The U.S. Census and Chuck Grassley may do something a controversial elections bill at the Statehouse was supposed to achieve but almost certainly will not: shorten the next campaign.
Some Republicans who spoke in support of the sweeping elections bill that passed this week said one of its most controversial sections — a reduction of the state’s early voting period — was necessary to reduce the time political campaigns and organizations spend bugging voters to cast their ballot.
If you believe shortening the early voting period by nine days will reduce the amount of phone calls, text messages, mailed literature, and campaign ads that Iowans see and hear, let me know and I’ll give you my Venmo account; I have a perfect investment opportunity for you.
However, help may be on the way after all, because Grassley and the Census may inadvertently shorten at least one election cycle here in Iowa.
Let’s start with the Census. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a significant delay in the release of new population data. That creates a unique challenge in another decennial process: the redrawing of political boundaries.
The Census Bureau says it probably will be this fall before the new data is available.
That means the new boundaries can’t be redrawn until this fall, and that could have a big impact on 2022 campaigns. It’s tough to decide whether to run for office when you don’t even know what district you’re in. That could force some potential candidates to hold off on a decision until late this year, later than they normally would — especially for federal races that require significant fundraising.
Chuck Grassley doesn’t have to worry about redistricting. The Census data will change many things, but Iowa’s borders is not among them.
However, Grassley appears to be comfortable taking his time making a decision on whether to run for an eighth, six-year term in the Senate. This week, the longtime Republican senator told Iowa reporters he may not make his decision until this fall.
That puts a big pin in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, which will look very different depending on whether Grassley is running. If he runs for re-election, Grassley will be exceptionally difficult to defeat. His most recent re-election win was not by as big a margin as previous campaigns. But Grassley, who is 87 years old, has been undefeated in Iowa elections since Marilyn Monroe was making movies.
If Grassley doesn’t run, the race would change dramatically — which is an understatement. An open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa is rare and would be hotly contested; it would be the first open seat since 2014 when Tom Harkin retired, and only the second such occurrence in nearly 40 years.
By taking his time, Grassley is also delaying the de facto start of a Republican primary. If Grassley does run for re-election, the likelihood of falling victim to a primary challenge is about as likely as Casey’s ditching its breakfast pizza. If Grassley retires, multiple Iowa Republicans would jump at the opportunity to run.
The longer Grassley waits to make a decision, the less time that leaves for a competitive primary.
His wait could also affect the Democratic primary. As noted, running for an open seat is a lot different than trying to unseat Grassley. Given the potential he might not run, Democratic candidates may well be waiting in the weeds. And if Grassley doesn’t run, they’ll pounce. But the longer Grassley waits, they have to lie in wait, shortening any primary.
In the meantime, we are left to wait: for Census data and for Grassley’s decision.
— Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.