Taking on Sen. Chuck Grassley is no small task, given his large victory margins dating back to the 1980s. It doesn’t help that Iowa has been trending ever more red over the past decade.
But the three Democrats running in the June 7 primary all see a path to pulling off the upset, winning back rural and blue-collar Iowans who left the Democratic Party in recent years and inspiring new voters to turn out. And each candidate’s strategy is unique and tied to their own background, giving Democratic voters some clear choices in who to pick as their nominee.
And at least on Grassley’s popularity front, there does seem to be a bit of an opening—his approval rating has dipped down to 45% in recent polls, and a growing number of Republican voters now view him skeptically. Still, Grassley is very likely to survive his primary next week.
To deny the 88-year-old Grassley an eighth term, the eventual Democratic nominee needs to reverse the party’s drastic slide in rural counties and win back working-class voters who were voting with them until recently.
Here’s how each candidate plans to do it.
A retired three-star admiral who grew up in rural, deep-red Northwest Iowa, Mike Franken looks to neutralize Republicans’ traditional attacks against Democrats.
“I’m a tough target for the GOP,” he said at Des Moines forum. “I’m a problem. I steal from them their entire narrative.”
Franken believes he’ll avoid the fate of many recent statewide Democratic candidates by offering up a far different profile and resume than what Iowa voters are used to. That background includes commanding a destroyer squadron, serving in Sen. Ted Kennedy’s office and the Pentagon, and a stint running military operations for US Africa Command. If he’s successful in his campaign, he’d make history as the highest-ranking former military member to serve in the Senate.
That life experience, he hopes, will insulate him from the usual GOP attacks.
“I grew up with firearms, it has been part of my professional life,” he said at a recent debate. “There’s no one in Washington, DC or in Iowa or in the NRA who is going to gun-splain me, and I doubt if anybody will be happy to have a debate with me on what we should do for responsible firearm ownership in America.”
But if he can, Franken would prefer to avoid the Senate race getting framed in a partisan manner. At the year’s biggest state Democratic dinner, a venue where red-meat rhetoric can go over well, Franken focused on unity.
“I’m also running to dial down the political temperature in the country,” Franken declared, arguing it’s the best way to actually get something accomplished in DC.
“The problem is today we have manufactured divisions all around us,” he said. “Our neighbors, our families, our lifelong friends. We elect leaders more interested in representing their political party than our communities. We glorify. We plant our flags. We pray for demagogues, we speak in cliques. We distrust more easily. We judge more quickly.”
Franken noted that his approach doesn’t mean giving up on progressive values, adding, “I can’t help Republicans who vote to overturn the election, people who make life hell for LGBTQ people.”
He believes presenting voters with a unified vision of an Iowa like the one he grew up in—Franken said people in his small town “assumed good intentions. They didn’t let politics ruin relationships”—will appeal to voters fed up with hyper-partisan politics that don’t produce results.
“I vow to introduce intellect, to set aside vitriol, and I will represent all Iowans to stitch together the wounds of a damaged nation,” Franken closed his Des Moines speech with.
A rural doctor, Glenn Hurst is pitching a forward-thinking, progressive policy agenda, but he pulls his inspiration from the recent past: Tom Harkin.
“The last US Senate candidate that won Iowa as a Democrat was a progressive, he was a prairie progressive,” Hurst said at the state Democratic dinner last month. “He was a person known as Tom Harkin.”
That’s Hurst’s model for his candidacy, to stand out with bold, progressive positions, but it’s also an example to calm Democrats skeptical of a candidate running to the left of everyone.
Hurst aims to set up as clear a choice as possible on policy between himself and Grassley, and he’s pitched that repeatedly as his electability path to Iowa Democrats.
He’s centered his campaign around a raft of progressive issues, often highlighting he’s the most progressive of the candidates in the primary. Hurst supports full student loan forgiveness, making public universities free to attend, a Medicare for All single-payer system, providing reparations for descendants of slaves, expanding the Supreme Court and more.
A major symptom of Democrats’ problem in Iowa lately, he argues, is simply not being ambitious enough.
“We as a Democratic Party put forward three [Senate] candidates that were really relatively moderate candidates … Patty Judge, Bruce Braley, Theresa Greenfield,” Hurst said at a debate. “These were folks who really came from the centrist side of the Democratic Party and they lost because they didn’t appeal to that desire for change.”
When Democrats do that, Hurst argues, they end up looking like part of the nation’s political establishment that doesn’t change things. Voters need to see Democrats as trying something different, something that could transcend voters’ party preference and appeal to Iowans’ underlying desires for change.
“This is the difference between going to DC to do things the way things have always been done and going there to do things different and working for the people of Iowa,” he said during a debate.
Hurst is the candidate who’s probably talked the most about turning out new voters and giving younger people a reason to show up to the polls. But he’s also stressed that his approach would recapture voters who used to support Democrats—the party’s collapse in some mid-size, blue-collar towns have sealed their fate in recent years. Appealing to them with more populist policies, especially some economic ones, is Hurst’s goal.
“The people that we have bled from the Democratic Party are those people who are progressive and want to see progressive policies done,” Hurst said in his final debate closing.
“So come back home.”
A former congresswoman, Abby Finkenauer is also looking to set up a very sharp contrast between her and Grassley in Novemeber—her’s, however, is a generational one.
At age 88, Grassley has been in the Senate for 33-year-old Finkenauer’s entire life—and then some, and that’s without including his entire electoral career that started in the 1950s. That’s often the focal point of Finkenauer’s speeches.
“47 years in Washington DC is just too damn long for anyone,” she said at a state Democratic dinner. “We are going to retire Chuck Grassley because of the differences between us.”
Finkenauer’s preferred contrast to win over voters is that of an out-of-touch politician who far outstayed his usefulness in DC versus a young, down-to-earth woman with relatable rural and blue-collar Iowa roots.
“It is about the contrast between Senator Grassley and I. He has never faced anything like this before and it is about … the fact that I will never forget where I come from and who I fight for and why I’m in this race,” she said in a recent debate. “The guy has owned a house in Virginia since I was five years old.”
Finkenauer has made term limits a central part of her campaign, an issue she believes will cut across party lines for voters who would see it as a check on politicians’ powers. It’s also a way to constantly remind Iowans of just how long Grassley has been in office.
Throughout her electoral runs, including when she became the youngest woman to flip a red congressional district blue in 2018, Finkenauer has emphasized her family’s blue-collar background and rural hometown. “It’s personal” is how she’s often referred to her campaigns and service, saying she’s fighting for the kind of Iowans who work hard and just get by, like those she grew up around.
And Finkenauer too sees her upbringing as a way to defuse Republican attacks on Democrats as elitists or extreme on the issues.
“I grew up in a house where dad was a pheasant hunter, where you should be able to go hunting on the weekends and send your kids to school in Iowa … and not be afraid are they coming back home or not,” she said in a debate.
And she sees her background as particularly important in this moment in American history.
“It is why we need somebody standing on the floor in 2023 in the United States Senate who is a woman of childbearing age, who does actually have a personal stake in this,” she said about the looming Supreme Court abortion decision.
Though Finkenauer lost her reelection in 2020, she is the only one in the field that’s won a federal race, and she often notes that she’s always out-performed other Democrats on the ticket.
“I’ve been the only federal Democrat to win Dubuque County since 2014,” she’s also said.
For those who doubt her ability to unseat one of Iowa’s most formidable incumbents, Finkenauer has a simple answer: she’s done it before, defeating a multi-millionaire incumbent in her first congressional run.
“Just ask Rod Blum,” she said.
by Pat Rynard
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