Civic Skinny

Could Grassley Lose? Yes. Is Frew a ‘savior?’ Yes.

Chuck Grassley is in trouble. Here’s why he could lose his bid for a sixth term in the Senate:

First, he will have a strong opponent. It’s becoming clear that Roxanne Conlin will run against him, a possibility first reported here six weeks ago. She’s smart, she’s glib, she’s rich, she’s experienced. She has long bemoaned the fact that Iowa has never sent a woman to Washington — which will add zest to her quest.

Second, he is wearing out his welcome. Grassley was first elected to the Iowa House of Representatives in 1959, and he has been in elective office continuously for 50 years — in the Legislature, the House of Representatives and, since 1980, the United States Senate. He has always been immensely popular, for reasons that confound Democratic pros who say he’s far more conservative than Iowa voters realize. (By one measure, he’s the 11th most conservative Senator.) His first election to the U.S. House in 1974 was close — he got just 50.8 percent of the vote in beating Steve Rapp — but it’s been a walk ever since. In 1980, he handily unseated Democratic Senator John Culver with 53.5 percent of the vote, and he got at least 66 percent of the vote in his next four elections to the Senate. Six years ago, he was re-elected with 70.1 percent of the votes. But his approval rating is plummeting. A new SurveyUSA poll, taken last week, put his approval rating at just 50 percent and his disapproval rating at 40 percent. That’s shocking. At the beginning of the year, the numbers were 71 and 22. The Des Moines Register’s Iowa Poll shows a similar trend. His decline has accelerated in the past few months as he has been in the national news because of his role in the health-care debate and as he has blurted out things that range from the wacky to the bizarre.

Third, he’s old. He turned 76 last month, and his age is showing. For years, his stammering, aw-shucks manner was a political asset — believed in Washington to hide a shrewd political mind and used in Iowa to prove he was just one of us. But now he seems out of touch both in Iowa and in Washington. Constituents who bring issues to him say he doesn’t seem to grasp them very well. And the national press has come to view him as a dodderer, not a doer.

Fourth, the state’s political makeup is changing. Registration in Iowa was historically split evenly among the Republicans, the Democrats and Independents. But it has shifted, and now there are 702,369 independents, 682,964 Democrats and 577,517 Republicans. Barack Obama is responsible for much of that, but the Iowa Republican Party apparatus was taken over by zealots who seem to prefer ideological purity over electoral victory, driving away the impure. Moderates — folks like Bob Ray and Art Neu and Steve Roberts and David Oman — don’t seem to be welcome.

If Conlin runs — she’s said to be clearing the desks and the decks in her lucrative law practice for a late-October announcement — she’ll get enormous support from outside the state. She was the first female president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, she founded the Iowa Women’s Political Caucus, and she has fought in the civil-rights trenches. She has given tons of money to other candidates — more than $200,000 to federal candidates in the last five election cycles, and that doesn’t count giving from her husband, real-estate businessman James. She also did a stint as chair of the Democratic Party in Iowa, and in 2004 and 2008 she chaired the Iowa presidential campaign of fellow trial lawyer John Edwards. Trial lawyers, women, candidates in her debt all will rush to support her. She’ll need it, of course, for Grassley is sitting on a pile of money. He had $3,839,599 in the kitty as of June 30, and he probably raised another ton in the past quarter.

The negatives: Although she won a three-way primary for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1982, she has never won a state- wide political election. She lost that 1982 race to Terry Branstad, who got about 53 percent of the vote and was elected to the first of his four terms as governor. She was hurt by the disclosure that although she and her husband were rich they had paid no state income taxes in 1981 because of their use of tax shelters — though she had criticized tax shelters in the campaign. She turned 65 years old in June, a bit late to be starting a national political career, but that’s offset by the age of Grassley.

At any rate, if Conlin runs — and insiders in Iowa and Washington now say she’s the mystery candidate state chair Michael Kiernan is promising — she’ll give Grassley the toughest race he’s had since 1974 and could well send him back to the farm....

That new SurveyUSA poll continues the bad news for Culver. Though it’s a bit better than the August poll, it still has him deep in negative territory, with an approval rate of just 41 percent and disapproval rating of 49 percent. That comes on top of the recent Rasmussen poll showing he’d lose a re-election bid by 20 points if the Republicans nominate Branstad and nearly five points if they go with the ideologues’ poster boy, Bob Vander Plaats.

Culver needs help, but he’s getting it. New chief of staff John Frew started last week, and he’s getting rave reviews. “Praise the Lord, we have a savior,” said one appointed official. And an old hand who runs a department says, “Finally, a guy who knows what he’s doing.” Frew met with top people in the government, and the meeting was said to be frank and open. He acknowledged the mess in the governor’s office, say three people who talked to Skinny, and he promised calls would be returned, information would be shared and meetings would be held. Those would be firsts for the Culver administration, which is well into its third year in office.

The new chief has a plateful of problems, the most serious being the deteriorating state economy, something the Culver people simply won’t talk about out loud — or maybe even in whispers. On Thursday, the Legislative Services Agency reported state revenues are running far worse than expected. For the first quarter, net revenue was down 9.1 percent from a year before; if you project that out, it puts fiscal 2010 revenue down $523 million from a year earlier — and that’s about a half-a-billion more than the projectors projected last March. The Revenue Estimating Conference meets again this week, and surely they’ll come out with a glum report. It’s inevitable that the governor will put in an across-the-board cut soon — smart agency heads are already figuring out where they can cut 5 percent of their budget — but that’s just a Band-Aid. Fiscal 2011’s budget will need a tourniquet. The gap between expected revenue and expected expenses could be as much as $1.5 billion — in a budget of between $5 billion and $6 billion. The cuts will be brutal for the universities and community colleges, especially, but no one will escape the ax. The governor’s numbers guy, Dick Oshlo, again last week tried to put a pretty face on things by saying how gross revenue was down just 5.4 percent for the quarter — but net revenue is the number to watch. Like it or not, the state has to give the people their tax refunds — which is the number that reduces gross revenue to net revenue.

Otherwise, it’s called stealing. CV

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