Sen. Chuck Grassley was looking for somewhere safe, friendly and familiar as he toured the state this week, so he headed to the deep-red northwest corner of Iowa for three open town hall meetings.
After all, where could be better than counties where he won between 81 percent and 90 percent of the vote in his 2010 re-election?
But he soon found out nowhere is safe.
Because even in these conservative outposts, Grassley encountered fierce opposition and concern over his role in refusing to hold a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.
The six-term senator and new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee has found himself in the middle of a national political firestorm that threatens to undermine his image back home of a reasonable public servant who has won his last several re-elections in landslides in this politically purple state.
Democrats both in Iowa and nationally are closely watching the Supreme Court fallout in the hopes that it could it do the unthinkable in Iowa: turn Grassley’s re-election campaign this year into a real tossup race.
There’s certainly signs that the pressure is growing. Progressive groups held protests in Carroll, Des Moines, and Cedar Rapids this week outside Grassley’s offices and events. Nearly half of the questions at the three northwest Iowa stops centered around the court process, the majority of which implored Grassley to move forward with a hearing.
“We know that over half of the Senate is going to not go along with that this year, so I’d rather spend our time on things we can do in a bipartisan way,” Grassley replied to the first questioner in the small town of Ocheydan, and often dismissed the controversy as political theater.
Grassley’s town meetings themselves took on the feel of some of that theater, looking more like an Iowa Caucus event with multiple national and local press outlets following the senator on his tour.
TV news cameras and video recorders lined the back walls. Progressive groups filmed their own activists while a conservative group filmed them filming those activists. The Rock Rapids and Orange City events were well-attended, with around 130 at each.
Although the majority of the audience at each stop appeared in favor of Grassley’s refusal to hold a hearing, the level of concern in the most conservative corner of the state was particularly noteworthy.
Some of the pressure at the events came from activists from NARAL and Progress Iowa, the state’s main progressive advocacy group (and locals at the first two events noted they didn’t know many of the people who attended). NARAL even had one of their Iowa members dress up as Ben Franklin at each event to remind Grassley about constitutional duties.
But many locals at each stop spoke out as well on the Supreme Court topic. The most interesting moments came in Rock Rapids when two different local Republican women voiced their concern on how the obstruction made the Republican Party look.
“There’s nothing in the U.S. Constitution that says we can’t have a hearing and then vote yay or nay, so that we don’t constantly have thrown at us as Republicans that all we do is say, ‘no,’” Glenda Schrick of George, Iowa, told the Senator. “It might be a possibility that Hillary picks the next one and it could be a lot worse than Garland.”
“The president now was chosen by the people. So I think it gives us a better reputation if we agree to allow something to be done,” said another Republican woman in Rock Rapids.
The discussions were certainly spirited, but respectful.
Only one older woman in Rock Rapids shouted at Grassley and interrupted him several times—she also mocked his stance by telling him that Clinton would just nominate someone much more liberal.
Through it all Grassley stuck to his talking points, though he wasn’t afraid to banter back and forth with some of the questioners. Many Iowa political observers speculated that the intense scrutiny and pressure had been getting to the senator, especially early on when his statements seemed to fluctuate—at first he said he wouldn’t rule out a hearing before an official nominee, then he did rule it out a day later.
Given Grassley’s low-key and consistent speaking style, it wasn’t clear at his town hall meetings whether the persistent criticisms from voters was unnerving.
But there were some moments. The “Do Your Job” line seems to particularly get under his skin.
“When someone says I’m not doing my job, I kind of resent it,” Grassley said in Orange City. “I get to the office at 6:15 in the morning, I leave at 7:00 at night.”
Many Iowa Democrats see this tension as a sign of a perfect storm developing in 2016, one that could finally sweep out Grassley—who has long been untouchable in the Hawkeye State.
First there is his role as a key figure in defending an unpopular decision (PDF) to block President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. Then there’s Democrats’ message of “Do Your Job,” easy and simple for any voter to grasp regardless of party affiliation. Finally, there’s the Donald Trump factor, who at the top of the ballot could decimate Republicans on down the ticket.
Not to mention the last name of his most well-known potential Democratic opponent is literally Judge.
It was this Supreme Court controversy that led former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge to jump into the race just two weeks before the filing deadline. She still needs to get past well-liked State Sen. Rob Hogg in the June primary, but national Democrats seem eager to help with funding—something Grassley’s opponents often struggle with.
Judge was also the Secretary of Agriculture for Iowa, and has broad appeal in rural Iowa where the farmer Grassley typically dominates in.
Judge has already used the court controversy to push a slogan uniquely suited for her: “I’m the one Judge Grassley can’t ignore.”
But will any of it really be enough to legitimately challenge Grassley?
Democrats in Iowa have picked up on Grassley’s potential discomfort and began pressuring him this week to hold more public meetings. The senator is well-known for his annual “Full Grassley” tour, in which he visits and holds meetings in all 99 counties. This week he held 19 of them, completing 51 so far this year, but only three were open to the general public (though he does hold local press availabilities after both public and private ones). It didn’t go unnoticed that the only three open ones were in the most conservative part of the state.
Progressive organizations and the Iowa Democratic Party have seized on that and are suggesting Grassley is hiding from his constituents. Progress Iowa even set up a hotline to get tips from voters if they heard when and where he’s holding an event in their county.
But Grassley’s communications director countered that they’ve always had a mix of public and private events, pointing out that during this same recess period in 2015 they held four public meetings and 15 private Q&A sessions at businesses or schools.
When Grassley does speak at a private business he still takes questions for most of the time. And even there he seems to get asked a lot about the Supreme Court (he tweets out the number of attendees and topics asked after each event).
Still, his communications director told the Omaha World Herald that they wouldn’t release the information about the private events out of concern that protesters would disrupt them.
“I had an invitation to a corporation in Garner where they had a factory floor of maybe 200 people where I had the chance to go because I was invited there, as opposed to going to the city hall and maybe 30 people show up,” Grassley said when pressed on his meetings at his Orange City event. “So isn’t it better for me to communicate with 200 people?”
Grassley has seen plenty of grassroots outrage before—some aimed at him, some not. His meetings in 2009 were similarly filled with overwhelming concern over Obamacare.
With no major polling out yet on Grassley’s re-election chances, it’s still an open question whether this latest controversy will be the one to finally doom the 82-year-old senator, or just another blip along the road.
“When I voted against the first Reagan budget four months after I was sworn into the U.S. Senate I was one of four people who voted against it in committee and the whole White House came down on me, and it was a Republican White House,” Grassley recalled. “When I voted against the Gulf War, I was one of two Republicans voting against. The whole Republican machine came down on me.”
He added, “So I’m not surprised with the pressure I’m getting now, but it’s a lot more fun to have it from the Democrats than it is from the Republicans.”