The paradox of the 2010 Senate race

Nate Silver is handicapping the 2010 U.S. Senate races at Fivethirtyeight.com and had this to say about Iowa’s seat, held by five-term incumbent Chuck Grassley:

Grassley will be 77 in 2010 and could retire, in which case the race probably leans Democrat. Absent a retirement, a kamikaze mission by someone like Tom Vilsack against the popular incumbent is unlikely to succeed.

Over at Iowa Independent, Chase Martyn begs to differ:

Grassley has not had a truly difficult race in some time.  […]

In 2004, Art Small […] received no institutional support from the Democratic party, which essentially conceded the race before it began.

In 2010, the picture is very different.  While Grassley’s approval rating remains high, almost everything else has changed.

Democrats have begun to truly dominate Iowa’s political scene. […]

What happens if former Gov. Tom Vilsack jumps into the race for Senate?

Fending off Vilsack’s challenge, Grassley could face deficits in both fundraising and name identification for the first time in decades. […]

Far from a ‘kamikaze mission,’ as Silver calls it, the emerging conventional wisdom around here is that Vilsack would have a real chance against Grassley in 2010.

Perhaps “kamikaze mission” is too strong a phrase, but we need to acknowledge that Tom Vilsack or any other Democrat would be a serious underdog against Grassley. Yes, Iowa now has far more registered Democrats than Republicans (about 106,000 more, last I heard), but Grassley has always benefited from a strong crossover vote.

Grassley will face substantial pressure not to retire in 2010, in part because several other Republican-held Senate seats are likely to be vulnerable. Furthermore, Iowa Republicans hoping to unseat Governor Chet Culver would love to be able to focus their spending on that campaign, rather than divide their resources between the gubernatorial race and defending an open Senate seat.

As I see it, four factors could push Grassley toward retirement:

1. A health problem (God forbid).

2. An unpleasant 2009 in the Senate minority. Grassley loves his job and has gotten along well with Montana Senator Max Baucus, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee. But what if the enlarged and emboldened Democratic majority doesn’t need to cut as many deals with Grassley as Baucus has done in the past?

3. Deteriorating relations between Grassley and the social conservatives who dominate the Republican Party of Iowa. For background on this tension, click here or click here.

4. A top-tier Democratic challenger who can raise a lot of money and has free time to campaign.

And that brings me to the paradox in the title of this post. Clearly Grassley’s retirement would give Democrats the best chance (some might say only chance) to win this seat. However, Grassley is more likely to retire if Tom Vilsack or another major-league Democrat jumps in now, instead of waiting a year or longer to see whether the incumbent will decide to step down for some other reason.

Challenging Grassley means embarking on long and exhausting uphill battle. But putting Grassley on notice soon that Democrats will not give him a pass is one of the few things we could do to improve the odds that he will retire.

What do you think, Bleeding Heartland readers? Can Iowa Democrats recruit Vilsack or another top-tier challenger for this race?

  • Voting for Grassley

    He’s a good guy – gets to all 99 counties every year.

    I wish he was not for the bailout though.  That angers me.

    But Grassley is Grassley – he’s going nowhere – I don’t care who is opponent is.

    • this would be a low-probability race

      no question about it. But he is more likely to retire if he starts enjoying life in the Senate less and Democrats make clear that he will have to work hard to be re-elected.

    • Wow Bill Spencer supporting a Republican, no way!!!!

      This is ground breaking news!!!

      Oh my! Even when they support the dreaded bailout they still get the go ahead from good ol’ Bill! So much for values and principles.

      Call me crazy, but I think Grassley figured 2004 to be his last race.

      There is not only the age factor, but also the heavy minority status of the Republican Party and if you look at his voting record, he has become much more indepedent over the past 4 years.

      Grassley is a Goldwater-Reagan Conservative and he doesnt fit in with this spend happy, invade happy,  bailout happy Republican party.

      PS Bill Spencer hearts the bailout

      • Liar

        Sorry Pistachio – I don’t support the bailout.

        I wish you wouldn’t lie.

        • Wait now

          But you support candidates that vote for it?

          That is even worse, your values stand against it, and yet you go against your values just because the guy is a Republican.

          Some Liberals and Democrats have been misguided by this bailout, but not you, you know its wrong and yet you do not stand against it.

          That makes you a coward Bill, the worst kind of lowly coward.

  • Chase is right....Vilsack 2010

    I think a top-tier candidate will run, specifically Vilsack. I also think the stars are aligned to make it a competitive race–uphill, yes, but still competitive.

    In the House races, I think it will be the metaphoric “calm  before the storm”. All the big players, on both sides, will be holding their breath to see how the 2011 redistricting comes out. Status quo holds in all those races–back to a 60-40ish incumbent/challenger spread in every single race.

    Given the state of the Iowa GOP right now, I think Culver will be easily reelected against whichever putz the party decides to run against him. It could be a competitive race with the right candidate; but my hunch is the GOP will run the wrong one. A right-winger like Vander Plaats, or maybe Rants. They might even bring back Nussle or Lamberti. It sure won’t be the kind of big money, resource draining race it was in 2006.

    Which leaves the bulk of the party resources to focus on knocking down Grassley. Which I think is possible. A majority of our party resources will be available to focus on this one race, and our well organized party will hold a significant organizational advantage compared to the train wreck the Iowa GOP will be. It’s still a long shot, but I think it’s possible and will happen.

  • It would be very hard

    for anyone to beat Grassley.  Vilsack would probably be our best bet.  But I think many, including Vilsack himself, have often overestimated his popularity in Iowa.  Plus, political climate is likely to be better for R’s come 2010.

    • I agree, 2010 may be a tough year

      and Vilsack was never particularly beloved among Iowa Democrats. The bigger problem is that Grassley gets a strong crossover vote.

      Probably this is all out of our hands. If Grassley retires, it will be for his own reasons and not because of anything Democrats can do.

  • Senator Grassley deserves recognition

    Especially during the recent bleak G.W. Bush years when Democrats were all but ignored, Senator Grassley was one of the few watchdogs (with any clout) that kept an eye on Republican conduct.  As bad as things have become under Republicans, they could have been a whole lot worse but for Senator Grassley.

    • he still voted for more than 90 percent

      of the Bush agenda. I think he likes to take a position on relatively minor issues while letting big problems slide.

      I’ll be watching to see how much of the Obama agenda Grassley votes to filibuster.

  • Loyalty to Party

    He did place loyalty to party well above good of country.  In most items he walked locked step right behind his Fuherer.  Once in a while he would show an independent streak on something small.  But on most major issues he followed his leader.

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