What went right for Mike Franken and wrong for Abby Finkenauer

Retired Admiral Mike Franken decisively won the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate on June 7, taking about 55 percent of the vote to 40 percent for former U.S. Representative Abby Finkenauer and just under 5 percent for Dr. Glenn Hurst.

The nominee will face Senator Chuck Grassley, who defeated GOP challenger Jim Carlin by 73.5 percent to 26.5 percent.

While Franken appeared to have momentum in recent weeks, Iowa politics watchers weren't expecting this margin of victory in the Senate race. Several factors were working in the winner's favor and against Finkenauer as the primary approached.

MORE SPENDING ON ADVERTISING

Finkenauer entered the U.S. Senate race as the heavy favorite for the Democratic nomination. Many well-known Iowa politicians endorsed her early, as did several labor unions and the influential PAC EMILY's List. She raised a million dollars during her first three months as a candidate. But her well-staffed campaign had an extremely high burn rate. During the first quarter of 2022, Finkenauer's campaign reported raising about $1.15 million but spent about $1.09 million.

To make matters worse, hundreds of thousands of dollars in Finkenauer's campaign account came from donors who had maxed out for the general as well as the primary election period. Those funds couldn't be tapped until after the primary.

In contrast, Franken's fundraising steadily increased as the campaign wore on. He built up staff gradually, bringing on experienced campaign manager Julie Stauch early this year. He spent only about half of the nearly $1.4 million his campaign raised during the first quarter of 2022. From April 1 through mid-May, Franken's campaign raised another $1 million. That allowed him to outspend the competition substantially during the last two months, especially on television.

How important were tv ads for raising Franken's name ID and favorables with Democratic voters? A map of county-level results on the Des Moines Register's website shows he swept the counties that are part of the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids markets, where he focused his spending. Those included most of the counties Finkenauer had represented for two years in Congress, such as Linn (where she now lives), Dubuque (where she grew up), and Black Hawk.

In contrast, Finkenauer outpolled Franken in several clusters of counties where the admiral's campaign was not up on television. Most were in southeast Iowa (Quad Cities and Quincy, Illinois markets), southwest Iowa (Omaha market), or near the northern border (Rochester, Minnesota market). UPDATE: Shortly before the primary, Franken did place a small ad buy in the Quad Cities. But Finkenauer did outspend him in that market.

Here's a map of Iowa media markets.

A MESSAGE THAT RESONATED

"The central premise of this campaign is leadership," Franken said at his victory party in Des Moines on June 7. He noted that would be the most senior military officer ever elected to the U.S. Senate. "It's our time to lead the nation into a better tomorrow."

Finkenauer has a more fiery speaking style, while Franken tends to strike a low-key, almost cerebral note in his public appearances. For example, listen to Finkenauer's speech at the Iowa Democratic Party's Liberty and Justice Celebration in April, and compare that to Franken's remarks at the same event.

The contrast in styles was also noticeable during the two televised debates featuring the three Democratic contenders, which you can find here and here. Many Democrats prefer for candidates to sound like fighters, but that's not Franken's natural demeanor.

Franken's campaign commercials and direct mail played the leadership card. Here's one of the mailers that went to thousands of reliable Democratic voters.

Franken ran three television commercials. The first was a biographical piece, emphasizing the candidate's lifetime of service.

The second spot used visuals of monuments, which "inspire us to stand tall and fight for what's right."

Franken's final pre-primary commercial briefly mentioned his military service, then pivoted to a promise to defend voting rights, civil rights, reproductive rights, and marriage equality. The female voice-over seems to be designed to shore up the candidate's support among women, who typically cast most of the votes in Iowa Democratic primaries.

THE NOMINATING PETITION FIASCO

Nearly failing to qualify for the Democratic ballot badly hurt Finkenauer. Even after writing several deep dives about this drama, I never learned why a well-funded campaign submitted their nominating papers a week before the deadline, with signature numbers so close to the bare minimum in so many counties. Finkenauer would have been out of the race, but for an Iowa Supreme Court ruling.

Although Finkenauer tried her best to blame her troubles on Republicans attacking democracy and a supposedly partisan judge, the episode raised questions about her campaign's competence. How can you beat Chuck Grassley, an Iowa institution, if you can't accomplish a basic task like collecting enough signatures? That drove some well-known Democrats to endorse Franken.

Federal Election Commission filings later showed Franken's fundraising accelerated in April, as Finkenauer's struggle to remain on the ballot was a major political news story for weeks.

OUTSIDE GROUPS STAYED OUT

Groups supporting U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield spent about $7 million on her behalf before Iowa's 2020 primary election, and a super-PAC affiliated with EMILY's List spent more than $900,000 on negative messages about Franken.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee kept its promise not to meddle in primaries this cycle. And while Finkenauer did land the EMILY's List endorsement, the group opted not to make any large independent expenditure.

Finkenauer's cash-strapped campaign put up what's known as a "red box" message on the "media" page of its website in April. This was a plea for some group to spend money on television commercials.

The video and photo galleries included visual material for the ad, while the "BACKUP" document included a script for a television commercial, with research supporting each statement.

None of the groups endorsing Finkenauer accepted the invitation to run tv ads on her behalf. I suspect her campaign's high burn rate and ballot access problems discouraged others from making that investment.

Finkenauer's tv ad (focusing on her call for term limits) hit Iowa broadcast and cable a full four weeks after Franken went on the air in Des Moines and Cedar Rapids.

SHORTER EARLY VOTING WINDOW

Democrats had no control over one other factor working against Finkenauer. For many years, Iowans could vote during a 40-day window before primary or general elections. Republicans shortened the window to 29 days in 2017 and to 20 days in a law enacted last year.

Internal polls commissioned by both Democratic Senate campaigns found Finkenauer way ahead in early April. Republican voter suppression gave Franken time to make himself known to a mass audience before May 18, which was the first day Iowans could cast a ballot for the June 7 primary.

Finkenauer would surely have been better off if Democrats had begun voting in late April.

Top photo of Mike Franken cropped from an image posted on the candidate's Facebook page on June 5.

  • Hurst

    I would suggest the presence of a third candidate in the primary also helped Franken. I saw one of the debates a statewide collection of TV stations hosted. Before the debate, I was already drifting from Finkenauer. Her comment that she would only serve two terms because she should be able to get everything done she wanted to do did not sit well with me. It sounded as though she wanted the job for what it could do for her long term, not what it meant for the people of Iowa. When, during the debate, she did not identify any particular issue that she wanted to impact, and as I wondered about why she lost the congressional seat, I wrote Finkenauer off. Hurst, of whom I knew nothing before the debate, impressed me. He stayed on point and had a clear vision of what he wanted to accomplish. Franken was somewhere between the other two. During the debate, Franken's ability to acknowledge points the other two made was appreciated as it indicated he was listening. After the debate, as I was summarizing the candidates for a friend, I realized it was Franken's ability to take positions that were nuanced and his ability to explain why he would modify proposals that I would support his candidacy. I think having three choices, where two of the candidates showed, by comparison, how weak the third candidate was, helped Franken.

  • Better

    Laura, thank you for your in-depth and nuanced reporting. It is SO much better than the Register!

  • Franken surrounded himself with solid staff

    Even in my modest state legislative races, my friends/political advisors (few paid staff) were superior to every one of my 6 opponents' staff.

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