WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – When Michael Franken won the Democratic nomination for the Senate in June, many in Iowa's disillusioned party thought they landed on a candidate who could maybe — possibly — reverse their humbling slide in the state.
After all, the retired Navy admiral won 76 of 99 counties, in every region of the state, notably conservative northern and western Iowa. His hesitancy during the primary campaign to back weapons bans and college loan forgiveness were signs he aimed to appeal to moderate Democrats and even some Republicans tired of incumbent Chuck Grassley after four decades in office.
But those ambitions are beginning to fade as Election Day, Nov. 8, approaches. Franken's quest to unseat the most senior Republican in the Senate has been wounded by allegations that the Democrat kissed a former campaign aide without permission. Franken's campaign has denied the claim.
He's defied skeptics before, beating the better known and better funded former Rep. Abby Finkenauer in primary. Nonetheless, many Democrats acknowledge that a race always considered a long shot is at risk of slipping firmly out of reach.
To Democrat Marcia Nichols, the former longtime political director for Iowa’s largest public employees union, the allegation, “whatever it is, it’s made it tougher now.” But she noted that Franken took on Finkenauer, "who was pretty popular, and beat her by a lot. I’m not writing him off."
The obstacles seemed distant during a recent campaign stop as Franken, in his standard Navy ball cap, urged hundreds of supporters on a warm early autumn afternoon in suburban Des Moines to rally Republicans who might want a change after 42 years of Grassley in the Senate.
“Iowans wake up every day doing hard things," Franken said. “That takes, in today's environment, a lot of guts."
To win, Franken would have to have to share voters with Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, a devout social conservative and fervent Donald Trump supporter who is favored in her reelection campaign. He would have to defy a decadelong Republican ascendency in Iowa, made harder in an election year when majority Democrats in Congress are facing economic headwinds and tepid approval of Democratic President Joe Biden.
Franken's challenges are part of a broader reversal of fortunes for Democrats.
A decade ago, Grassley and five-term progressive Democrat Tom Harkin were Iowa's senators. Democrats held three of five U.S. House seats and a thin majority in the state Senate. Today, Rep. Cindy Axne of West Des Moines is Iowa's lone Democrat in Congress and she is considered among the most vulnerable in her party this fall. The GOP hold on the statehouse is the party's longest in more than six decades.
Franken's resounding primary victory offered a glimmer of a chance for Democrats.
A month after the primary, Franken trailed Grassley by just 8 percentage points among likely voters in a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll. That pointed to a potentially closer race than Grassley has faced since he defeated Democratic Sen. John Culver in 1980.
With no help from the Democrats' national Senate campaign arm, Franken has raised a noteworthy $8.3 million this year, including $3.6 million in the third quarter. Grassley had reported raising $7.5 million through the end of July but had not released his total for July-September period. That report is due by Oct. 15.
The majority job approval that Grassley had owned for roughly two decades of Des Moines Register polling has recently fallen: It has hovered in unfamiliar territory and was at 46% in the July poll.
Also telling of the shift, 64% of likely voters said in a June 2021 Des Moines Register poll they did not want him to run again, given the choice of seeing someone else hold office or reelecting the senator for another term.
The change in mood comes as Grassley, who entered the Senate as a Ronald Reagan-era fiscal conservative, has tried to adapt to the hyper-partisan politics of the Trump era.
Facing pointed questions from voters last year about why he had declined to say Democrat Joe Biden won the 2020 election, Grassley parsed his language to obliquely suggest Biden is president as the result of the Electoral College vote count.
About two-thirds of Republicans nationally said they do not think Biden was legitimately elected, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll in July 2021.
A year ago, Grassley beamed when Trump endorsed him at a Des Moines rally that drew 10,000 to the Iowa state fairgrounds, where the former president argued falsely that he had won the 2020 election. “I'm smart enough to accept that endorsement," Grassley told the audience, noting Trump's comfortable victory in Iowa in that race.
Grassley has campaigned little in public. He has relied more on television advertising, much of it critical of Franken for comments he made about the direction of the state under Republican leadership.
Grassley turned 89 last month and says he has no concerns about being able to finish another six-year term — he would be 95 at the end of an eighth term. “Absolutely not," he said during a Wednesday news conference.
He ticked through his daily schedule, which he said includes rising at 4 a.m., running 2 miles six days a week and arriving at his office by 6 a.m.
“Unless God intervenes, I'm going to be in the Senate for six years," he added.
Franken has steered clear of Grassley’s age and instead has cast Grassley's time in office as his chief liability. "We deserve better than a senator for life,” the Democrat said.
Franken has characterized Grassley's praise of the Supreme Court decision stripping women of their constitutional right to an abortion as out of step with Iowa, where polls show a majority of voters support keeping abortion legal.
Franken, who supports enacting legislation making abortion a federal right, held a modest advantage with women likely voters in the July Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.
But the publication of a police report detailing the unwanted kiss with the former campaign staffer has prompted questions from some would-be Franken supporters. The campaign manager issued a public statement that the allegation in the report was untrue and the police called it unfounded.
Elizabeth Sibers, a 22-year-old Iowa State University student from Waukee who attended Franken's rally, said she would like him, at a minimum, to speak out against harassment.
“It does trouble me. He needs to take the time to address it," she said. Sibers remains open to voting for him and said she wants to “give Franken the chance to grow from this, and not just look past it."
Grassley said he does not plan to raise it as a campaign issue. But when Franken called him “anti-woman," for supporting the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Grassley replied quickly and curtly.
“You're in no position to lecture me about women," he said. “You're in no position to do that."
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