Several Democrats are competing Tuesday for the chance to challenge Republican Chuck Grassley in what will likely be an uphill effort to defeat one of the Senate's longest-serving members.
The Democratic primary largely centers on Abby Finkenauer, a former congresswoman from northeast Iowa, and Mike Franken, a retired Navy vice admiral. Physician Glenn Hurst, a city councilman and active member of the Iowa Democratic Party state central committee, is also running, but he has raised and spent far less money and is not well known around the state.
Finkenauer, who served a single term in the U.S. House, is one of the most prominent Democrats in Iowa. She earned a reputation as a wunderkind in the legislature and was the second-youngest woman elected to Congress, helping Democrats retake control of the House that year.
But she nearly didn't make the primary ballot after Republican activists claimed she hadn't gathered enough signatures from enough counties. A district judge ruled Finkenauer hadn't qualified for the ballot, a ruling she called "deeply partisan." The Iowa Supreme Court overruled that decision and allowed her to run.
Still, the episode turned off a number of veteran state Democratic activists, former candidates, and officeholders, prompting some to give Franken a second look. He posted stronger first-quarter fundraising figures than Finkenauer and earned endorsements from some well-known former Finkenauer supporters bothered by her declining to accept responsibility for the filing mistakes.
Franken, 64, of Sioux City, presents himself as a progressive on some issues, such as supporting the addition of a public health insurance option to the Affordable Care Act. And though he supports background checks for firearm buyers and red-flag measures to keep them out of the wrong hands, he has stopped short of supporting banning the sale of specific weapons.
Joyce Mahl of Council Bluffs in western Iowa said she voted for Franken because she's unsure Iowans would vote for a Democratic woman in the general election, though Iowa has elected Democratic women, including Finkenauer, to Congress. Mahl's top priority is a candidate she views as stronger against Grassley.
"If you want Grassley out, you've got to vote for the one that you think can beat him," Mahl, 66, said after voting at a downtown Council Bluffs church.
Regardless of who emerges on top in the primary Tuesday, the Democrat will face stiff headwinds going into the general election against Grassley, who has served seven terms. A state that Democrat Barack Obama won in two presidential elections has steadily shifted to the right in recent years, part of a broader transformation that has spread through the Northern Plains that has made it increasingly difficult for Democrats to compete statewide.
The 33-year-old Finkenauer has argued that she would bring a fresh perspective to Washington, a reference to the 88-year-old Grassley's age.
"He is somebody who has been in D.C. for nearly 50 years," Finkenauer said of Grassley during a debate last month. "I will never forget where I come from."
Mark Hollander, 47, a marketing professional from West Des Moines said he voted for Abby Finkenauer in part because of her background in Congress, but also because she represents a new generation. Finkenauer has stressed limiting the number of terms a member of the Senate can serve.
"I do agree with her on term limits," Hollander said. "I feel that Grassley has not been especially effective in the last decade-plus and has turned more obstructionist at this point."
Franken, meanwhile, has pitched himself as someone who could break the partisan tensions that have gripped Washington in recent years.
"I'm also running to dial down political tension to achieve these things," Franken told a crowd of about 600 at a state Democratic Party banquet in Des Moines last month.
Grassley faces a nominal Republican primary challenge in Jim Carlin, a state legislator and lawyer from Sioux City. Grassley has raised more in campaign contributions than Finkenauer and Franken combined in a state in which Republicans control the governorship, state legislature, both U.S. Senate seats, and three of the four U.S. House seats.
Grassley, from New Hartford in northern Iowa, was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980, after serving three terms in the U.S. House.
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