The Grassley Legacy
A behind-the-scenes look at a place and a person of power
This newsletter is an addendum to a profile I wrote for Vanity Fair. The profile highlighted Grassley’s ties to extremism and traced his exhaustive history. But I had to leave some things on the cutting room floor. If Republicans win the Senate in 2024, Grassley will be the most senior member of the party and president pro tempore of the Senate. Grassley is often under-scrutinized and underestimated.
Everyone in town remembers when New Hartford was a lot bigger. Back when there was a drug store, three grocery stores, a theater, and a hotel. They used to have their own elementary and high school. That was all before consolidation. The theater, the hotel, the grocery stores are all gone. Now, there is only a library, a bar, and a hardware store. And if you want lunch, you should probably go to the Casey’s gas station.
It’s this town where an Iowa political dynasty was born. New Hartford is the hometown of Charles Ernest Grassley, Iowa’s longest-serving senator and the second-oldest senator in the United States. It’s also the home of Pat Grassley, Senator Grassley’s grandson, who is currently the leader of the Iowa Senate. And the political legacy of the family is, much like Iowa, under-scrutinized and underestimated, but deeply powerful.
Grassley’s rise to power in the 1980s closely mirrors the rise of the new right of the Republican party. And Grassley’s current uncomfortable embrace of Trumpism during yet another election in a midterm year of pandemic and looming war will show what it takes to keep hold of power in America. Even if it’s just stagnation. But even stagnation has its downsides, and the mold is growing. In 2022, Grassley, a wildly popular senator, is now polling at the lowest he’s ever been since early in his career when he had no name recognition. In an interview in January with pollster Ann Selzer, she said that Grassley is currently polling at 45% approval rating among Iowans, a drop of 13 points since 2019, with a 41% disapproval rating. Selzer clarified that Grassley was polling at 71% approval with Republicans and Sen. Joni Ernst, the junior Republican senator, was currently polling at 80% among Republicans.
In contrast, Selzer pointed out that in 2009, Grassley had a jaw-dropping approval rating of 75% over all, and 86% among Republicans and 75% among Democrats.
The decline, Selzer’s polling indicates, is the disapproval among Democrats of Grassley’s support of Donald Trump. And among Republicans, a belief that he’s not conservative enough. It’s a complicated political dance, one that Grassley himself used to his advantage in 1980 during his Senate run, painting his opponent in the primary as not Republican enough and courting the right-wing radicals of the party. But those same elements are growing at least marginally dissatisfied with the senator. In 2021, a Selzer poll showed that the majority of Iowans, including a third of Republicans, hoped Grassley would retire. But at 88, Grassley announced he’d run again.