Jennifer Jacobs and Jason Noble, The Des Moines Register – March 31, 2015
No fan of splashy staged announcements in front of news cameras, U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley quietly kicked off his campaign for a seventh term with a country-club fundraiser in West Des Moines on Monday night.
Grassley, a Republican serving his 35th year in the Senate, is widely popular in Iowa and currently at the height of his power, chairing the Judiciary Committee and ranking third in the chamber in seniority. He’s likely to be the favorite no matter who challenges him in 2016.
“I think they’ll have a hard time finding a credible candidate to run against him,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad said Monday. “People know Chuck Grassley. They respect him. He’s humble, he’s hardworking, and he’s very conscientious about doing his job and doing it well.”
Not that Democrats won’t try. Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Ben Foecke said he expects his party will field a strong candidate, and that Iowans will carefully weigh their options.
“Look, there’s probably a ton of nostalgia surrounding a seventh term for Chuck Grassley, but the reality is that Iowans want a viable alternative,” Foecke said. “I get that Sen. Grassley has a lot of clout and experience on the Hill, but Iowans are ready for a viable alternative.”
Kane Robinson, a friend and senior adviser to the senator, told The Des Moines Register that Grassley will keep up the intense schedule of statewide travel and public appearances that has defined his tenure in office. Not only will he touch all 99 Iowa counties — as he has every year since 1980 — he’ll likely swing through many more than once.
“He’s going to be everywhere and with lots of energy,” Robinson said.
The senator initially announced his plan to seek re-election during a September 2013 appearance on “Iowa Press,” telling interviewers that he made up his mind when he heard that Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin was retiring.
“If Iowa had to start over two years from now with two very junior senators, it would hurt Iowans’ opportunities to get anything done in the Senate,” Grassley told reporters after the show.
But there are other reasons, too, for why it’s advantageous for Grassley to run again, said Nathan Gonzalez, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg & Gonzalez Political Report.
Republicans took control of the Senate in 2014 after six years in the minority, handing the Judiciary Committee chairmanship to Grassley. Retiring in 2016 would mean willingly relinquishing that powerful post.
And there are the political considerations. With Grassley in the race, Republicans’ chances of holding the seat are very good regardless of who runs against him. If he retires, Democrats’ odds increase dramatically, particularly in a presidential election year, when turnout has favored Democrats in recent elections.
“If Grassley were to retire, I think Iowa would be added to the list of Democratic opportunities,” Gonzalez said. “Right now, I don’t think Iowa is anywhere near the list of Democratic opportunities.”
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Democrats Bob Krause of Des Moines and Tom Fiegen of Clarence have already declared candidacies for 2016. Both ran in 2010, but lost badly in the Democratic primary to eventual nominee Roxanne Conlin. Conlin, a former candidate for governor, was considered a strong challenger, but Grassley won 63 percent of the vote.
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, has said he’s considering a run, but will not decide until the legislative session ends later this spring.
Foecke said he believes more candidates will enter the race, although he confirmed that newly elected party Chairwoman Andy McGuire will not run in 2016.
As news of Grassley’s fundraiser spread Monday, Democratic activist John Deeth of Iowa City tweeted his frustration with his party’s current prospects.
“@ChuckGrassley will raise more in one night than Fiegen & Krause have in two years,” Deeth wrote in one tweet.
He added a few minutes later that the only way the two Democrats have to spread their message “is social media — and @ChuckGrassley kicks their butt at it. #NeedARealCandidate.”
Grassley has polled strongly among Iowans for decades, and frequently rates as the most popular public figure in the Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll. In February, his approval rating was 64 percent. His Iowa Poll job approval rating hasn’t gone below 54 percent since 1982.
The soft rollout of Grassley’s re-election follows several high-profile departures from the U.S. Senate. Last week, Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced he would not seek re-election. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Dan Coats, R-Ind., also recently announced retirements.
Monday’s fundraiser at Glen Oaks Country Club featured Grassley’s first-term colleague, Joni Ernst, who succeeded Harkin after winning election in 2014. Grassley and Ernst co-hosted a “roundtable discussion” with donors who gave $5,400 each or $10,800 per couple and then held a reception for donors who gave $1,000 each.
Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds served as honorary chairs for the event. Co-hosting were businessmen Gary Kirke, Bruce Rastetter, Mike Richards and Cam Sutton — some of the biggest GOP donors in the state.
Grassley minimized his fundraising in Iowa during the last two years because of the open U.S. Senate and House races, aides told the Register. But his re-election campaign has been scaling up for months now behind the scenes. In January, Grassley hired Anne Roth, a 2008 Dowling Catholic High School graduate, as his finance director. She’s his lone paid campaign staffer for now.
His 2016 campaign will reprise the “Grassley Works” theme of his 2010 race, but focus heavily on digital outreach, Robinson said.
“It will be a lot of him out there personally, and a lot more electronic communication,” he said.
Grassley, of course, is already famous for his use of Twitter — including creative abbreviations and wry observations that are often unintentionally humorous.