Former Rep. Abby Finkenauer launched a Senate bid in Iowa on Thursday, becoming the highest-profile Democrat to jump into the race in an bid to reverse the party’s struggles in statewide elections over the past decade.
Finkenauer, 32, flipped a House seat in 2018 before losing last November after just one term. She’s now aiming to take on GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, the longest currently-serving Republican senator, who is still deciding whether to seek an eighth term in the chamber.
Iowa has been challenging for Democrats recently after a long history as a swing state. It was one of the most expensive Senate contests in the country last year, but after appearing close for the majority of the election, GOP Sen. Joni Ernst easily defeated Democrat Theresa Greenfield, and now-President Joe Biden lost the state handily.
Finkenauer will have to convince national Democrats that Iowa is worth investing in after the 2020 loss and persuade Democratic voters that she’s the best candidate coming off her defeat to now-GOP Rep. Ashley Hinson.
In an interview, Finkenauer touted her record during her term in the House, including being the youngest woman to ever sponsor a bill that passed the chamber shortly after she took office. She cited the circumstances of the pandemic and outside money spent in her race for the loss, though she also pointed out that she outpaced the top of the ticket in November.
"It’s going to be even more important that we speak the truth, we speak it louder, we get out there in front of folks in a way that we just weren't able to in 2020,” Finkenauer said.
She criticized Grassley for his record, saying in particular that votes on taxes and health care since his last reelection would be part of her campaign against him.
“He was somebody I used to look up to and believed would actually move things forward. I wouldn't agree with him on everything and Democrats didn't … ” Finkenauer said, citing the decades when Grassley served alongside Democratic then-Sen. Tom Harkin. “Unfortunately, with his votes lately he's really left us behind."
Though Grassley will be 89 years old on Election Day, Republicans are optimistic he will seek another term. Most Republicans don’t think the race will be competitive if he runs again, since Grassley has won each reelection bid with more than 60 percent of the vote. Democrats haven’t won a Senate race in Iowa since Harkin's last victory in 2008.
“Listen, there’s nothing I see that’s going to keep me from serving another six years if I decide to do it,” Grassley told POLITICO earlier this year.
Republicans responded to Finkenauer's bid by comparing her to the most liberal members of her party and pointing to her loss last year after just a single term. Katharine Cooksey, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said "it’s not surprising Iowans fired her just last year."
“Today, Abby signed up to become a two-time loser," Cooksey said.
Several Democrats, including state Auditor Rob Sand and former congressional candidate J.D. Scholten, already passed on running. But Finkenauer will likely still face a primary. Retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken, who lost the 2020 Senate primary, is considering another bid for Senate. Rep. Cindy Axne, the only Democrat left in the congressional delegation, hasn't ruled out running statewide. Dave Muhlbauer, a farmer and former county supervisor, was the first Democrat in the race.
If Finkenauer becomes Democrats’ nominee and Grassley runs again, it will provide a stark generational gap in candidates. Finkenauer said in the interview her argument wasn’t about age but about delivering for the state.
She said she’s not “blanket for anything and everything that's in a Biden agenda,” saying that wasn’t how she operated in the House during the Trump administration. But she did tout some early Democratic successes, in particular the passage of the child tax credit in the Covid relief legislation.
“There's so much here that our senators, in particular, and the Republicans that represent Iowa on the federal level have voted against. And all the investments that are going to come into our communities that are going to move us forward, they voted against," she said. “They're not standing for anything right now."
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