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Iowa voters will decide Sen. Chuck Grassley's fate in his closest race in 42 years

Iowa Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley poses for a photo outside Atlantic Coca Cola Bottling Co. in Walcott, Iowa on Oct. 14, 2022.
Clay Masters
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Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley poses for a photo outside Atlantic Coca Cola Bottling Co. in Walcott, Iowa on Oct. 14, 2022.

Voters in Iowa have already begun filling out their ballots in the 2022 midterm elections. One of the choices they will make this year is whether to send Republican Chuck Grassley back for an eighth term in the U.S. Senate. National Democrats have mostly given up on Iowa, which was long seen as a competitive between the two major political parties. Grassley, though, is running in the closest race he has had since his first election to the Senate in 1980.

"This is my 99th county meeting I've had for the 42 year in a row," Grassley said to a round of applause from a friendly midday crowd in the rural southwest Iowa town of Bedford in late August.

Iowa Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley takes questions from Iowa residents in the small southwestern Iowa town of Bedford on August 30, 2022.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley takes questions from residents in the small southwestern Iowa town of Bedford on Aug. 30.

Sen. Grassley likes to tout his annual tours of Iowa's 99 counties, which are a mix of public and private events that some say are hard for his critics to attend. Grassley has been reelected for decades to represent this state that many have long seen as purple.

"As things have gotten more polarized, so have people and so you should expect a lot of states that were purple to start to shift one direction," explained political science professor Megan Goldberg at Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa. "[Iowa] has the demographics that like to push us in the rightward direction, not the leftward."

Iowa Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken, left, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, stand on stage before their debate, Thursday, Oct. 6, 2022, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall / AP
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AP
Iowa Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken, left, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, stand on stage before a debate Oct. 6 in Des Moines.

Like so many places in the country, the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade energized supporters of reproductive rights in Iowa. Democrats see Grassley's role on the Senate Judiciary Committee as a key player in that eventual ruling. Grassley blocked former President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland ahead of the 2016 presidential election and then shuttled former President Trump's nominee of now-Justice Amy Coney Barrett through nomination hearings ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

A handful of protesters turn out almost every Friday in the small northeastern Iowa town of McGregor holding signs that say things like "Abortion is Healthcare" and "Women: Vote Like Your Life Depends on it... Because it Does."

"We're barreling towards 2024, which really seems like the last chance we have to stay a democracy," protester Erin Cubbon said. "It's scary."

Cubbon says it's hard to believe Iowa helped launch former Obama's rise to the White House and was among the first to legalize same-sex marriage. It's also the same state Sen. Grassley has been representing in Congress for nearly a half-century.

He has been reelected easily partly because he presents himself as a moderate. But the 89-year-old has learned to embrace Trump like Republican voters have in the state. Grassley accepted his endorsement at a Trump rally in Des Moines last year.

"I was born at night but not last night so if I didn't accept the endorsement of a person that's got 91% of Republican voters in Iowa," Grassley joked to thousands of cheering Trump supporters on the Iowa State Fairgrounds. "I wouldn't be that smart."

Republican support is not hard for Grassley to find. That means, though, that he's often facing questions about the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election on the campaign trail. Typically, these questions come from voters concerned about the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

Former Vice President Mike Pence talks to the press at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines while making an appearance with Iowa Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley on August 19, 2022
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Former Vice President Mike Pence talks to the press at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines while making an appearance with Sen. Chuck Grassley on Aug. 19.

NPR asked Grassley recently why he pivots to talk about election policy instead of pushing back on Trump's false claim about a stolen election.

"I shouldn't have to repeat that. It's a fact that what I said on [December] the 14th, when the electoral votes were counted."

It's clear Grassley is an institution in Iowa but a new Des Moines Register Iowa poll suggests voters might be ready to move on even as this state becomes redder. Grassley is just 3 points ahead of his Democratic challenger, retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken.

Retired Navy Admiral and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken walks with his wife along vendors at the Cedar Valley Pride Fest in Waterloo, Iowa on Saturday, August 27, 2022.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Retired Navy Adm. and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken walks with his wife along vendors at the Cedar Valley Pride Fest in Waterloo, Iowa, on Aug. 27.

In comparison, Iowa's Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds enjoyed a 17-point advantage over her Democratic challenger, Deirdre DeJear.

Franken is hoping to catapult that public opinion advantage in a reddening state into the U.S. Senate. He recognizes, though, it is an uphill climb.

"There's a portion of Iowa that will not vote for me because I'm a Democrat, that will not change. I will hold office and I will support them to the best of my ability," Franken said. "That's completely different than the Republican perspective on this state, where it is support your own and to hell with the rest."

Many had written Franken's campaign off after a police report surfaced saying he kissed a former staffer without consent. National Democrats are not engaged in Iowa either. Grassley has the cash advantage but Franken raised twice as much money as Grassley in the last fundraising quarter. Franken is also hammering Grassley on abortion, hoping that will drive Iowans to the polls.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken speaks to a crowd of supporters at the United Methodist Church in his Republican opponent U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley's hometown of New Hartford, Iowa on August 27, 2022.
Clay Masters / Iowa Public Radio
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Iowa Public Radio
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken speaks to a crowd of supporters at the United Methodist Church in his Republican opponent Sen. Chuck Grassley's hometown of New Hartford, Iowa, on Aug. 27.

Megan Goldberg at Cornell College says Franken may have a very narrow path to victory.

"Where Republicans go in and they vote for Republicans, for governor, for the House of Representatives and they skip voting in the Senate race, because they're not interested in voting for Grassley," Goldberg said. "But they can't bring themselves to vote for a Democrat."

Expect Franken to highlight Grassley's extensive tenure in Washington in the last days on the campaign trail as he attempts the seemingly impossible task of unseating a titan of Iowa politics.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio

Clay Masters
Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter. He was part of a team of member station political reporters who covered the 2016 presidential race for NPR. He also covers environmental issues.