, not somebody like Abby Finkenauer who will work to destroy Iowans’ livelihoods,” NRSC press secretary Katharine Cooksey said.
Grassley won his last reelection bid in 2016 by a nearly 25-point margin over former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, and he maintained relatively strong approval ratings throughout his 40-year career in the Senate. But Democrats say that his support may be weakening.
A Des Moines Register/MediaCom Iowa poll released last month showed his approval dropping to 45 percent – the lowest it’s been since 1982, according to the newspaper. The same poll found that nearly two-thirds of likely voters – 64 percent – believe it’s time for someone else to occupy Grassley’s seat, compared to 27 percent who said they would vote to reelect the longtime senator.
Grassley largely shrugged off that survey, telling reporters on a weekly call last month that he’s not focused on what the polling says about his political prospects.
“I’m not too worried about what any poll says about my reelection or whether I should even be a candidate,” he said, according to the Des Moines Register.