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Iowa's Finkenauer aims for a return to Congress, this time by toppling Sen. Grassley


Seven states hold primaries on Tuesday, including Iowa, where three Democrats are competing to challenge longtime Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

One of those vying for that chance is former Rep. Abby Finkenauer, who defeated a Republican incumbent in 2018 and then served in the U.S. House of Representatives for just one term before losing her reelection bid two years ago.

Now, at age 33, Finkenauer is facing a tougher-than-expected U.S. Senate primary in a state that has become more of a GOP stronghold in the last decade.

Generational differences

Finkenauer regularly points out generational differences between her and Grassley, who is 88 years old, when talking on the campaign trail about issues like abortion rights, college debt and gun restrictions.

On the day after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Finkenauer made a campaign stop in the Mississippi River town of Dubuque. She talked about how she's lived most of her life with school shootings happening in America.

"I was 10 years old when Columbine happened," Finkenauer said to a small crowd gathered at Dimensional Brewing. "Sen. Grassley had already been in Washington, D.C., at that point for 23 years."

She told the crowd they already know where she stands on guns, like when she "proudly voted for H.R. 8 closing the background check loophole and also supporting red flag laws."

Voters like Tom Townesend want Finkenauer back in Washington. He introduced her at the Dubuque campaign stop.

"The whole time she was in Congress she was working on issues that are important to building trades," said Townesend, who is with a local electrical workers union. "She has always been a great friend to union people."

A challenge from Franken

But Finkenauer has had some setbacks in this race. She almost didn't make it onto the primary ballot after a pair of Republican activists challenged her nominating petitions. It went all the way up to the Iowa Supreme Court.

Also, one of her two opponents is staying competitive in his fundraising numbers.

Retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken served in the military for nearly 40 years and came back to Iowa ahead of the 2020 election and ran unsuccessfully for his party's nomination in a different U.S. Senate race.

The 64-year-old says he decided to throw his hat in the ring again, for this contest, following the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021.

"Having worked overseas and defended the American way of life and worked for this country so hard, I thought as life becomes more compressed over the age of 60, things that you do are more meaningful," Franken said. "I can't think of anything more meaningful than to provide my expertise to maintain democracy in this country, because I saw it under threat."

Al Simon is voting for Franken. Simon came to see Franken take questions from voters about foreign policy at an event in Des Moines last week. He thinks Franken is better equipped to beat Grassley.

"I think Grassley's been there too long," Simon said. "And I've been in the military so I respect Franken for being an admiral."

Democrats blame misinformation for rural struggles

But Democrats have lost a lot of ground in Iowa over the last decade, especially in rural Iowa.

The third candidate, Glenn Hurst, is a physician and city council member from a small town in western Iowa. He's running as a more progressive candidate and makes the case for his party not to keep elevating moderates to run for statewide office.

"If you keep doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, that's insanity," Hurst said, paraphrasing Albert Einstein. "I think we've got to do something different. Otherwise, we're gonna have the same results."

Both Franken and Finkenauer say Democrats have struggled in rural Iowa in part because so many residents are plugged into right-wing echo chambers. Both were running in 2020 and say the information environment was made worse when the pandemic was new and Democrats weren't out campaigning like Republicans.

"We didn't know what to do because we're in the middle of this pandemic," Finkenauer said. "We didn't know could we go door to door [and] what was safe, what wasn't. In the meantime, folks spent a lot of time in places like Facebook. And so the misinformation was really, really thick."

This year, in-person political activities are back across Iowa and local activists like Dan Callahan, who chairs the Democratic Party in rural Buchanan County, say that will keep voters engaged.

"These people are energized," Callahan said during a Buchanan County fundraiser in late April, where candidates spoke to dozens of supporters. "They'll come to the meetings, donate money, volunteer, make the phone calls [and] knock on the doors, which we weren't allowed to do last time."

Even though Democrats have a playbook that feels more like business-as-usual, whoever wins the primary will likely face a tough race in November.

Grassley, who faces minor opposition in the GOP primary, is running for his eighth term in the U.S. Senate to represent a state that Republicans have tightened their grip on in recent elections.

Copyright 2022 Iowa Public Radio. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio.