Give Bruce Braley credit - he called it.
Chuck Grassley comes out of the 2014 election as maybe the year's biggest winner who wasn't actually on a ballot, his status enhanced both at home and in DC. He even won a House race by proxy as his Mini-Me, David Young.
Grassley will be on the ballot in 2016, and amidst all the speculation about other races - Rod Blum already has a target on his back - there's not much discussion about the 2016 Senate race and the need for a credible challenge to Chuck Grassley.
"Surely," you ask, "you don't think the Democrats can beat Chuck Grassley?"
No. But that question contains two assumptions: 1) that winning the seat is the only goal, and 2) that Chuck Grassley is the candidate.
Grassley has already announced, in September 2013 to mark his 80th birthday. He's got more energy than many half his age, and WAY more than Terry Branstad, who looked almost cadaverous in some of his ads. And Chuck's got the knack of this newfangled Tweeter thing to the point where he's his own meme.
Fred and I hit a deer on hiway 136 south of Dyersville. After I pulled fender rubbing on tire we continued to farm. Assume deer deadTWO memes, counting the entry of The Full Grassley into the Iowa and national political lexicon.
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) October 26, 2012
The Republican Senate takeover, and the certain national spotlight at the next Supreme Court vacancy, probably motivates Grassley to want to stay. For now I take him at his word.
Things can change fast in your 80s, and people change their minds. Grassley will be 89 in the fall of 2022, at the end of a seventh term, and completing sixty-four consecutive years in public office.
Can he win? Sure. Will he want to? NOW he does, I'm sure. In December 2012 we were all gearing up for one last Tom Harkin campaign, too. But in a year, with the prospect of a solid year of call time staring him in the face?
And when there may be an exit strategy?
The rumor mill burned all last winter that Terry Branstad was thinking of pulling a switcheroo at the last second. He'd accomplished the major task of Term 5 simply by running; he was the only Republican who could beat Vander Plaats in a primary, and Vander Plaats was the only Republican who would lose to Culver.
Somewhere along the line Branstad got his heart set on the Guinness Book Of Governor Records, and also got focused on coattails and political legacy. He achieved that in a big way with Joni Ernst - I can't say enough how bad it burns us Iowa Democrats that the Republicans broke the gender barrier first. And the chance to create with his own signature on a resignation letter the first female governor, too?
I'm still not convinced Branstad serves out the term, and bet he resigns once he passes George Clinton for the record in the summer of 2016.
He may have the record, but he'll never have a Mothership.
(The resignation lands just after the 2016 election, and before the 2017 legislative session. Let Governor Reynolds get a session in before the inevitable primary challenge from the right.)
I'm less suspicious of Grassley, but Grassley is better situated for a smoother handoff.
Grandson Pat beat tough opposition in a 2012 pair-up legislative primary, got to know all Grandpa's donors, and is now legally old enough for the US Senate. He's getting mentioned for Secretary of Agriculture should Bill Northey do something else, or should Grandpa follow through and run in 2016. Pat has close ties to Kaufmann son and father, and could probably unite the party especially if it's at the last second and it's Grandpa's Parting Wish.
No matter how slim the chance, it's a scenario Democrats need to be ready for. We weren't ready for the Tom Latham retirement, and when it happened we were already locked into Staci Appel. She did well, or at least seemed to till the very end, but she was a B list candidate who would not have been a first choice had we known earlier that it was an open seat race rather than a long shot challenge.
Right now Democrats have a pair of C-minus list Senate candidates. It's a rerun of the 2010 primary without the winner. Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen together won just 22% of the primary vote against Roxanne Conlin. An April 2010 FEC report showed Krause with $352 cash on hand and Fiegen with $582.
There were some hard feelings in and after that primary. Fiegen and Krause got in early, when Grassley looked as strong as he does now. But he stumbled in the summer of 2009 with his "pull the plug on Grandma" comments on Obamacare. For a fleeting moment he looked vulnerable, and the Des Moines Beltway crowd recruited Conlin, who raised enough money (including her own) to run a credible campaign.
Not a winning campaign, sure. But a credible campaign, the strongest one ever by a Grassley challenger. In a horrible year Conlin did something no Grassley challenger had ever done: she won a county.
This looks familiar.
Granted, it was Johnson. But Grassley's three prior opponents are all Johnson County Democratic Hall of Famers (Dave Osterberg is our only Hall of Famer not actually from the county), and they all lost. Badly.
