Political observers are on the edge of their seats watching close Senate races in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada, North Carolina, and … Iowa?
That’s right: Bright-red Iowa, where Republican Chuck Grassley is running for his eighth term, is in trouble, according to the state’s legendary pollster Ann Selzer, whose Iowa Poll for the Des Moines Register is the closest thing to political gospel in the land of corn. Grassley’s lead over Democrat Mike Franken is three points, within the poll’s margin of error. And Selzer’s internal numbers suggest the old dude (he turned 89 last month) is becoming tiresome to Iowa voters, particularly self-identified independents:
His job disapproval rating is a record high for him in the Iowa Poll. The percentage of Iowans who view him unfavorably also hit a peak. And nearly two-thirds of likely voters say the senator’s age is a concern rather than an asset.
Franken, meanwhile, is still unknown to more than a third of Iowans. But of those who do know enough about him to form an opinion, more view him favorably than unfavorably.
Franken’s improvement in the head-to-head contest is aided by an advantage among political independents, who back him over Grassley by 11 percentage points, 46% to 35%.
Selzer raised eyebrows with a survey in July showing Grassley below 50 percent and leading Franken by just eight points. People probably thought it was an outlier, and when in September a right-wing website dug up a sexual-assault accusation against Franken (to be specific, it was a claim that he kissed her without consent) from a former staffer earlier in the year, a lot of observers wrote him off for good. Franken has denied the assault allegations and pointed out that the police to whom they were initially reported did not file charges. The Cook Political Report still has the race rated at “Solid Republican,” its least competitive category. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee stayed out of Iowa altogether.
Franken, a strong fundraiser and former Navy admiral who impressed Democrats enough that they chose him over the well-regarded former congresswoman Abby Finkenauer, has an indie edge that is crucial, given the rest of the Iowa electorate is entirely polarized by party. That’s significant in itself; back in the day there was a sizable bloc of the Iowa electorate known as “Harkin-Grassley voters,” who supported the state’s two very senior senators regardless of their party affiliation. But after Democrat Tom Harkin retired in 2014 and Iowa began trending Republican (Donald Trump won it in 2016 by nine points in 2016 and eight points in 2020), Grassley’s conservative base grew, but it seems he gradually lost his bipartisan support. So the senator who entered this cycle having never won by less than 24 points since 1980 (when he won his first term by eight points) is suddenly facing a real challenge.
That the age issue is finally affecting Grassley is a bit of a surprise. It was generally assumed that the very senior senator’s famously active lifestyle would neutralize any concerns:
But apparently there are plenty of Iowans who aren’t crazy about the idea of being represented in the Senate by a nonagenarian (Grassley will turn 90 next September). So one of the surest bets in both 20th- and 21st-century politics may have a struggle.
Selzer isn’t infallible, and private campaign polling in Iowa may show a different picture than the one painted by her poll. But Republicans fantasizing about flipping Senate races in strong Democratic states like Colorado and Washington had better pay attention to a weak flank in the heartland.