The Democratic field for U.S. Senate appears to be set at last, with retired Vice Admiral Mike Franken's campaign launch on October 14. Franken is the fifth Democrat to join the field, following Dave Muhlbauer, Abby Finkenauer, Glenn Hurst, and Bob Krause.
Although he got a later start than his primary competitors, Franken enters the race with a strong base, having received 68,851 votes (nearly 25 percent) in last year's four-way primary for U.S. Senate. Nominee Theresa Greenfield benefited from massive establishment support and some $7 million in outside spending before the June 2020 primary.
During an October 14 telephone interview, Franken discussed his decision to run and his stance on some major issues of the day.
"I WAS FINE WITH HIM AS THE OPPONENT"
Grassley is a heavy favorite to win an eighth term in the Senate. When most of the other Democrats began campaigning, the incumbent hadn't made his future plans clear. Did Franken have doubts about running after Grassley confirmed he's seeking re-election?
No, actually, I was absolutely ok with him staying in. My thoughts were that he was on a glide path down, where his strength of office, his strength of conviction, his principles were already wavering. And consequently, I was fine with him as the opponent.
The naysayers in the United States, saying this guy is unbeatable, I don't believe it. I don't believe it for a second. And I hearken back to George Herbert Walker Bush: 90 percent approval rating, eleven months he loses to an unknown Arkansas governor.
Franken believes he is a "unique candidate" with a chance to appeal to independents as a good alternative to yesterday's man, Grassley. "I have what they're generally looking for: a person of rather humble rural roots, and experienced the full measure of life, and a resume to match." (Before serving in the U.S. Navy for nearly 40 years, he grew up in rural northwest Iowa, working "on the farm, in construction, as an engineer for a law firm, and in a local slaughterhouse," according to his news release.)
Franken also told me leadership qualities are not often discussed and "perhaps undersold in the Senate," where people tend to be "followers" rather than "independent thinkers." He feels that's a strength for him in the field.
The candidate's Twitter feed emphasized his leadership skills on the first day of the campaign.
An important part of leadership is doing what’s right. In 2002, I cast the sole ‘no’ vote during deliberations on the invasion of Iraq— Admiral Mike Franken (@FrankenforIowa) October 14, 2021
Now, I'm declaring my candidacy to unseat @ChuckGrassley to represent Iowa in the US Senate. Chip in: https://t.co/bIyjKEGyge
Last year I watched an admission of poor political leadership during a time our communities needed help the most. I am ready to use my decades of experience to represent Iowa in the Senate. Chip in → https://t.co/IUOWfqv0ZW— Admiral Mike Franken (@FrankenforIowa) October 14, 2021
The front page of the campaign website says, "Iowans deserve a leader who will represent every Iowan and use leadership to help heal the divisiveness between us."
COULD HISTORY REPEAT ITSELF IN THE PRIMARY?
The Republican Party of Iowa's state chair Jeff Kaufmann immediately dismissed Franken's prospects, saying "his candidacy will get very little traction because it's clear that national Democrats have already crowned Finkenauer as their winner." Finkenauer is the clear front-runner at this writing, having raised more than $1 million and landed endorsements from many well-known Democrats and several labor unions.
I asked Franken whether he was worried about a repeat of the 2020 primary. He has the impression that Washington, DC Democrats don't plan to get involved. (The head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said this summer that the campaign arm of U.S. Senate Democrats would not endorse early in primaries. That's a big change from 2019, when the DSCC and other heavyweights got behind Greenfield within days of her campaign launch.)
With a more open primary, Franken said, "the advocacy groups are released to choose the person that they want." He acknowledged that as active candidates for several months, Finkenauer and Hurst have had an opportunity to tap into those advocacy groups. He added that he's already spoken to some Democrats who are donating to multiple Senate candidates, "and I think that's healthy as well."
In an apparent attempt to pre-empt the argument that the primary's a done deal, while positioning himself as the most electable contender, Franken's official announcement featured these comments:
It’s finally up to the Democratic voters in Iowa to decide who they want as their nominee to build a more prosperous future for Iowa and this nation. You have my undivided attention, Iowa, and the task is clear–toss out the old campaign playbook and win the election.
The news release also listed twenty endorsers, including six current state lawmakers and four former members of the Iowa House or Senate. The full list is at the end of this post.
SHORT-TERM CAMPAIGN PLANS
Franken was heavily outspent in the 2020 Senate primary. He plans to focus on fundraising for the next several months to ensure he has a "solid staff" and the resources to run a statewide primary campaign.
He said his campaign had met its fundraising goal for launch day by 11:00 am. He and his staff quickly set a new goal, which they surpassed by around 1:00 pm.
Franken is unlikely to be able to match Finkenauer's fundraising, but he is better positioned to compete on that front than Muhlbauer, Hurst, or Krause.
THOUGHTS ON OTHER HOT TOPICS
During the 2020 campaign, Franken advocated for raising the minimum wage, improving health care, reforming agriculture to make the sector better for individual farmers, and addressing climate change. I wanted to get his take on a few other issues in the news.