In 1992 Jean Lloyd-Jones got off to a rough start for reasons not of her own making. She was chairing the Senate ethics committee, there was a controversial investigation that stepped on her rollout, and all anyone remembered from the story was "Jean Lloyd-Jones... ethics violation" even though the ethics violator was someone else. Lloyd-Jones almost lost her primary to a candidate who was literally a nut job. The hyphenated last named grated on some folks 20 years ago, even though she was born Jean Hall and Lloyd-Jones was her husband's given name.
(A lot of us here in Iowa City are thinking of Jean right now, as her husband Jix passed away last month.)
Lloyd-Jones ended up at just 27%. Everyone forgets because of Bill Clinton. But 1992 was a bad year for Iowa Democrats. We lost the Iowa House by one seat and lost two congressional seats we had a shot at. Just anecdotally, from my seat as a field staffer, the Ross Perot vote went straight Republican the rest of the way down the ballot. Could a stronger Senate race have bolstered the ticket enough to help in a couple Iowa House seats? Could it have saved Dave Nagle and Elaine Baxter?
The story of 1998 is the story of Tom Vilsack, who was as far behind in the early polling as his Senate ticket mate, David Osterberg. Vilsack benefited from a bad opponent running an even worse campaign (TOTALLY NUDE DANCING?!?).
Osterberg felt a little like a second choice. He had been looking at a primary with Dave Nagle, and the smart money was on the ex-congressman. But Nagle suffered a defeat that year in his battle with alcohol (a battle I fight myself) and dropped out. Osterberg made the best of his hand and played to his strengths, canoeing down the Iowa River in search of local free media. Good enough for 30%. The Democrats won most of the statewide offices, but Vilsack came in with a Republican legislature.
2004 was the weakest challenge yet. Art Small would have been a great candidate for the seat three cycles earlier, in 1986, when he left the legislature for a losing bid in the last-ever lieutenant governor primary.
(Speaking of 1986. I wasnt in Iowa yet when John Roehrick ran. I worked under him when he was state party chair in 1992 and wasn't impressed.)
Small was a last second recruit who barely qualified for the ballot. It was him or no one, and no one is too big a risk. LaRouchies, Klansmen, and other assorted maniacs have all won nominations by being the only one to file, or by winning primaries against other Some Dudes. In 2010 in South Carolina, and in 2012 in Tennessee, Democrats had to denounce their own Senate nominees.
So Small did the party a favor by running. But there was less than no effort on his behalf; donors were actively discouraged. Small won 28%, and with fewer third party contenders Grassley topped 70 for the first time.
So it was never in doubt... but could an even slightly stronger Senate campaign have helped John Kerry round up the extra 4000 votes he needed to win Iowa?
There are a couple points to this history lesson. First off, note the pattern. A run against Grassley has been a career valedictory, a last race. Is that the pattern to follow again? Or should we be looking for someone on their way UP, looking to build a name?
The more important point is that a ticket reinforces itself. US Senate is the second thing on the ballot in 2016, right below Hillary Clinton vs. Scott Walker. And straight tickets are still important. (Just ask soon to be former supervisor John Etheredge.) Johnson County still sees close to a third of its votes on the actual straight ticket line, with untold thousands more marking de facto straight tickets.
A party wants to keep that straight ticket momentum going as far down as it can. A weak link in the second spot hurts everyone below the Senate race.
So Democrats need a candidate who can hold the faithful and can be visible enough to let people know there's a race. Roxanne Conlin fit that bill; indeed I think part of the reason she was recruited was to strengthen the ticket led by a clearly vulnerable Chet Culver. (Technically the federal races are first on the ballot, but an incumbent governor in an off year is pretty much head of the ticket.)
Bob Krause and Tom Fiegen don't fit that bill. They're good guys and they're making the rounds of the party activists. But they're unknown beyond that, just as Art Small was unknown 18 years after leaving the legislature. They're not people who can help the rest of the ticket. (Though Fiegen might want to take a look at Bobby Kaufmann...)
But why stir up the sleeping giant? Wouldn't it be better to let Grassley go with just a token challenge from Fiegen or Krause, rather than get him motivated and working, and thus getting out votes for the rest of the GOP ticket?
There's some truth to that theory... in most cases. But the man whose name is now a synonym for visiting every county every year, whose slogan is Grassley WORKS, is going to WORK no matter what. He's never going to be caught sleeping like Pat Roberts was and need the national party to bail him out.
But the more important reason for a strong Democratic Senate candidate is the switcheroo scenario. It'll be our own fault, should Chuck step down at the filing deadline and hand off to Pat, if we're stuck with the winner of a primary between third and fourth rate candidates.
So the search continues for the one who's Just Right, not so weak as to drag down the ticket, but not strong enough for or geographically right for the more tempting challenges to Rod Blum or David Young.