DES MOINES, Iowa ― The election gods are fickle overlords, and no one knows that better than Patty Judge.
Things were shaping up for Iowa’s former lieutenant governor this year as she set out to challenge Republican Chuck Grassley, the six-term senator and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Grassley ― he of the burgundy sweater vests and cranky tweets about the History Channel ― is Congress’ most famous curmudgeon. His dyspeptic reputation reached new “get-off-my-lawn” lows when he stubbornly refused to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s most recent Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, even though Garland is the lime-flavored La Croix of Supreme Court nominees: bland and inoffensive to most, and therefore palatable to a wide audience.
“The moment that really pushed me over the edge was when Chuck came out here and told us that he was not holding the hearings for us, that he was doing it for us,” Judge recalled. “That was enough. Time to stop that.”
After Judge declared her candidacy on March 4, it appeared, at least for a fleeting moment, that the Democrats might be one seat closer to retaking the Senate. The New York Times called her a “formidable” challenger, which is about as emotional as the Times gets about anything.
In a normal election year, the Supreme Court’s unprecedented staffing issue, and Grassley’s role in preventing Garland from getting a hearing, would be the most-discussed aspect of this race. But that has been rendered a mere afterthought thanks to a Republican presidential nominee whose love of gold trim and threatening his opponents with extrajudicial vengeance is reminiscent of a Soviet bloc leader. Donald Trump’s bluster drowned out the uproar over Garland’s nomination, and Iowa’s disproportionately white electorate has taken to the reality star’s message more than voters in other, more diverse, swing states.
Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were locked in a statistical tie among Hawkeye State voters on Thursday, and Grassley commanded an impressive 14-point lead over Judge, according to HuffPost Pollster’s averages.
It’s easy to see why Iowa Democrats thought Judge would be a good fit to replace Grassley, who has remained a popular figure in Iowa during most of his tenure. Like Grassley, Judge exudes a mixture of grandparent-ly gentleness and sharp-elbowed political know-how.
This became apparent as we sat down for lunch at a brewpub in Des Moines in August. Things took a distinctly Iowan turn as Judge pointed to the menu and wondered aloud whether the ham ball appetizer could compare with her own recipe. Sensing an opening, I broached a shamefully flimsy, “Tell me something people don’t know about you?” line of questioning, hoping to elicit some more color of the ham-ball variety. Judge looked up from her menu to reply with complete sincerity that she wasn’t sure how to answer that, as her “name recognition is quite good here.”
“I don’t see Chuck Grassley working for any of the issues that are on the front of people’s minds,” she said a bit later as our waitress appeared with an order of fried cheese curds. Grassley, she said, “has become a preacher” for the far right.
Iowa Democratic Party officials, nervous over the crop of comparatively unknown primary candidates at the beginning of this year, urged Judge to get into the race. She ticked off all the boxes: In addition to her stint as lieutenant governor from 2007 to 2011, she served in Iowa’s state Senate and was the state’s secretary of agriculture from 1999 to 2007. She owns a cattle farm with her husband. She is a former nurse. She’s a grandmother. She wears mock turtlenecks. She asks about your family. It’s hard not to like Patty Judge.
While Grassley’s stonewalling of Garland’s nomination has been a major focal point (”FORTUNATELY, THERE’S ONE JUDGE GRASSLEY CAN’T IGNORE,” declared one pro-Judge ad) of the campaign, an even more critical part has centered around presenting Judge as a palatable alternative to an electorate accustomed to Grassley.
What resulted has been a kind of aggressively earnest arms race, with each side trying to one-up the other’s corn-fed relatability. In Judge’s first television ad, she stands behind a cardboard cutout of Grassley, touting her Iowa roots and attacking her opponent’s judicial obstruction. Images of the candidate speaking to farmers in front of John Deere equipment flash across the screen.
Not to be outdone, Grassley’s first ad featured a honey-voiced narrator describing the senator’s deep ties to the state, replete with images of corn fields, small-town main streets and Grassley mowing his lawn. This was capped off by the narrator declaring that Grassley can “find every Dairy Queen in Iowa.”
As if things weren’t painfully Midwestern enough, the Judge campaign posted a video late last month featuring former “Prairie Home Companion” host Garrison Keillor challenging Grassley to attend a “Dairy Queen” debate with Judge. At the video’s conclusion, Keillor offers to “stand the expense of two banana splits.”
After my lunch with Judge, we hopped in her new Chrysler 300 (”the Judges don’t buy cars every year,” she made a point of noting, adding that it’s “an American-made car”) and spent the day touring arms and agricultural facilities in the greater Des Moines area. It wasn’t entirely clear if the trip was actually a fact-finding jaunt, or a chance to show a Huffington Post reporter how engaged Judge is with Iowa’s crucial agricultural sector. It did provide the candidate a chance to nod intently at people discussing crop yields and appear unfazed when a tornado formed several miles away from a University of Iowa research facility we visited.
But for all of Judge’s warmth, political expertise and ability to not appear bored as a know-nothing reporter from out East got an introductory lecture on combines, Grassley has maintained a double-digit lead. The Judge campaign is hopeful that it can tie Trump’s history of alleged sexual abuse and harassment to Grassley’s continued support for the GOP nominee. The development has garnered attention in the local press, but just as Trump has a scant amount of time to regain the ground he’s lost in the polls in recent weeks, Judge’s chances of pulling ahead grow fainter by the day.
“Chuck Grassley’s refusal to condemn Donald Trump’s candidacy following the revelation of Trump’s disgusting statements about sexual assault is pathetic,” Judge said in a press release. The Grassley campaign, which didn’t respond to a request for comment for this piece, has tried to downplay the issue.
“You stop to think, there’s only a few saints who have been president of the United States,” Grassley told a group of reporters in Iowa this week. Grassley added that he found Trump’s remarks “deplorable,” but added that he is “focusing on my re-election.”
The taint of Trump’s candidacy might have sunk a lesser candidate. But Grassley is both an institution and a familiar face in Iowa ― he makes a point of making an annual visit to every county in the state, and he may very well know the locations of all those Dairy Queens. And it would appear that Trump has had the salubrious effect for Grassley of keeping the Garland nomination off the front page. Trump has sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and not just because of those great gulping nasal sniffs of his.