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Chuck Grassley: Homespun image makes him Iowa fixture

At 83, the 'Energizer bunny' seeks fourth decade in the Senate

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MASON CITY — Everyone in Iowa, it sometimes seems, has a Chuck Grassley story.

They met him at a town-hall meeting. Or at a charity event. Or when he visited their work. They tell him these stories when they run into him again. “I met you when you came to ...”

For 36 years, Chuck Grassley has represented Iowa in the U.S. Senate. In every one of those years, he has visited each of the state’s 99 counties.

Not only has Grassley become a fixture in Iowa politics, having tapped into the state’s penchant for incumbent loyalty, but he has thrived. He has won re-election five times, never by fewer than 30 points and each time with at least 60 percent of the vote.

“He’s been very, very good at crafting an image, and I don’t mean to suggest that’s a false image, but he’s very, very good at crafting an image of a guy who works hard, who’s an Iowan we can all sort of identify with — the Butler County farmer, that sort of thing, who works hard, who’s honest, straightforward,” said John Epperson, a political-science professor in his 40th year at Simpson College in Indianola.

“There’s also a kind of aw-shucks demeanor to him,” Epperson said. “He doesn’t look or sound like a politician. There’s a certain un-slickness, if that’s a word, to him. And he’s been very good at, very careful at projecting that persona. And that’s appealing to Republicans, certainly, and it’s appealing to independents and Democrats.”

In seeking a seventh six-year term in the Senate, Grassley, now 83 years old, is being challenged by Democrat Patty Judge, who like Grassley got her political start in the Legislature.

Grassley’s role in the U.S. Senate changed during his current term, and it put him at the forefront of a political firestorm that led Democrats to think they could finally mount a serious challenge to him.

When Republicans took control of the Senate in the 2014 elections, Grassley went from the minority party’s leader on the Senate’s Judiciary Committee to its chairman. (You may remember the video of Iowa’s 2014 Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Braley warning lawyers at a fundraiser that “a farmer from Iowa” could become chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Braley lost that election to Republican Joni Ernst, who is serving her freshman term.)

One of the more prominent roles of the Judiciary Committee is to hold hearings on the president’s nominations to courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court. But when President Barack Obama in March nominated Merrick Garland to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, Republican leaders said they would not hold any hearings until after the November election — blocking any Obama nomination to the high court.

Grassley stood with Republican leadership, and the opposition roared. Democrats and liberal advocacy groups howled, accusing him and his fellow GOP leaders of playing politics with the Supreme Court. The issue initially is what prompted Judge to get in the race.

But Republicans have cheered Grassley’s decision, and the issue has not appeared to move independent voters like Democrats had hoped.

The race with Judge may be the closest of Grassley’s career, but he still holds a comfortable lead, according to polls. An Iowa Poll published last week by The Des Moines Register showed Grassley leading Judge by 17 percentage points. Three polls in mid- to late September showed him with leads of 17, 12 and 17 percentage points.

“Although he is a pretty partisan guy, I think, if you look at his rhetoric and his voting record, he avoids getting tagged with that label,” Epperson said. “Because, we all know, he visits every county every year; he comes back regularly to the state.”

Grassley described the Judiciary Committee as filled with some of the Senate’s most liberal Democrats and most conservative Republicans. But despite that, the Supreme Court issue is the only one that has been controversial, he said.

Grassley said he is proud of the 13 bills approved by the committee that have been signed into law by Obama, including measures that address human trafficking and opioid addiction and legislation designed to provide assistance for victims of sexual assault.

“If you have a knack for working across party lines, it can be done,” Grassley said, adding that he thinks he has a good working relationship with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, the top Democrat on the committee.

If re-elected, Grassley said bills he would like to continue to work on in the committee include reforming sentencing and patent laws.

Unfinished business is one of the things that keeps him going back to the Senate, he said.

“There’s always going to be unfinished business,” he said.

Grassley said he also was motivated to run for another term in part because of the 2014 retirement of former longtime U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin.

By Harkin’s final term, he and Grassley gave Iowa the most-tenured pair of senators in the nation. Should Grassley not be sent back to Washington, the state for four years will have two freshmen senators.

“I said with (Harkin’s) retirement that that would be a reason for running again, to help a new senator get a start,” Grassley said. “Actually, Sen. Ernst doesn’t need any help. ... She’s a self-starter. But you do have to build up seniority.”

Although he would be 89 at the end of his next term if re-elected, Grassley appears to be in remarkable physical shape. Thanks to an exercise regimen he started 18 years ago, he runs 3 miles four times a week. During a visit to a Des Moines television studio this fall, he spontaneously did 22 pushups.

“The Energizer bunny from New Hartford,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa. “I don’t know that I could keep up with him. I know that I couldn’t jog with him.”

Kaufmann said he is impressed by more than Grassley’s physical stamina. Kaufmann said that when he spent a day with Grassley at the U.S. Capitol, he was struck by how Grassley did not, like other senators, have staff members plugging him with talking points before media interviews.

“So the man’s talking to millions of people in the context of his perch as a U.S. senator, and the guy just talked from memory, and he still had that same homespun way of approaching it. And not one time did he falter,” Kaufmann said. “The mental capacity I think probably impressed me most. ... The guy hasn’t lost a beat, mentally or physically, given the age he’s obtained.”

CHUCK GRASSLEY

Age: 83

Party: Republican

Professional: Farmer

Political experience: state legislator, U.S. representative, U.S. senator

Education: Bachelor’s and master’s, University of Northern Iowa

Family: Wife, Barbara, five children

For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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