At the time of our interview, Franken hadn't released a statement about the John Deere strike, which began at midnight on October 14. Asked for his thoughts on Iowa's largest strike for many years, Franken said he's spoken with some union leaders (not from the UAW) who expressed hope the strike will be resolved soon. "It's been a long time since there's been a walkout. So the younger workers haven't experienced the forlornness of this."
Does he think it was the right decision to go on strike seeking a better contract? Franken told me he's not familiar enough with the details of the contract to comment specifically on its terms. When he was captain of a ship in a Navy shipyard where the union went on strike, "I knew the contract and why they were striking, down to the penny and hour and allotments."
Later in the day, Franken tweeted,
@ChuckGrassley is clearly out of touch with Iowa workers & cares more about corporate profits than workers' salaries. That's exactly why it's time for a new Senator from Iowa. I will always stand with @UAW & their workers. https://t.co/Y22mOU93B3— Admiral Mike Franken (@FrankenforIowa) October 15, 2021
Where does he stand on the bill containing much of President Joe Biden's agenda, which Congressional Democrats are trying to pass through the reconciliation process? Is $3.5 trillion the right price tag for the Build Back Better Act? If not, what should be cut from the package?
Franken recalled words spoken by "a very wise person," longtime U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy. (For a time he served as the first military officer on Kennedy’s staff.) Kennedy's advice was "always get something in the bill" for your priorities; his were education and health care. If the cost of the reconciliation bill needs to be reduced to $2.5 trillion to get it through Congress, Franken would support that compromise.
But would he be willing to vote for a $3.5 trillion bill if he were serving in the Senate now?
I'm a little more realistic with the ability to spend that amount of money, having been in the appropriations and the authorization world multiple times in multiple jobs at multiple levels. And seeing where money gets appropriated and they can't spend it.
So I think what I would do is take a little bit different slant with this. I'd stretch it out to fifteen years, versus ten. And that's a way to get to 3.5 [trillion], and also, in a more controlled manner, rather than a rush to spend, which is always a recipe for disaster.
I asked specifically about the child tax credit portion of the bill. Franken is not sure whether those payments ($300 per month for young children, $250 per month for school-aged children) could be decreased somewhat and extended for a longer time. "But I do believe that the majority of child-rearing families are in mild extremis, paying for what's needed with child care, or raising a child." He supports more investments in child care and preschool, which would reduce the cost of parenting. So he doesn't know the right number for this part of the bill but said he would have a "strong position" in this area.
Final note: Franken delayed his campaign launch to have a scheduled surgery in August. He told me he is "fully healthy" and ready to serve.
October 14 news release:
Retired Three-Star Admiral Mike Franken to Challenge Chuck Grassley in U.S. Senate
DES MOINES, IA - Today, retired three-star Admiral Michael Franken officially announced that he will seek the Democratic nomination to unseat Senator Charles Grassley in 2022.
“I would like to thank the many supporters who have encouraged me to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate,” said Franken. “I'll be a Senator for all of Iowa, the rural and urban parts and small towns, because there's more that unites us than divides us. We all want health care we can afford, good jobs that allow young people to stay close to home, and leadership from Washington instead of constant partisan bickering.
“Senator Grassley has served Iowans in some form for seven decades.” Franken continued, “Make no mistake, Senator Grassley is an entrenched, career politician who has fomented Donald Trump’s Big Lie. Grassley did the Republican Party’s dirty work by using his power to obstruct the judicial process multiple times. He has long since morphed into something other than the folksy farmer Iowans sent to Washington 46 years ago.
“It’s finally up to the Democratic voters in Iowa to decide who they want as their nominee to build a more prosperous future for Iowa and this nation. You have my undivided attention, Iowa, and the task is clear--toss out the old campaign playbook and win the election.”
Admiral Franken released a list of endorsements below that included several current and former state legislators and activists from across the state. The Franken campaign is also organizing ninety-nine county captains.
Admiral Mike Franken List of Endorsements
State Rep. Brian Meyer, Polk
Former State Rep. Tim Kacena, Woodbury
State Senator Bill Dotzler, Black Hawk
Nancy Bobo, Polk
Former State Rep. Andy McKean, Jones
Kent Sovern, Polk
Laura Hubka, Howard
State Rep. Beth Wessell-Kroeschell, Story
Francis Boggus, Polk
State Rep. Dave Williams, Black Hawk
State Rep. Amy Nielsen, Johnson
CeCe Ibson, Polk
Jan Bauer, Story
Gary Gelner, Hancock
Former State Rep. Daryl Beall, Webster
Ingrid Olson, Pottawattamie
Rosemary Pratt, Polk
Former [sic] State Rep. Mary Mascher, Johnson
General Robert Felderman, Scott
Former State Senator Tom Courtney, Des Moines
Background: Mike Franken, the youngest of nine children, was born and raised in rural NW Iowa. His mother was a one-room schoolhouse teacher. He grew up in his dad’s Lebanon Farm Shop and worked on the farm, in construction, as an engineer for a law firm, and in a local slaughterhouse.
With a wounded WW I Army vet for a grandfather, a WW II father who survived a ship sinking, and other family veterans of the Vietnam War, Franken joined the service in 1978. He retired as a vice admiral in 2017.
Mike and Jordan Franken have two adult children.