Angry social conservatives are speculating that Senator Chuck Grassley could face a primary challenge in 2010. The religious right has been dissatisfied with Grassley for a long time (see here and here).
After the Iowa Supreme Court struck down the state’s Defense of Marriage Act, Grassley issued a statement saying he supported “traditional marriage” and had backed federal legislation and a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. But when hundreds of marriage equality opponents rallied at the state capitol last Thursday, and Republicans tried to bring a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage to the Iowa House floor, Grassley refused to say whether he supported their efforts to change Iowa’s constitution:
“You better ask me in a month, after I’ve had a chance to think,” Grassley, the state’s senior Republican official, said after a health care forum in Mason City.
Wingnut Bill Salier, who almost won the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2002, says conservatives are becoming “more and more incensed [the] more they start to pay attention to how far [Grassley] has drifted.”
Iowa GOP chairman Matt Strawn denies that party activists are unhappy with Grassley. I hope Salier is right and Grassley gets a primary challenge, for reasons I’ll explain after the jump.
Before anyone gets too excited, I want to make clear that I don’t consider Grassley vulnerable. His approval rating is around 71 percent (if you believe Survey USA) or 66 percent (if you believe Selzer and Associates). Either way, he is outside the danger zone for an incumbent.
That doesn’t mean Democrats should leave Grassley unchallenged. Having a credible candidate at the top of the ballot in 2010 will increase the number of straight-ticket Democratic voters. So far Bob Krause is planning to jump in this race. More power to him or any other Democrat who is willing to make the case against Grassley. We should be realistic, though, and understand that unless something extraordinary happens, we are not going to defeat this five-term incumbent.
So why am I hoping a right-winger will take on Grassley in the Republican primary? Here’s what I think would happen.
1. A conservative taking potshots at Grassley would intensify the struggle between GOP moderates and “goofballs” just when Iowa Republicans are trying to present a united front against Democratic governance. GOP chairman Strawn claimed this weekend that Democratic tax reform proposals had unified his party, but if Grassley faces a challenger, expect social issues to dominate next spring’s media coverage of Republicans.
2. Although some delusional folks seem to think Grassley could lose a low-turnout primary, Grassley would crush any challenger from the right. That has the potential to demoralize religious GOP activists and their cheerleaders, such as the popular talk radio personality Steve Deace. (Deace already has plenty of grievances against Grassley.)
3. Every prominent Iowa Republican will have to take a position on the Senate primary, if there is one. I assume almost everyone will back Grassley, which would offend part of the GOP base. But if, say, Strawn or Congressman Steve King surprised me by staying neutral in the primary, that would demonstrate how much power extremists have within the Republican Party. Most people intuitively understand that you don’t try to replace a U.S. senator from your own party who has a lot of seniority.
A Senate primary could become a distracting sideshow for Republican gubernatorial candidates. It’s not clear yet how many Republicans will run against Governor Chet Culver, but almost all of the likely candidates would endorse Grassley over a right-winger. I would expect even Bob Vander Plaats to support Grassley, although he could surprise me. Vander Plaats believes Iowa Republican have been losing elections because they’ve become too moderate.
Watching the Republican establishment line up behind Grassley will remind social conservative activists that the party likes to use their support but doesn’t take their concerns seriously. These people will hold their noses and vote Republican next November, but they may not donate their time and money when Strawn and the gubernatorial nominee need their help to improve the GOP’s early voting operation.
My hunch is that no challenger to Grassley will emerge, because even the angriest conservatives must understand that they have little to gain from this course. Then again, we’re talking about people who believe the little-known, inexperienced Salier would have done better against Tom Harkin in 2002 than four-term Congressman Greg Ganske. Maybe some Republican is just crazy enough to run against Grassley next year.