Former Rep. Jim Leach breaks with the Republican Party, endorses Bohannan for House and Franken for Senate

Jim Leach’s official photo as Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities

Jim Leach, who represented Johnson County and much of southeastern Iowa in Congress for 30 years as a Republican, changed his party registration to Democrat ahead of the June 7 primary, the Quad City Times reported on Wednesday.

“Today, the Republican Party that I spent so many years with has really let the country down,” Leach told the Times’ Sarah Watson in an interview. “And we need to have a political party that operates in a way that both parties can participate.

“The Republican Party has just torn itself apart, and it’s got to pull itself together. I’ll lean toward the Democratic Party as long as excellent people are running.”

Leach endorsed two Iowa Democrats currently running: 1st Iowa House District candidate Christina Bohannan and Senate candidate Mike Franken.

“I have tremendous respect for Jim Leach and am honored to have his endorsement,” Bohannan said in a written statement. “As a congressman, he told the truth, served with honor and integrity, and put the people of southeast Iowa ahead of party politics. He understands what is at stake in this election and the importance of electing someone who will work for working people, not for party bosses and special interests.”

Leach sees the stakes in this year’s midterm and the looming 2024 election as exceptionally high. He told Watson that the Republican Party’s loyalty to Donald Trump and refusal to speak out his against lies about the last election, and his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection, are undermining democracy.

“My own view is that there is no excuse whatsoever for an insurrection,” he said. “And that we’re in one of the most profound challenges to American democracy ever, excepting the Civil War.”

Leach called Bohannan’s opponent in the November election, incumbent Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks, a “decent person” and said she’s “not an embarrassment to the state or anything,” but said Bohannan was clearly the better choice.

Miller-Meeks is still in her first term in Congress, having won the seat by six votes in the last election, so Leach’s decision to endorse her opponent is somewhat different than his decision to endorse Franken in his race against Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Mike Franken speaking at a campaign event at NewBo City Market in Cedar Rapids, Saturday, June 4, 2022. — Malcolm MacDougall/Little Village

The 79-year-old Leach was colleagues with the 88-year-old Grassley for his entire three decades in Congress. Grassley was first elected to the U.S. House of Representative in 1974, two years before Leach. The two served side-by-side for four years before Grassley was elected to the Senate in 1980.

Leach was considered a leader among moderate Republicans during his political career. Grassley was widely considered a moderate for much his career — despite Grassley’s boasting that one of his first votes in the Senate was to outlaw abortion nationwide — but most recently was one of Trump’s most important supporters on Capitol Hill.

“Leach cited Franken’s naval experience as being valuable to congressional proceedings and took issue with Grassley’s role in ushering through conservative picks for the U.S. Supreme Court that led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade,” Watson reported.

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Sen. Chuck Grassley accepts Donald Trump’s endorsement, saying he “wouldn’t be too smart” to refuse it. Iowa State Fairgrounds, Oct. 9, 2021. — Jason Smith/Little Village

Like Leach, Franken says the Jan. 6 insurrection and lies related to it that Trump and his supporters are promoting represent a serious threat to American democracy. Grassley avoids talking about these issues.

Interviewing Grassley on the In Depth podcast last month, Dr. Bob Leonard asked Iowa’s senior senator, “Do you understand why we should be concerned with this, or [do you] just want it all to go away?”

“I think I made it pretty clear that I’m doing my job today as it is on June 21,” Grassley replied.

“OK, so you’re not looking back,” Leonard said.

“I’m looking at what I’ve got to do,” Grassley said. “I think I’ve probably told you before: let go, let God. Let go, let God.”

“Not sure I understand what you mean,” Leonard said.

“Well, in other words, do what you can take care of and leave the rest of it to God,” Grassley explained.

Leach has remained active in public affairs since he lost his reelection bid in 2006 to Democrat Dave Loebsack — including serving as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities from 2009 to 2013 and helping to lead fundraising efforts for the soon-to-open Stanley Museum of Art — but has kept a low profile politically before Wednesday’s endorsements. He is a visiting professor and senior scholar at the University of Iowa College of Law, where Bohannan is also a professor.

Leach declined to express opinions on other races on the November ballot beyond telling Watson, “We have an obligation to pull together and vote for anyone who has a moral capacity to lead in a credible way.”