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Iowa Democrats eye chances against Grassley

Anger grows after Republicans' decision not to act on any Supreme Court nominee

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By Ed Tibbetts, Quad-City Times

Never all that fond of U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa Democrats now are downright angry.

Ever since Senate Republicans decided not to act on any nomination President Barack Obama puts up to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Democrats across the country have fumed.

It can be seen among their leaders, in letters to the editor and posts on social media. And as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, whose Republican members last week said they wouldn’t even give a nominee a hearing, Grassley has been a prime target.

Tom Fiegen, a former state senator from Cedar County, says he sees it traveling the state.

“Everybody that’s on our side is hot,” he said. “They’re angry.”

Of course, if Democratic anger at a Republican rival were sufficient to boot him from office, U.S. Rep. Steve King would have been gone long ago. Still, there is an increasing hope among the party’s faithful that Grassley will face a stiff challenge this fall as he seeks a seventh term.

The Des Moines Register reported last week that former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge said she hasn’t ruled out a run.

There also are questions about the intentions of former Gov. Chet Culver, who has been traveling the state recently criticizing Gov. Terry Branstad’s move to turn the state’s Medicaid program over to private management. Culver has been mentioned a possible candidate for U.S. House, but some now are wondering whether he has any interest in the Senate, too.

“We’ll have to wait to see,” Culver said when asked whether he would be on the ballot this year.

Deadline looms

Three Democrats already are vying to take on Grassley, but early polls say each is far behind the state’s senior senator.

State Sen. Rob Hogg, a Cedar Rapids Democrat, Fiegen and Bob Krause, a former state lawmaker from Fairfield, all are seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination.

The filing deadline for the June primary is March 18, less than three weeks away. So, if others are going to jump into the race, they will have to pull the trigger soon.

Regardless of whether anybody else jumps in, the Democrats’ anger at Grassley likely will be stoked by the party and its allies.

Pretty much daily, the party is sending out missives criticizing Grassley.

In Washington, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s office has been circulating Iowa newspaper reports about the turmoil. And party leaders in the state are trying to make the case that Grassley’s refusal to even hold a hearing is a departure for somebody who likes to portray himself — to Iowans of all political stripes — as somebody who will always do his job.

“Whether you agree with him on the issues or not, he’s known for doing his job,” says Andy McGuire, the state Democratic chairwoman. “But he’s not doing his job.”

Grassley counters

Grassley has rejected the idea that failing to hold a hearing is any kind of abdication of his duties. He and other Republicans have argued that by not holding a vote, they are within their constitutional rights and are putting the issue before the voters in the 2016 presidential election.

A spokesman for his campaign said Friday that Iowans understand that, contrary to Democrats’ claims, Grassley still is as hardworking and independent as he always has been.

“I think what it’s going to do is to underscore to Iowans the important role that Chuck Grassley plays in the Senate, the fact that he works hard for them,” said Eric Woolson, the spokesman. “This is a guy who has not missed a vote since 1993, so anybody who says he’s not doing his job is wildly off the mark.”

Unlikely to lose

The idea that this flap might upend Grassley, who after his first election has never lost by fewer than 30 percentage points, is greeted with skepticism in many quarters.

“At this period in time, I think Sen. Grassley is a good bet for re-election as an incumbent,” says Donna Hoffman, head of the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa.

A Public Policy Polling survey in December, before this latest controversy, said Grassley led all three of the Democrats running by 25 points, and his approval rating is at 53 percent. Thirty-three percent disapproved.

Cautionary tale

Still, Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic strategist, said last week that in such an unusual political environment — in the year of Donald Trump — it would be a mistake to think the battle is won before it’s fought. He points to Republican Sen. Pat Roberts’ surprisingly close win in Kansas in 2014, when an independent mounted a surprisingly stiff challenge, forcing Republicans to pour millions of dollars into the state.

Roberts won, but he got a scare.

“No one expected Roberts to be in trouble,” Link says.

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed to this story.

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