In 2014, Bruce Braley, a trial lawyer Democrat from Grinnell, Iowa, learned the hard way not to underestimate the senator’s support. Braley ran against Joni Ernst for Iowa’s open Senate seat after Democrat Tom Harkin’s retirement in 2014. His campaign was a failure for many reasons —my colleague Molly Ball called it a “comedy of errors”—but Braley will be forever haunted by the remarks he made about Grassley during a speech to several out-of-state campaign donors. Braley said Grassley was unfit to serve as the chairman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, because he’s “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” He subsequently lost to Ernst by 8.5 points, and 45 percent of Iowans pointed to the “farmer” remark as his biggest mistake.
Grassley isn’t going to change his mind about Garland just because Democrats are demanding it. Rather, Grassley is going to stand firm, because he’s much more afraid of taking heat from his fellow Republicans.
In 2008, an election year with another “lame-duck” president, Grassley argued against delays in the consideration of George W. Bush’s nominees. (“The reality is that the Senate has never stopped confirming judicial nominees during the last few months of a president’s term,” Grassley said then.) But this time around, he can’t operate on those same principles. “As long as the party is going to fight, that’s [Grassley’s] job as the committee chair,” Peterson said. “It’s hard to guess what his real preferences are when he’s got to take this strategic position.”
In 2009, he was part of the “Gang of Six” senators engaging in bipartisan discussions on healthcare reform. But he faced criticism for his efforts to reach across the aisle from other Republicans—both in the Senate and back home in Iowa. It was an election year, and he apparently decided he couldn’t afford to be seen working with Democrats under the new Obama administration. By August, Grassley was telling constituents, “We should not have a government program that determines if you’re going to pull the plug on grandma.” In December, Grassley voted against the Affordable Care Act altogether.
He got a lot of flack from Democrats for the decision, and his approval ratings dropped to 54 percent in Iowa, not an objectively bad result, but the lowest of his career. But when November rolled around, Grassley easily hung on to his seat, with 64 percent of the vote.
Democrats could interpret this as Grassley buckling under pressure, but it seems more likely that the senator has learned that choosing party loyalty over bipartisanship turns out better in the long run.
And for the most part, that approach seems to have worked for him. A Des Moines Register poll taken from February 21 to 24, a week after Grassley announced he wasn’t interested in holding hearings for any nominee for the Court, shows his approval rating at a solid 57 percent, with just 28 percent of Iowans saying they disapproved of him. It’s not Grassley’s highest rating, but it’s well within his normal range.