Commentary

Will Trump’s Iowa visit help or hurt Chuck Grassley? Do you think Trump cares?

October 31, 2022 8:00 am

Former President Donald Trump smiles as Sen Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks during a rally at the Iowa State Fairgrounds on Oct. 9, 2021 in Des Moines, Iowa. Trump endorsed Grassley for reelection at the event. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The news that former President Donald Trump will hold a rally in Iowa amid a list of battleground states in the week before the midterm elections inspired puzzled concern from some and glee from others.

The gleeful weren’t all Republicans, and those expressing anxiety weren’t all Democrats.

There have been a lot of questions:

Does the GOP think Sen. Chuck Grassley is in trouble?

Trump endorsed Grassley more than a year ago, likely assuming his reelection was a sure thing. But the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll released two weeks ago showed Grassley running only 3 percentage points ahead of Mike Franken, with independents drifting toward the Democrat. The same poll showed Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds with a comfortable, 17-point lead over her Democratic challenger, Deidre DeJear.

Grassley’s popularity is at a record low in the poll, along with his job-approval rating. Six in 10 likely Iowa voters say his age, 89, is a concern. Franken’s campaign brought in more than double the dollars Grassley raised in the third quarter. Two top national political analysts downgraded their ratings in the race from “safe” or “solid” Republican to “likely Republican.”

So there are plenty of reasons to suggest Grassley might need some star power to help him over the finish line, even though most analysts still think he’ll win. But is Trump more likely to save Grassley or sink him?

If Grassley’s in trouble, can Trump help?

Trump won Iowa by 8 percentage points over Biden in 2020, and he remains popular among Republicans in Iowa. He’s certain to attract a huge, passionate crowd, which seems like a plus for encouraging GOP voter turnout.

But Trump also presents serious risks for any candidate hoping to harness that energy. His baggage could fill a terminal at the Des Moines airport, from the classified White House documents seized from his Florida home to the chilling accounts presented by the Jan. 6 select panel of his actions to stir up an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and then his hours-long refusal to do anything to stop it.

Grassley’s pivotal role in stealing a Supreme Court appointment from former President Barack Obama and helping Trump stack the courts with conservatives will be a plus for the MAGA crowd. But it may give pause to some former supporters who are now squeamish about the prospect of draconian state abortion bans that pose serious risks to the lives and health of pregnant women and girls.

Trump’s popularity in Iowa was at a peak when he endorsed Grassley last October. Now, however, it’s in the tank. According to the Register’s poll, 61% of Iowans now have an unfavorable view of the former president, with only 37% holding a favorable view. While Republicans still like the former president, 57% of independents have an unfavorable view of him.

That’s bad news for Grassley, who had the support of only 35% of independents in the October Iowa Poll. Franken had the support of 46% of no-party voters.

Then there’s Trump’s volatility. No one can predict what he’ll actually say during his rally or how his supporters will react. Will he ignore the deeply disturbing attack on the husband of one of his favorite targets, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi? Or will he crow over it? Will there be more outbreaks of violence that has accompanied some past Trump rallies? Will he stir up more election disinformation? Will the crowd boo Grassley, who voted to certify President Joe Biden’s election?

As much as Trump can help by goosing turnout in deep red northwest Iowa, his presence is a wild card that would give the heebie-jeebies to any candidate in a close race.

Why Sioux City?

If Trump is here to push Iowa Republicans over the top, why hold the rally in the least-competitive congressional district in the state?

We don’t know where things stand in all of the congressional races because of a lack of public polling. But it’s safe to say that Republican Rep. Randy Feenstra, who represents western Iowa in the 4th District, has nothing to worry about. There are three other races, especially in Iowa’s 3rd District, that are more competitive.

Grassley, if he’s in a close race, does need to maximize turnout in the 4th District. But that doesn’t necessarily help Zach Nunn, a Republican congressional candidate with what analysts say is a better-than-even chance to unseat Iowa’s lone Democratic member of Congress, Cindy Axne.

Sioux City makes sense, however, if the goal is to make Trump look popular. He can draw supporters not only from Iowa but from South Dakota and Nebraska.

It’s all about Trump

Questions about whether Trump’s visit is good or bad for Grassley and other Iowa candidates are  beside the point.  He’s coming for the benefit of one person only: Donald Trump.

Trump lives for polls, and he’d never want a dismal showing like the recent Register poll to go unchallenged. With 83% of Republicans still viewing him favorably, he still has an enthusiastic audience.

And as one astute Iowa Republican political observer remarked last week, this may not be Trump’s last visit to Iowa before the midterms so much as his first visit of the 2024 caucus season.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.

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