The important June 7 primary election is fast approaching in Iowa, with early voting already underway at local county auditor’s offices.
As more Iowans tune into the campaigns in the final weeks, the biggest contest is the race to take on Sen. Chuck Grassley. Three Democrats are facing off for the party’s nomination, hoping to stop Grassley from securing an eight term in the Senate.
While Iowa’s senior senator has easily won reelection in the past, there’s been some warning signs for him lately, including an approval rating that is now consistently falling under 50%. And Democrats’ choice for their top-of-ticket nominee will signal where the party is headed in Iowa and what issues they think will resonate with Iowans.
Here’s Starting Line’s quick rundown of the Democratic candidates, their backgrounds, and what policies they’re campaigning on.
Hometown: Sherrill (Dubuque County). Now lives in Cedar Rapids.
Raised in a small town that had “more cows than people,” as she puts it, Abby Finkenauer was brought up in a working-class family that shaped her outlook on service and politics. Her father was a union pipefitter-welder, her mother a school secretary.
Finkenauer first ran for the Iowa House at age 24, serving two terms as she represented part of Dubuque. She became the second-youngest woman elected to the US House in 2018 (and the youngest woman ever to flip a seat blue), defeating a multi-millionaire incumbent.
Throughout her service, Finkenauer made a point of having her father’s old sweatshirt, which had burn holes in it from his welding work, at her desk. In the Iowa House, she fought against legislation weakening workers’ rights; in Congress, she passed legislation helping small businesses, and focused on child care issues, rural health care, and the safety of packing plant workers. She also opened up about her personal diagnosis with endometriosis and pushed for increased research funding on it.
In her campaign for the US Senate, Finkenauer has pitched herself as a generational contrast to an 88-year-old Grassley who first won elected office in 1958. In recent months, Finkenauer has emphasized her commitment to term limits to prevent politicians from serving such long stretches of time, and has said she’ll limit herself to two Senate terms if successful.
She began her campaign with a big focus on protecting democracy, criticizing Grassley for not doing more in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Finkenauer has highlighted her past support for expanded voting rights legislation and has warned about the influence of misinformation on social media and how it’s undermining democracy.
After the leaked Supreme Court opinion on abortion rights, Finkenauer has spoken out at several pro-choice rallies about her longtime support of women’s health care and noting how useful it would be to have a young woman in the Senate who can talk personally about reproductive rights.
Hometown: Lebanon (Sioux County). Now lives in Sioux City.
Mike Franken brings an extensive resume to the campaign, having spent nearly four decades in a world-spanning military career that included him rising to the rank of a three-star admiral, working in the Pentagon and serving as a senior military official in Africa.
But life began for Franken in a small town in deeply-conservative Northwest Iowa, where he was one of nine children. He worked in his father’s workshop and spent three years on a job in a slaughterhouse in Sioux City before embarking on his military service. Franken would go on to be the first commanding officer on the USS Winston S. Churchill, command a destroyer squadron, serve in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office and the Pentagon, and was the deputy director of military operations for US Africa Command, among other roles.
Franken returned to Iowa to run in the 2020 US Senate primary, where he came in second place.
Franken will talk on the campaign trail about his foreign policy background, including how he was the only vote against the Iraq War at a military council in 2002 and that he resigned after Donald Trump was elected. He’s weighed in often about the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how the US can better combat Vladimir Putin. Still, most of his focus is on domestic issues.
He’s pitching a universal health care system, while also pledging to bring down prescription drug costs. The Jan. 6 insurrection was also a key motivator for Franken, and he’s called out Grassley often for not denouncing the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election.
But his message on the campaign trail also emphasizes the need to bring down the temperature of political rhetoric and find ways that Iowans can unify around solutions. Franken has presented himself as someone who can bring a lot of rural voters back to the Democratic Party with his demeanor and military background.
Doctor, City Councilman
Hometown: Minden, Iowa (Pottawattamie County)
A rural family practice doctor, Glenn Hurst is the only doctor in his small town and has seen up-close how the health care system and costs have made life difficult for rural Iowans. Born on a military base in Germany, his family later moved to the Midwest and Hurst would attend medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Hurst got more involved in local politics after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, becoming a leader in the grassroots Indivisible movement. Hurst also took on leadership roles in the Iowa Democratic Party’s Rural Caucus and the 3rd Congressional District committee, and he spoke out locally when a militia group gathered in Council Bluffs in response to baseless rumors of racial justice “riots.”
Hurst has positioned himself as the most progressive in the Democratic primary, and as such, he argues, the most electable of the group. That’s because he feels that by offering a clearer difference between the Democratic and Republican candidate, Democrats can win back many Iowa voters. Hurst pitches himself as a Tom Harkin-like prairie progressive, one who can best harness the anger and frustration of Iowans who feel left behind in a broken economy.
His biggest policy points have been creating a Medicare for All system, passing the Green New Deal, providing widespread student loan forgiveness, and ending the filibuster. He’s also in favor of expanding the Supreme Court.
Hurst speaks extensively on the campaign trail about how universal health care can revitalize rural Iowa, and how his plan would save small-town clinics and rural hospitals, vastly bring down overall costs, and expand services covered for patients. He also talks often about mental health care services and how the medical field should tie it in more with overall physical health.
by Pat Rynard
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