This past Tuesday, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register had a piece about potential opposition to Senator Chuck Grassley in 2010. I suppose he stole my thunder, because frankly, I’ve been wondering the same.
For those of our readers that are not from Iowa, a little background: Senator Grassley is Iowa’s Senior U.S. Senator, having held the post since 1981. Since his election to the Senate, he has faced token opposition from Democrats. He is the ranking member on the Finance Committee, and also serves on the Judiciary and Agriculture Committees. Between 2003 and 2007, when Republicans had the majority in the Senate, Grassley's role as Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee made him one of the most powerful Senators.
But times are different: Democrats feel emboldened with their electoral successes in 2006 and 2008 and their voter registration advantage of 100,000. Additionally, the Senator is getting old (he’ll be 77 on election day 2010) and the word “change” all of a sudden has a credible ring to it. Furthermore, the Republican Party of Iowa is in bad shape, and some Iowa Republicans are upset with his vote to spend federal money on an indoor rainforest. So, asks Yepsen (and myself), will the Democrats put a credible candidate up against Grassley in 2010? Who would it be?
Yepsen has thrown out the following names as credible challengers to Grassley: former Governor Tom Vilsack, former First Lady Christie Vilsack, former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson, and Congressman Bruce Braley. Odds are, none of these people will likely run for Senate.
Governor Vilsack, the ex-2008 Presidential candidate, would give Grassley the most significant challenge. The former State Senator from Mount Pleasant (home to the good folks at the Public Interest Institute) won the Governor's Race in 1998 by defeating a well-known Congressman, and was re-elected in 2002. He left office in 2007 on relatively favorable terms, with the Iowa economy flourishing (thanks in large part to a thriving national economy) and Democrats were doing well electorally.
Chances are, Governor Vilsack will not run. The ex-Presidential Candidate is currently being considered for a position in the Obama Cabinet, and has said he will “do whatever Obama asks.” Even if he doesn’t get a cabinet position, why would he run? The guy served as the State’s Chief Executive for eight years, and would not likely be thrilled to run a state-wide campaign only to be Iowa’s junior Senator, and one among 100. There are two caveats, however: recently, two of President Bush’s former cabinet secretaries are now U.S. Senators (former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez is a Senator from Florida, and former Ag Secretary Mike Johanns was recently elected to represent Nebraska). Additionally, Mark Warner, an ex-Governor and ex-Presidential candidate, was recently elected to the U.S. Senate from Virginia.
For at least the past four years, Christie Vilsack was rumored to have political ambitions. Supposedly, she had planned to wait until Jim Leach retired and run for the Southeast Iowa seat. But when Dave Loebsack upset Congressman Leach in 2006, plans changed. The Vilsacks recently relocated to Des Moines from Mount Pleasant, and chances are, Christie is probably waiting for Leonard Boswell to retire, than she is to wait for Grassley. As she and her husband learned last January while campaigning for their friend Hillary, Iowa voters don’t elect candidates to Federal offices merely because they are married to former office holders.
Former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson ran the Iowa Democratic Party during the 2006 election cycle. While Democrats enjoyed great successes in those years, she has been literally invisible since. Odds are, she’s not interested.
Congressman Bruce Braley, who represents Northeast Iowa in Congress (a District held by Grassley during the 1970s), was mentioned as possibly seeking a Senate seat. Congressman Braley came to Congress as part of the Democratic wave of 2006, and cruised to re-election two weeks ago. While this political newcomer may have an interest in a Senate seat, chances are, he’s not interested in Grassley’s seat right now. First, he probably realizes that Iowans are not willing to give up a Senator with tons of seniority for a guy who has only served two terms. Second, unless redistricting makes his district more Republican, Braley can use the next six years to build up his congressional accomplishments, and be in good shape to replace Senator Tom Harkin when he decides to retire. Finally, Braley probably knows that 1) Iowans don’t vote out incumbents easily (unless you’er Senator Roger Jepsen who was defeated by Tom Harkin in 1984 or John Culver who lost re-election to …Chuck Grassley in 1980) and 2) Iowa Congressmen have had little success in pursuits for statewide office (ask Senators Taukee, Lightfoot and Ganske or Governors Lightfoot and Nussle). A caveat to that last point: all of the unsuccessful Congressmen who ran for the Senate and Governor were Republican.
Another candidate that is rumored to be considering a run is former State Representative, Gubernatorial Candidate and Third District Congressional Candidate Ed Fallon. Fallon is a liberal populist from Des Moines, whose pet project is getting the State to pass a clean elections law (READ: government-run campaigns). However, Fallon has been unable to raise money in the past, and he did not do well in his 2008 primary race against Congressman Leonard Boswell. Additionally, a lot of Democrats are still bitter for his public support of Ralph Nader in 2000, and they made it known during his primary race.
Any Democrat thinking about challenging Grassley in 2010 also has to consider whether the political climate will be as pro-Democratic as they are right now. Anything that goes wrong during the next two years will be blamed on the party that controls the whole government—the Democrats. Additionally, Governor Chet Culver will be up for re-election in 2010, which means that the wallets of Democratic donors will be spread among more than one candidate. Finally, while people like Tom Vilsack and Bruce Braley are popular politicians, Grassley is an institution.
By W. Sherman