DES MOINES — What Democrat wants to run against Republican Chuck Grassley, who has been reelected to the U.S. Senate in Iowa six times by a staggering average of 35 percentage points?
Apparently there are at least three this year. And Iowa Democrats have less than a month to decide which of those three to put up against Grassley, who has been winning elections in the state since Chuck Berry and Nat King Cole were still making hit records.
Abby Finkenauer, a former congresswoman and state legislator from Cedar Rapids; Mike Franken, a retired U.S. Navy admiral from Sioux City; and Glenn Hurst, a physician from Minden, are seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination and the right to square off, likely, against Grassley this November.
Grassley faces his own primary challenge on the Republican side from Jim Carlin, a lawyer and state legislator from Sioux City. Grassley is widely expected to comfortably fend off that challenge.
Beating him in November will be no small task for a Democrat, either.
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“Incumbents are always difficult to unseat, especially longtime ones without significant scandals,” said Donna Hoffman, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa. “Iowa, in particular, tends to like long-term incumbents and re-elect them. While Grassley’s popularity has eroded a bit over time, he’s still the odds-on favorite. However, no incumbent is unbeatable, especially if the opposing party picks its nominee with a contrast in mind, giving voters clear choices.”
That, in a nutshell, is Iowa Democrats’ task.
Iowa’s primary election is June 7. Early voting starts Wednesday.
The Gazette’s Des Moines Bureau interviewed each of the three Democratic candidates this past week.
If the primary campaign had a favorite at the outset, it was Finkenauer. She entered as the field’s most recognizable candidate, having already served in Congress, for one term representing Eastern Iowa’s 1st District in 2019 and 2020.
Finkenauer defeated two-term Republican incumbent U.S. Rep. Rod Blum in 2018, but in 2020 lost her re-election bid to Republican Ashley Hinson, another former state legislator.
Before serving in Congress, Finkenauer represented Dubuque in the Iowa House from to 2015 to 2018. During her time in the U.S. House, she moved to Cedar Rapids, where she still resides.
Finkenauer, 33, says she provides the starkest contrasts to the 88-year-old Grassley.
“The biggest reason is because of the contrast between us,” Finkenauer said. “It’s pretty stark in a number of ways, but the one that matters the most is the fact that I have never forgotten where I come from and who I fight for and why I’m in this. Every single thing that I’ve done in my career in public service has been stepping up for the friends and family back here in Iowa who have been forgotten in (Washington) D.C.”
Franken is a veteran in the military and on U.S. Senate campaigns in Iowa: he also ran in the Democratic primary in 2020 for the seat held by Republican Joni Ernst. He finished second two years ago to Theresa Greenfield, nonetheless impressing many Iowa Democrats along the way.
Born and raised in Lebanon, Iowa, Franken, 64, was a three-star admiral in the U.S. Navy. He also worked with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy and in the U.S. Department of Defense.
Franken portrays himself as a solidly Democratic candidate who can also, by way of his professional resume, ward off Republican attacks and attract no-party voters.
“My unique experiences that I bring to the job, almost four decades of government service in many different organizations, many different types of skill groups, I’ve got a long resume, I’m experienced in the legislative process in the U.S. Senate on the appropriations and the authorization side, which is an important thing,” Franken said of his qualifications. “Most importantly, I grew up in rural Iowa in the most advantageous way imaginable: from the ground up, where you make your future.”
Hurst considers himself the most progressive candidate in the primary. He wholeheartedly endorses policies like Medicare for All and the sweeping environmental Green New Deal.
Hurst, 52, is new to the top of the ballot, but not to Iowa Democratic politics. For the past four years he has served on the state party’s rural caucus, including the past two years as its chair.
Hurst pushes back at the notion that Iowa Democrats must run a centrist candidate in order to win a statewide campaign in a state that has been leaning Republican in recent election cycles.
“When you look at the last time Iowa Democrats won at the top of the ticket, it was a progressive Democratic (U.S.) senator. It was Tom Harkin (in 2008). And we’ve tried the, ‘Let’s be more interesting to moderates’ path the last four general elections, and we’ve been handed our hat every time. So what I’m convinced of is that that’s the wrong way to win. That’s the wrong path. Is this the right path? I certainly hope so. But doing the same thing one more time doesn’t make any sense.”
Over the course of the primary campaign, Finkenauer has been the top fundraiser so far, raising a total of just more than $3 million, according to federal campaign finance records.
But Franken had the best start to 2022, raising $1.4 million over the first three months, to $1.2 million for Finkenauer, according to federal records.
And Franken was the first candidate in the primary to advertise on television. His first campaign ad hit Iowa devices in April, and his second released earlier this month. His campaign boasts of not accepting donations from corporate PACs, which are political fundraising arms of large businesses.
Both Finkenauer and Franken have long lists of endorsements from myriad Iowa Democrats and Democratic organizations.
Finkenauer was nearly removed from the ballot in April when Republicans challenged the validity of some of the required signatures on her nominating paperwork. A three-member state panel ruled on a 2-1 vote to accept the signatures, but that decision was challenged in court and a state judge overturned the state panel’s decision, threatening to kick Finkenauer off the ballot.
The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously overturned the lower court’s ruling, allowing the state panel’s ruling to stand and Finkenauer to remain on the ballot.
In her ongoing effort to portray stark differences between herself and Grassley, Finkenauer has made a call for congressional term limits central to her campaign.
As a candidate, she has been proactive on the recent nationwide shortage of baby formula, calling for President Joe Biden’s administration to use the emergency Defense Production Act to help companies get more formula back on store shelves.
Finkenauer also has cited a need to eliminate the Senate filibuster in order to, as a few examples, codify an individual’s right to an abortion and remove state-level barriers to voting. She said she believes abortion will drive voters in this fall’s general election.
A leaked draft opinion suggests the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court appears poised this summer to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that ensured the right to an abortion.
“You’ve got daughter-in-laws going with their mother-in-laws to (campaign) events. Some people who have never been to a political event before are starting to show up, and it’s really extraordinary,” Finkenauer said. “This is stuff that folks are ticked off about, and they want somebody who cares and is willing to fight for it.”
Franken is not a one-trick pony and readily speaks on myriad issues, including health care (he is supportive of Medicare for All as a goal, but also more modest steps along the way like lowering the Medicare age to 50), agriculture (he bemoans the consolidation of agriculture and the reduction of family farms), and the environment (he cites a need to address Iowa’s water quality).
But Democratic voters may see his military experience as a valuable asset, especially while the Russian military invasion of Ukraine has reached its third month.
“My message for Ukraine is that (President Joe) Biden is doing a good job in corralling the nations to counteract Russian assaults. We are doing more every week,” Franken said. “The Russians have already lost this. They just don’t know it.”
Hurst said while he believes he has the primary’s most progressive policy positions, he also believes he can best identify with no-party voters, even in conservative-leaning Iowa. He said his experience on the state party’s rural caucus has helped inform how Democrats can connect with rural voters, who have voted for Republicans by increasing margins in recent Iowa elections.
“The message I think Democrats have missed is that (rural Iowans) are separated from urban areas and giving them a little space between themselves because they value their freedoms. They’re not looking for the government to come in and solve all of their problems,” Hurst said. “However, they recognize that there are certain things that they want to do that they can’t do because nobody is doing the oversight. … So the message has really been about freedom and independence, but they’re able to identify their problem areas very clearly.”
The three candidates have debated once on television, and are scheduled to participate in one more televised debate: at 7 p.m. Thursday on Iowa PBS and its statewide affiliates.
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