Things were different 42 years ago. Chuck Grassley, then a three-term congressman looking to move up to the Senate, declared himself an opponent of negative political ads. Grassley devoted his opening statement in the Iowa Public Television’s Republican primary debate in 1980 to complaining about ads targeting him.
Grassley called his primary opponent Tom Stoner a “negative candidate” who “spends his time and money attacking his opponent, distorting his record and making innuendo about his character.” Grassley demanded Stoner “apologize to the voters” for his ads.
The 1980 version of Grassley could have been describing the senator’s 2022 reelection campaign. Grassley has launched a series of negative ads attacking his Democratic opponent Mike Franken. He’s even tried to make Franken’s naval career a liability. More than one ad has claimed “Mike Franken can’t represent us. He doesn’t know us,” insinuating Franken’s 39 years of service around the country and the world has erased his Iowa roots.
Franken shrugs off Grassley’s ads.
“Perhaps you’ve seen an ad done by my opponent that hits me for saying something about aspects in rural Iowa that are not what we wanted them to be, both economically and for the future,” he said to the crowd gathered for a campaign event on the patio of Tic Toc, a neighborhood bar in Cedar Rapids the week the first attack ads launched. “And I’m sorry if the truth hurts so much. But we need to identify the problem before we proceed to a solution.”
He pointed to the decline of his own small hometown in northwest Iowa as an example of the decline of rural Iowa. When Franken was growing up near Lebanon in Sioux County, the town had a population of approximately 50.
“I think there’s 12 there now,” he said.
Mike Franken is the youngest of nine children. His father, a World War II vet, ran a one-man machine shop; his mother taught at the local one-room schoolhouse. As a teenager, Franken worked construction jobs on neighbors’ farms, and later spent three years working in a Sioux City meat-packing plant to earn money to cover his tuition at Morningside College. Then he applied for a Navy scholarship.
That scholarship led to a career that ended when Franken retired in 2017, having reached the rank of three-star admiral. He moved back to Iowa in 2020.
Franken’s life story has been the major focus of his campaign commercials so far, and the results of the June primary showed the impact that story can make. He swept almost all the counties in the media markets where his commercial was broadcast. His main opponent, former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, won counties where Franken wasn’t on the air. He won the primary with 55 percent of the vote and carried 76 counties around the state.
Starting the general election campaign with negative ads gives Grassley a chance to try to define Franken for voters who may not have been paying attention during the primary. They also allow Grassley to avoid addressing the biggest unanswered question of his own campaign: Why is the 89-year-old running again?
In the video announcing his reelection run, Grassley said he had “a lot more to do for Iowa,” but didn’t explain what that meant, and has remained vague on what he believes he can accomplish in an additional six years in the Senate that he hasn’t been able to do in the last four decades.
In his speeches, Franken notes that Grassley’s years in office have coincided with the decline of rural Iowa, as people continue to leave and small businesses struggle to survive.
“He has had the opportunity to help us, and he has not,” Franken said. He directly connects Grassley’s policies to the money the senator has collected from corporations over the years. Franken has made not accepting corporate PAC contributions a centerpiece of his campaign.
Unlike Grassley, Franken frequently speaks in detail about what he wants to accomplish in the Senate, including capitalizing on Iowa’s progress in shifting to wind energy and promoting further growth in solar-power generation to make the state a major center for clean energy.
“We have a great opportunity to have the cheapest electrical power in the nation,” he said.
Franken sees the potential for Iowa to become the center of a low-carbon regional energy grid that would help address climate change and provide the infrastructure for new economic growth in rural parts of the state.
Franken also favors working towards a single-payer healthcare system by gradually expanding Medicare, in order to remove the profit motive for essential care. He wants to ensure the solvency of Social Security by eliminating the income cap. Currently, only income below $147,000 is subject to Social Security taxes. Franken, along with many groups who work on senior issues, wants personal income above the current cut-off to be taxed at the same 6.2 percent rate income below it is. He also has proposals regarding criminal justice reform, including the legalization of marijuana.
In addition to commanding a ship, the destroyer USS Winston Churchill, and Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa, serving as flag officer in U.S. Central Command’s Planning and Strategy Office, and as the first director of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Franken had years of directly dealing with Congress as chief of legislative affairs for the Navy under President Obama. He’s well aware of the Senate’s reputation as the place where legislation goes to die, he says, and would come to the job with experience of how the chamber works and how it fails to work.
