As Grassley weighs 2022 plans, either path entails political risks

A new Iowa poll by Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Mediacom contained shocking numbers: 55 percent of respondents, including 35 percent of Republicans surveyed, hope U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley does not run again in 2022. Just 28 percent of respondents (50 percent of Republicans) hope he will run for an eighth Senate term.

The same poll measured Grassley’s job approval at 48 percent, the lowest in this survey since 1982. Selzer polls routinely found Grassley’s approval to be above 70 percent during the 2000s and above 60 percent during the first half of the 2010s, a graph published in the Des Moines Register shows.

Although Grassley would be a prohibitive favorite to win again, the new numbers indicate widespread unease about the senator’s capacity to serve another six-year term.

The risk of retiring

I’ve long assumed Grassley would retire in 2022, when he will be 89 years old. The senator told Iowa reporters in early February that any decision about running for Senate again was “several weeks off.” Late last month, he said he’d decide “sometime in September, October, or November.”

Grassley has not tipped his hand about his preferred successor. Many Iowa politics watchers have expected Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley to step into that role. But the senator has said his grandson never expressed interest in running for U.S. Senate. The younger Grassley has good job security now, with a comfortable legislative majority. I see no sign he’s laying the groundwork for a statewide campaign in 2022.

Republican strategists are beginning to worry aloud that open GOP primaries will produce less electable nominees, as happened in several U.S. Senate races in 2010 and 2012. State Senator Jim Carlin, a fervent believer in Donald Trump’s Big Lie about the 2020 election, is already campaigning for Grassley’s seat.

I anticipate that Grassley’s retirement would quickly bring out other Republican candidates. The front-runner would probably be former U.S. Attorney and acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker. He performed poorly in the 2014 campaign for the IA-Sen nomination, but he is much more well-known now and could land Trump’s endorsement.

I don’t know how well Grassley gets along with Whitaker, but he may reasonably fear that GOP primary voters will chose someone other than whoever he prefers to fill his shoes.

Republicans have to be considered the favorites in any open statewide race, based on the last three Iowa midterm elections. But if the GOP nominates someone way outside the mainstream, a credible Democratic candidate could make the race competitive. Retired Admiral Mike Franken, the runner-up in the 2020 Democratic IA-Sen primary, hasn’t ruled out running for Senate again.

The risk of running and losing

The GOP nomination is Grassley’s if he wants it. Although the Iowa poll found 35 percent of Republicans hope the senator will retire, that’s not the same as saying they would vote for someone else in a primary. Carlin has said he’s in the Senate race for good, regardless of Grassley’s decision. But he probably lacks the name recognition or fundraising capacity to win a statewide primary, even in an open seat race. I can’t see any conceivable path for him against Grassley, or any chance a stronger candidate would challenge the senator.

The senator’s 62-year political career, along with recent Iowa election results strongly favoring Republicans, suggest Grassley would be unbeatable in a general election as well. He’s never received less than 60 percent of the vote in any re-election campaign. Moreover, the party out of power in Washington usually does well in midterms.

The new Iowa poll challenges the assumption that Grassley couldn’t be beaten. Job approval numbers below 50 percent are often seen as an alarm bell for incumbents. A 48 percent number is not in the red zone–Senator Joni Ernst won a second term in 2020 despite approval ratings in the high 40s at various points during the campaign. But it’s far from the strong support Grassley long enjoyed among his constituents.

Any health scare could quickly change the dynamic of a campaign. Republican Senator William Roth, a 30-year incumbent from Delaware, lost his 2000 re-election bid after a couple of falls elevated public concerns about his age. Granted, Iowa Democrats don’t have a potential nominee like Tom Carper, the popular Delaware governor who defeated Roth. Democrats don’t currently have any declared IA-Sen candidate. But anyone considering this race has to be encouraged by the new Selzer poll.

The risk of running and winning

If re-elected again, Grassley would be set to serve through 2028, when he will be 95 years old. By all accounts, he is in excellent physical condition. Of course, many people remain in good health well into their 90s. However, this actuarial table, based on Social Security Administration data, indicates that a typical 89-year-old man has a life expectancy of 4.4 years.

Cognitive decline is another concern; one peer-reviewed study found “the incidence of dementia continues to rise exponentially after the age of 90.” Grassley has served with senators who were at less than full mental capacity during their final terms, including Republican Strom Thurmond and most recently Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

Regular physical exercise can reduce the risk of cognitive decline as well as other health problems like cardiovascular disease and strokes. So here the odds favor Grassley, who jogs six mornings a week. But there are no guarantees in life. Grassley must consider the possibility that he wouldn’t be able to complete an eighth term.

He may be willing to accept that risk, assuming Governor Kim Reynolds would be able to appoint his successor of choice, in a worst-case scenario. Then again, Reynolds’ re-election is not a sure thing (though I agree with Republicans that she is favored to win another term). If Reynolds loses in 2022, a Democrat would be positioned to name the new senator in the event of Grassley’s death or incapacity. That person would then be able to campaign for re-election with the advantages of incumbency.

Any scenario spinning about the next IA-Sen race is welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Franken confirmed to James Lynch of the Cedar Rapids Gazette that he hasn’t ruled out running for Senate in 2022. He plans to discuss a possible campaign with “hundreds of people” around Iowa before making a decision. Franken said he expects Grassley to run again.

Whether or not Grassley runs, Franken said it will take a “Herculean effort … because the state, frankly, isn’t nearly as purple as it used to be.”

“In a time of really conflicted politics, you need to convince people that are emotionally tied to one tether when, perhaps, the facts may be elsewhere, but they’re just not listening nor do they want to listen,” he said. […]

Franken described himself as being pragmatic enough to “achieve the achievable” and progressive enough to “aim for the heretofore unachievable.”

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