DES MOINES — New Hartford Republican Charles Grassley made history Tuesday night, besting Albia Democrat Patty Judge in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race to become the first Iowan to be directly elected to his seventh six-year term as a senator in Washington, D.C.
Grassley, 83, also the oldest Iowan to serve at the nation’s capital, won what he considered to be his toughest Senate campaign since 1980 by garnering 59.9 percent of the ballots cast in Tuesday’s general election with 1,701 of 1,779 precincts reporting. Judge, 73, a former lieutenant governor, agriculture secretary and state senator, fell short in her quest to unseat the popular GOP incumbent with 35.8 percent of the vote in unofficial results.
The Associated Press and several major television networks called the race for Grassley soon after the Iowa polls closed at 9 p.m. based on exit interviews.
“I’ve been waiting for this for a long time. This is a great night, thank you very much,” Grassley told a victory celebration, surrounded by his family members. “I thank you for believing in me.
“I’m honored to have earned the trust of Iowans for another six years. I work for you every day,” he added.
Grassley removed the suspense over whether he would seek to continue his current job – which pays $174,000 annually -- by announcing his re-election plans three years early – in September 2013 after five-term Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin said he would not run in 2014. At that time, Grassley and Harkin had the most seniority of any state’s U.S. Senate delegation and the GOP incumbent said he would run again because it was important that Iowa not lose all of its leverage in Washington.
Grassley based his re-election bid on his record as a hard-working farmer who accomplished things in a bipartisan way as a government watchdog for Iowans but never lost contact with the state by returning on weekends and visiting all 99 counties every year. He ran folks commercials that showed him jogging, cutting grass with three mowers he welded together, eating Dairy Queen ice cream and standing atop a wind turbine to call attention to his early support for a federal tax credit that aided Iowa’s lead role in renewable energy.
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Judge countered that Grassley was out of step, having been in Washington for six years as a congressman and 36 years as a senator made him beholden to party bosses and special interests – pointing more notably to his lead role as Senate Judiciary chairman in a Republican blockade of President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court — touting herself as the “one Judge” that Grassley can’t ignore.
“I believe through this campaign that we have given a voice to those who otherwise might not have had one,” said Judge, in addressing her supporters. “Whether it’s a Supreme Court vacancy, an affordable college education, comprehensive immigration reform, or tackling skyrocketing prescription drug prices, our current system has failed the working families in our state. I could no longer stand by and watch Chuck Grassley continue to neglect the needs of Iowans, and that’s why I joined the race.”
She said she was going to call Grassley to concede, but he gave his victory speech before she could.
“I just want to say this to him and to those within my hearing: I hope that as he goes back to Washington that he will put our country first before his political party,” she said.
Judge staged a low-key primary campaign focused on her electability as a seasoned statewide candidate to emerge victorious in a four-way race. She had the backing and fundraising muscle of the national Democratic establishment to go with her experience as a woman who served two terms in the Iowa Senate, eight years as Iowa’s secretary of agriculture and four years as Gov. Chet Culver’s lieutenant governor along with credentials as a nurse, real estate appraiser, farmer and mediator.
She won the endorsements of President Obama, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, women’s groups like Emily’s List and public radio icon Garrison Keillor and tried to tie Grassley to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump while running an ad campaign where she carried around a cardboard figure of Grassley to illustrate he had stop listening to Iowans.
However, Trump proved to be more popular than Hillary Clinton among Iowa voters and Grassley managed to outraise and outspend Judge by a lopsided margin – amassing a war chest topping $9.5 million to more than $2.1 million she reported in mid-October, according to the Center for Responsible Politics.
Grassley’s win makes him the first Iowan elected to seven Senate terms and puts him on track to surpass William Allison, a Dubuque Republican, as the Iowan serving the most years in Washington. Allison spent 44 years at the nation’s capital – eight years in the House from 1863-71 and 36 years in the Senate from 1873-1909 but died in office before the Legislature approved him for a seventh term. Upon completion of his seventh term that starts in January, Grassley will have spent 48 years in Washington. He is slated to eclipse Allison’s tenure in Washington sometime in 2018.