When Patty Judge entered the U.S. Senate race a little over two months ago, some Iowa Democrats were excited about the prospect. Chuck Grassley might finally be vulnerable thanks to his historic obstruction of the Supreme Court nomination, but some were worried Rob Hogg couldn’t fully take advantage of the situation.
A candidate like Judge, who’s won statewide office before, who could raise serious money and has rural credibility as a longtime farmer seemed like a good bet.
Yes, there’s concerns among the Democratic base over Judge’s past record on water quality issues, the agricultural industry and organized labor. Some will not forgive the collective bargaining veto from Chet Culver, and some environmentalists may never get on board with Judge.
But this is Chuck Grassley we’re talking about. Democrats never imagined they’d have an actual chance to knock him off in a million years. So some were willing to look past their ideological misgivings if it meant actually putting up a real challenge to Iowa’s senior senator. Because she sure as hell is better than Grassley on every other issue.
And beside her biographical background, Judge’s personality seemed well-suited for the task. For those who have been involved in Iowa politics a while, they’ll remember Judge’s effectiveness on the stump. She’s been dishing out red meat to Democratic audiences with glee for decades. She was spectacular at ripping into Jim Nussle in 2006 and Mitt Romney in 2012 as a surrogate. Some on the left believe her to be some boring establishment figure, but at her heart Judge is a feisty, sassy, 72-year-old farm girl that can dish out Ann Richards-like barbs with some Iowa charm.
If you’re going to take on a six-term incumbent, you’re going to need someone who can come at them hard.
That’s what things looked like in March. Then the actual campaign happened. And Patty Judge’s campaign did what I thought impossible: they made Patty Judge boring.
Her public events have been limited – her adviser Jeff Link explained it was because they didn’t want trackers from Republican organizations videotaping what she said to use for attacks. That seemed odd. Trackers can certainly be an annoyance and catch “gotcha” moments, but a good candidate is skilled enough to avoid such mistakes. And that’s not a good excuse to just not host numerous events around the state open to voters who want to meet her.
The big complaint from Democrats in 2014 was that the lack of a primary poorly prepared Bruce Braley for the general election against Joni Ernst. He didn’t go through the same trials of testing out his message and getting the extensive input from voters on important issues. So how has this short primary campaign for Judge prepared her?
It also didn’t help tamp down the notion that she was recruited by leaders in Washington D.C. Whoever from the DSCC thought it bright to announce Judge’s candidacy in the New York Times did their preferred nominee no favors. But it should have been easy to bounce back from. Instead, the lack of public events reinforced the narrative.
Her performances at the debates and in editorial meetings have been so-so, with the Des Moines Register critiquing her answers by saying, “one gets the sense her campaign didn’t spring from deeply held convictions or from a sense of duty, but from the urging of party leaders.” That’s also seemed odd, considering Judge’s decades of experience in elected office where she’s dealt hands-on with these policies.
Perhaps the most confusing tactic from the Judge campaign is their television ads. When she announced her candidacy, she declared she was “The one Judge Grassley can’t ignore.”
That’s a hell of an awesome line and appeared to form the basis of her run. And it would likely rally Democrats to her better than any issue or biography piece – Democrats in Iowa right now are absolutely furious with Grassley. We want someone who’s going to take it to him and make him pay in the election for his obstruction.
Instead, Judge’s first ad was about her leadership during the 2008 floods. That’s nice, but it’s hardly the topic of the moment. Her second ad talked in a generic manner about corporate tax breaks. Okay, that’s fine, but again, it’s not what’s driving the interest in this race.
Perhaps both were aimed at blunting Hogg’s momentum: a flood ad to help her in Cedar Rapids, an anti-big banks one to shore up her left flank. However, if Judge got in this race because she thought Grassley was vulnerable, why not show off how you’re going to take him on? If she thinks she’s going to easily win the primary, start using your money to attack Grassley.
And it’s almost as if they’re doing a rehash of the 2010 gubernatorial campaign in which Culver and Judge touted their flood recovery measures. Heck, even her leaning-on-the-fence pose is the same from a 2010 ad:
It’s all starting to look like the same type of blasé, paint-by-numbers operation that doomed Braley and down-ballot Democrats in 2014. And that’s not something that can defeat Chuck Grassley. Perhaps it will improve.
So then who really is the more electable candidate in this race? Patty Judge or Rob Hogg?
For certain, Hogg is not nearly as well-known across the state. That presents a danger of Grassley defining him before Hogg raises enough money to start advertising for the general himself.
But Hogg has shown off a lot of positive qualities in the final stretch of this race that the DSCC may have missed when they passed over him to recruit a different candidate. He’s extremely well-versed on the issues, he’s developed an energetic, motivational stump speech (much improved from when he started), he’s getting activists excited for his campaign and he’s showing a level of confidence and toughness in debates that could serve him well against Grassley.
At every event he leads off with recounting how many days it’s been since President Obama nominated Merrick Garland. His focus is targeted at the right place, he just needs some help in fundraising. Some of the national donors may want to give him a second look.
At the end of the day, some Democrats are willing to look past a few ideological differences they have with a candidate in a primary if they think that person is the only one who can win against the Republican. Yet in the Senate primary, if there’s still a difference in electability between the two, it’s not that much anymore.
Sure, Judge probably still has a better chance than Hogg in the general. Winning past statewide elections do count for a lot. But just how much of a better chance is it at this point? Enough to justify backing a candidate whose record you’re not as comfortable with?
I know who I voted for this morning. We’ll see how the rest of the state goes.
by Pat Rynard