Chuck Grassley is the 80-something everyone’s waiting on

Source: By BURGESS EVERETT, Politico • Posted: Tuesday, May 11, 2021

If Iowa’s incumbent senator runs for reelection in 2022, the seat is safe for Republicans. If he retires, they’ll have a battle on their hands.

Chuck Grassley

OSSIAN, Iowa — Chuck Grassley still gets up at 4 a.m. every day and often goes for a 2-mile run. The 87-year-old does push-ups, too.

“You want me to do 35 for you?” he responded when asked about his regimen as he waited for a burger at Bambino’s, a haunt in this town of about 800 people.

The challenge sounds like something out of the classic “Seinfeld” episode in which the elderly Mandelbaum family taunts Jerry to prove his physical prowess. But Grassley’s longevity is no joke. It could be the ticket to an eighth term in the Senate — and change the midterm landscape.

If Grassley does seek reelection, Republicans and many Democrats concede the seat is essentially safe. If he doesn’t, the GOP’s road to the majority gets that much harder.

The most senior GOP senator says he’ll deliberate until the fall. He’s a conservative who can work with Democrats on a handful of issues, like criminal justice reform and drug prices, while executing brutal partisan power plays to fill the federal bench with conservatives. He’s held public office since 1959 and served in the Senate since 1981, including two years in the presidential line of succession.

Any Republican could retire and be proud of that kind of career. But Grassley might not be ready to call it quits.

“Listen, there’s nothing I see that’s going to keep me from serving another six years if I decide to do it,” he says during a swing through northeast Iowa as part of his annual 99 County Tour. “I just work from day to day. God will take care of tomorrow.”

And after five GOP retirements this cycle, Grassley is under pressure to save his party from defending yet another open seat as it labors to retake the majority.

“He’s getting a lot of encouragement,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “He is the best path we have to keep the seat in Republican hands and take it off the map.”

Chuck Grassley

Raw electoral politics aside, there’s a more delicate topic. He would be 95 at the end of an eighth term. He’s one of three 87-year-olds in the Senate and the second-eldest overall: Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) won reelection in 2018 while Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is retiring next year.

Senators in both parties say Grassley is sharp as a ginsu knife and his health appears impeccable. He dismisses questions about his age or aptitude, either with a push-up challenge — which makes doubters look silly — or a defense of his record. No whispered questions about acuity follow him, the way they have Feinstein or the late Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

Still, there’s some consternation in Iowa over whether it’s time to pass the torch.

“The general feeling of probably the public, on maybe both sides, is that he should retire. That age will be a factor down the road,” said Ardie Kuhse, a longtime supporter back home who runs the Waukon Economic Development Corporation. But she disagrees: “As long as he can and will, I think he is able. That’s how I feel.”

As he mulls reelection, Grassley maintains his rigorous schedule and a lane open to run. He’s tight-lipped about the checkered legacy of former President Donald Trump, whom he has spoken with twice since Trump left office.

Asked if he finds Trump personally responsible for the Capitol riot, he refers to a statement he put out on Jan. 6. He said that Trump’s presidency started off difficult for him, “but seeing his success later on, I think that I’d have to say that I misjudged.”

Still, Trump’s popularity in Iowa complicated Grassley’s vaunted independent streak. He wrote a bill to protect special counsel Robert Mueller from the then-president, but also used hardline tactics as Judiciary Committee chair to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and stiff-arm Democrats on judicial nominees.

His unconventional moves aside, Grassley’s a political pro, toeing the line between establishment Republicans and Trump-era hardliners. He says there were some irregularities in the 2020 election but Biden is the legitimate president. And though he never seriously contemplated challenging Biden’s win, he says his colleagues had every right to do so.

While he wants Iowa’s famous first-in-the-nation presidential caucus to be wide open in 2024, he doesn’t say his party should move on from Trump: “If he runs in 2024, nobody can do anything about that.”

To many, Grassley sounds like he’s a candidate-in-waiting.