This isn’t Franken’s first run for the Senate. He entered the Democratic primary in 2020, but that year’s primary was largely decided in advance. Before any candidates publicly declared their intentions, national Democrats were lining up behind Theresa Greenfield and trying to discourage others from entering the race.
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee (DSCC) issued its endorsement of Greenfield three days after she declared, even though there were already two other Democrats in the race. Franken, who entered the race later, finished a distant second to Greenfield. Sen. Joni Ernst easily beat Greenfield in the general election.
This year, the big national Democratic groups have largely ignored Iowa. “The DSCC is not involved in this race,” a committee spokesperson told Politico in response to a question about Iowa.
That’s understandable. Grassley has compiled an impressive record in his six previous runs for reelection. He’s never won less than 60 percent of the vote. In three races, he won all 99 counties, and in the other three he won 98. But this year may be different.
In 2021, before Grassley announced he was running again, the Iowa Poll found that only 27 percent of Iowans thought he should seek another term. Three months ago, an Iowa Poll found Grassley leading Franken by only 8 percentage points. That’s closer than any opponent has been to Grassley in 42 years.
The conventional wisdom at the beginning of this year’s Democratic Senate primary was that Finkenauer, because she was a former member of Congress and had greater name recognition, would win.
“We’re cresting at the right time,” Franken told audiences of enthusiastic Democrats during his final cross-state campaign swing before the primary. His strategy was to create an expectation — “I believe Mike Franken will defeat Chuck Grassley” was his first campaign slogan — use his biographical ad to introduce himself to voters, and then build momentum through in-person events. But in September, something happened that might interfere with the campaign’s momentum.
On Sept. 19, Iowa Field Report, an online news site associated with the state’s Republican Party, broke a story about a former campaign worker accusing Franken of committing assault by grabbing the collar of her vest and kissing her.
The alleged incident happened in March, but Kimberly Strope-Boggus didn’t file a report with the Des Moines Police Department until the following month. According to the report, Strope-Boggus didn’t allege Franken acted in an aggressive or sexual manner, but instead attributed his actions to what she claims are his “1950s interactions with women.” After reviewing the police report, the Polk County Attorney’s Office determined the case was “unfounded” and closed it without further investigation or contacting Franken.
Strope-Boggus, who was fired by the Franken campaign in the month before the alleged incident, told the DMPD she met with Franken at the Dam Pub on March 18 at his request to discuss her possibly returning to the campaign. It was after leaving the pub Strope-Boggus said the kiss happened. According to the police statement, after she pulled away they went their separate ways without speaking. Strope-Boggus said she had had subsequent text interactions with Franken, mostly about campaign matters, but never mentioned the alleged kiss in any of them.
Strope-Boggus did not resume working for the Franken campaign. In April, after receiving a complaint from a Franken staffer about something she tweeted, Strope-Boggus told her wife about the alleged kissing incident, and her wife encouraged her to file a police report.
After Iowa Field Report published its story, Franken told reporters he had met with Strope-Boggus in March, but flatly denied grabbing her collar or kissing her.
“It never happened,” he said.
The Grassley campaign immediately called on Franken to release Strope-Boggus from the non-disclosure agreement she signed when she left the campaign in February. (NDAs are common in political campaigns to protect confidential information.) Franken agreed to do so and said Strope-Boggus is free to discuss her allegations. Strope-Boggus has declined to make any further statements.
It’s possible the allegation could discourage some people from voting for Franken, but it’s unlikely that anyone concerned with women’s rights would be moved to vote for Grassley instead, given his voting record, especially on matters of reproductive freedom.
Franken describes himself as pro-Roe, and says that decisions made between a pregnant Iowan and their doctor are “none of [his] business.”
Grassley was the rightwing Republican candidate in 1980, a bad year for moderates. Ronald Reagan swept to victory in the presidential race, winning all but four counties in Iowa, and Grassley’s fiercely anti-abortion stance helped him first win the primary against Stoner, and then the general election against first-term Democrat Sen. John Culver. Grassley’s 1980 campaign was supported by a radical anti-abortion group that sent disturbing flyers to voters, claiming a vote for Culver was a vote to kill fetuses.
But in 2022, the electoral energy on the issue of abortion appears to be going the other way, especially since the rightwing majority on the Supreme Court that Grassley helped to engineer overturned Roe v. Wade. It would be ironic if the issue that helped Grassley get to the Senate defeated him this year.
After 42 years, things are different in Iowa. How different won’t be clear until after Election Day.
This article was originally published in Little Village’s October 2022 issues.