First Iowa map would put pressure on Chuck Grassley to retire

U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson was among many Republican officials to wish U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley a happy birthday on September 17.

But if Iowa lawmakers and Governor Kim Reynolds enact the first map proposed by the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency, Hinson’s political career could be cut short, unless the 88-year-old senator opts not to seek re-election.

Shortly after the new map came out, Politico’s Ally Mutnick declared Hinson “the biggest loser” from the first LSA plan. That assessment is consistent with my conversations with sources in both parties.

Of the 20 counties Hinson currently represents, only two (Linn and Jones) would be part of the new first district. IA-01 would pick up ten southeast Iowa counties currently represented by Representative Mariannette Miller-Meeks (IA-02). Most of those counties are not part of the Cedar Rapids television market, where Hinson was a familiar face for years as a KCRG-TV reporter and anchor. And while Johnson County does receive Cedar Rapids stations, that wouldn’t help Hinson. The “People’s Republic” consistently produces large vote margins for Democratic candidates.

Here’s the Congressional map released on September 16:

And here’s the current map:

County-level results from 2020 (posted here in interactive map and table form) indicate that Donald Trump pulled Hinson over the line against Democratic incumbent Abby Finkenauer. Hinson won that race by 212,088 votes to 201,347 (51.3 percent to 48.7 percent), close to Trump’s 3.4 percent margin over Joe Biden in the IA-01 counties. Using results from the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, I calculated the partisan voting index of Hinson’s current district at R+4, meaning that it votes about 4 points more Republican than the country as a whole.

Hinson’s new district would include the state’s second, third, and fourth-largest counties by population. They also are three of just six Iowa counties Biden carried. Dave Wasserman, U.S. House editor for the Cook Political Report, calculated that the LSA’s proposed IA-01 voted for Biden by 8.7 percent. Even if we assume that the 2022 midterms will be bad for the president’s party, that would be extremely difficult terrain for any GOP Congressional candidate.

In theory, Hinson could move from her Linn County residence to some part of the new IA-02, which would lean more to Republicans than the current district. But trying to muscle out fellow first-termer Miller-Meeks would be a bad look and would set up a tough GOP primary.

I am inclined to agree with the conventional wisdom that Iowa lawmakers will decide to see what’s behind the LSA’s curtain number 2. However, no one can be sure statehouse Republicans will reject the first plan, as operatives based in Washington, DC are urging them to do. State lawmakers have no reason to put Hinson’s interests above their own. They may be satisfied that the proposed legislative maps would secure the GOP’s state House and Senate majorities.

The most logical escape hatch would be for Hinson to seek another office. She’s been a team player in public, endorsing Grassley’s re-election and saying Iowans “need him in the Senate.” That said, she is widely believed to be laying the groundwork for a Senate campaign in case Grassley retires.

If Iowa’s eventual map creates a winnable first Congressional district for a Republican, there will be no urgent need for Hinson to move up. But she may not have the luxury of waiting.

For his part, Grassley told the Des Moines Register’s Brianne Pfannenstiel that he’ll decide by November 1 whether he’s running for an eighth six-year Senate term. If state lawmakers reject the first LSA plan during their October 5 special session, it’s unlikely a new map could be adopted by the beginning of November.

Generations of ambitious Iowa Republicans were unable to move up the ladder, in part because Grassley and Governor Terry Branstad stuck around for so long. If the first LSA plan becomes law next month, I expect a quiet effort in Iowa to nudge Grassley into a well-earned retirement.

Whether Grassley can be persuaded to step aside is another question. He told Pfannenstiel, “I think one thing that has always kind of kept me going is farmers never retire.” Senate GOP leaders have also encouraged Grassley to seek another term, because they have several other open seats to defend.

Top photo of Senator Chuck Grassley and Representative Ashley Hinson originally published on Hinson’s Facebook page.

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