Staff Columnist

Who was the first politician to visit all of Iowa's 99 counties?

Old Iowa Travel Postcard. Front image.
Old Iowa Travel Postcard. Front image.

Maybe you noticed Iowa’s famous “99 counties” made a cameo in the first of two Democratic presidential debates last week.

“I will tell you the one thing when you are out doing as much campaigning as I have done, 400 events and all 99 counties in Iowa, this is not what American people ask us about,” said former Maryland congressman John Delaney, to a question about impeachment.

It’s true, Delaney has been to all 99 counties. Heck, he finished his tour in 2018 and is on his second lap. It’s a Hawkeye State badge of honor for many a determined presidential wannabe. Republican Rick Santorum hit all 99-plus before winning the state’s presidential caucuses in 2012.

Well, he won, eventually, weeks later, after a messy recount. Still, I say it counts.

Mike Huckabee did it. I’m pretty sure Lamar Alexander did. He seems like someone who would. Have flannel, will travel.

Of course, campaigning in all 99 counties has come to be known around here as a “Full Grassley,” named after Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who has visited each county every year since he became a senator in 1981. It’s one of a number of Iowa traditions named for the senior senator.

Going to Dairy Queen for you-know-what is a “Frozen Grassley.” Mowing your lawn with multiple mowers tethered together is a “Grass Grassley.” And hitting a deer just might put what’s known as a “Grassley Dent” in your car. Assume deer dead.

So Grassley is by all accounts the first Iowa politician to make 99 counties an annual thing. But what I’m wondering is who was the first politician to campaign in all 99 counties?

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Well, Iowa has had 99 counties since 1857. But knowing what I know about the evolution of Iowa’s transportation infrastructure, I started digging into The Gazette’s archives in the 1940s.

In December of 1945, I found an article about a young veteran named Don Wine, who was determined to organize a “Young Democrats Club” in “all 99 counties.”

“Some People wonder how in the world a fellow can get around to 99 counties in a few months’ time,” The Gazette wrote, noting that Wine, a veteran of 53 combat bombing missions, might take to the air.

In May 1954, I found a story written by Robert Hogan of the “Iowa Daily Press” profiling the campaign of Republican candidate for governor Leo Hoegh, a 46-year-old lawyer from Chariton who was serving as Iowa’s attorney general.

“He doesn’t campaign from an easy chair,” Hogan wrote, noting that when Hoegh ran previously for the Iowa House, he visited 760 of his district’s 1,100 farm homes while still maintaining a law practice.

“The youthful candidate was bitten by dogs on four occasions in that first campaign, but it failed to dull his enthusiasm for politics,” Hogan wrote.

By May of 1954, Hoegh had campaigned in 91 of Iowa’s 99 counties. “He expects to get into all of them. Total miles traveled is right at 14,000,” Hogan wrote.

Not to be outdone, one of Hoegh’s GOP primary opponents, Iowa House Speaker William S. Lynes, reported campaigning in “94 of Iowa’s 99 counties,” Hogan wrote in an April 1954 story.

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“He hopes to revisit some before the June primary,” Hogan wrote of Lynes, who apparently was six-feet, two-inches tall, weighed 220 pounds and wore “a Texas ranch-style hat.” No word on whether this gubernatorial cowboy popularized ranch dressing in the state.

Hoegh won the primary and went on to become governor. I assume he made it to all 99, but our archives delivered no confirmation. Same with Lynes.

In 1956, it was Democratic gubernatorial nominee Herschel Loveless who was checking off counties, according to an October story in The Gazette. Our intrepid reporter Robert Hogan was on the job.

Hogan reported that Loveless had visited 89 counties, skipping Gov. Hoegh’s home county of Lucas, out of “courtesy,” and some less populated counties. He still put 18,000 miles on his “old, red Ford station wagon” and flew another 25,000 miles around the state, long before casino magnate-owned jets were available.

“Loveless is campaigning harder than any Democrat for years,” Hogan wrote.

It paid off. On a night when President Eisenhower won Iowa by 230,000 votes and GOP U.S. Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper held his seat by 92,000, Loveless unseated Hoegh by 29,000 votes.

But it’s not until 1958 that the words “campaigned in every one of Iowa’s 99 counties” appear in indelible black and white. They came in a story by The Gazette’s Loyal Meek about Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor Corbin Crawford, a farmer from Ainsworth.

But Crawford lost the Democratic primary to state Sen. Edward McManus of Keokuk, and lost again in a race for secretary of agriculture in 1962. So, understandably, the “Complete Crawford,” never stuck as a name for the 99-county swing.

But it’s worth noting that Grassley was first elected to the Iowa House in 1958. Eerie.

So it seems Hoegh may have been the first to campaign in all 99 counties. He founded the “Long Leo,” if you will. But I can’t confirm, and could be all wrong. If you know, drop me a line.

The truth is out there, along with you-know-what.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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