Who Was Endorsed in Iowa--Grassley or Trump?

If party stalwarts don't agree to salvage the Trump's reputation with Republican and Independent voters, the Former Guy can run, but he cannot hide

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On Saturday, Donald Trump spoke at an Iowa rally intended to kick off Senator Charles “Chuck” Grassley’s 2024 campaign. But was Trump there for Grassley—or was Grassley there for Trump?

Let me explain.

To call Grassley an incumbent candidate is an understatement: after 25 years in the Iowa State House, he won his first Congressional race from Iowa-3 in 1975. Grassley rode into the Senate by defeating one-term Democrat John Culver during the 1980 Reagan Revolution. He’s an important guy: in seven terms, Grassley has chaired the Judiciary Committee twice and the Finance Committee three times.

Unless a majority of Iowans become skeptical about whether a man who will be almost 90 when re-elected office and 95 at the end of his eight term can do the job, Grassley’s re-election is certain. He has a primary opponent, a Trumpier-than-thou Sioux City pol named Jim Carlin. According to Brianne Pfannenstiel and Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register, Carlin “has criticized Grassley for voting to certify the 2020 election and failing to further investigate Trump's unsubstantiated claims of fraud.”

So by endorsing Grassley, Trump pulls the rug out from under a member of a lunatic fringe he has cultivated and embraced as a candidate, as president, and as a sore loser. Moreover, Trump imagines that Grassley, who steered Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett through their Supreme Court hearings (Trump’s only real presidential accomplishment), will repeat that move in a potential Republican Senate. Because why settle for a majority when you can have the whole banana?

Yet Trump’s endorsements are…unevenly effective. While he doesn’t have a terrible record, Trump isn’t a kingmaker either, and his people are not good at weeding out the three or four people he didn’t endorse—but who claim to represent him all the same. As a sitting president, Trump endorsed 75 candidates in the 2018 midterms: 42, or 55%, won, a number that was lower than Bernie Sanders (70%), Barack Obama (60%), or Joe Biden (66%) that same year. In 2020, every Trump-endorsed congressional candidate won their primary— and 70% won their elections—but these were all people in safe Republican districts.

That number should be lower again in the 2022 midterms since the Trump base only turns out in large numbers when he is on the ballot. In special elections since 2020, the Trump-endorsed candidate has only won three out of five times.

Still, there has also been a dramatic move of—not just independents and conservative Democrats—but Republicans, away from Trump since 2020. As of October 2021, only 16% of Independents (who took him to victory in 2016 and defeat in 2020), 7% of Democrats, and 45% of Republicans say that their votes hinge on the Former Guy’s stamp of approval.

This last number is worth pausing on, since Trump may have located every voter he is ever going to have. It jives with new research from Pew that should also be disquieting to the denizens of Mar-a-Lago: only 44% of Republican voters want him to run for president again.

However, this is not a repudiation of Trumpism, something of which potential 2024 candidates like Ron DeSantis, Greg Abbot, and Josh Hawley (who you could collectively describe as conservative populists with education and political skills) are well aware. As Pew’s Amina Dunn writes:

About one-in-five Republicans (22%) say that while they would like Trump to continue to be a major political figure in the United States, they would prefer he use his stature to support another presidential candidate who shares his views in the 2024 election rather than run for office himself. About a third of Republicans (32%) say they would not like Trump to remain a national political figure for many years to come.

So why did Trump go to Iowa? First, everyone who wants to run for president, except for Joe Biden, goes to Iowa as much as possible.

More importantly, that 56% who want Trump to step away do not live in Iowa. It is one of the states in the union where he is robustly popular. In 2020, Trump won a 53.2% share of the vote in that state: his favorability among Iowa Republicans is 91%.

That said, with only six electoral votes, and a tarnished 2020 primary, being popular in Iowa has nothing to do with becoming president. That 56% would be a really big number in California (55 electoral votes), Texas (38), New York (29), Florida (29), and Pennsylvania (20). And 56% would be a super significant number when it comes to the aggregate 62 electoral votes controlled by Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Illinois.


So to return to my original question—what was Donald Trump doing in Iowa? He was there, not to endorse Chuck Grassley, but to have Grassley endorse him.

Granted, Grassley pretended that he was the one receiving a favor (although his actual words were pretty neutral.) GOP organizers orchestrated the night to demonstrate to Republicans—not in Iowa, but across the country—that Chuck Grassley, one of the most senior statesmen in the party, had changed his mind about Trump’s fitness for office.

According to the Des Moines Register, after January 6, Grassley was roundly critical of the soon to be ex-president as a figure capable of leading the GOP into the future::

"Right now, there's very little opportunity for him to lead the Republican Party," Grassley told reporters on Jan. 11.

In February, after Trump left office, Grassley voted against impeaching Trump on the charge of inciting an insurrection. But he said Trump displayed "poor leadership."

"As the leader of the nation, all presidents bear some responsibility for the actions that they inspire — good or bad," Grassley said in a statement at the time. "Undoubtedly, then-President Trump displayed poor leadership in his words and actions. I do not defend those actions and my vote should not be read as a defense of those actions."

So compare that to what Grassley said about Trump last Saturday night a little more than nine months after saying three times in one interview that the head of his party was a poor leader:

I was born at night but not last night. So if I didn't accept the endorsement of a person that's got 91 percent of the Republican voters in Iowa, I wouldn't be too smart. I'm smart enough to accept that endorsement.

Not exactly gushing, was it? But it was enough.

This episode also tells us something about how uncertain Trump’s 2024 nomination is, presuming that he still wants it. Trump’s people had to come to Grassley, not the other way around. The former president’s unpopularity with Republican voters is a problem, but so is his reputation as a thug, a liar, and a cheater. To get that 56%, he needs the people who he almost got killed on January 6 to publicly forgive him.

Next Trump appearance? Keep your eye on Chris Sununu, Governor of New Hampshire, who experts believe will run against Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan for that state’s Senate seat in 2022. But remember—the Sununus are Bushies. If Sununu’s people fend off a Trump endorsement, it is a vital sign for whether the party has one Trump—or numerous Trump imitators—in 2024.

Watch this space.

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Short takes:

  • Caroline Vakil at The Hill contributes to our Chuck Grassley Watch: the 88-year-old Republican Senator from Iowa gamely received an endorsement from the Former Guy last week. The question is: why was this endorsement organized? Trump’s endorsements can be borderline toxic. Grassley doesn’t need to be endorsed: elderly as he is, Grassley is an incumbent, and Iowa has not sent a Democrat to Washington in a decade. But if you guessed that this event wasn’t about Grassley but about Trump using the Senator’s popularity to plant the radioactive seeds of his own 2024 bid, you would be right. (October 9, 2024)

  • The worker shortage has created an opening for unions: so says Time reporter Alana Samuels. “In the first five days of October alone, there were ten strikes in the U.S., including workers at Kellogg plants in Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee,” Samuels writes; “school bus drivers in Annapolis, Md.; and janitors at the Denver airport. That doesn’t include the nearly 60,000 union members in film and television production who nearly unanimously voted to grant their union’s president the authority to call a strike.” (October 8, 2021)

  • What are the real effects on a community of having a national chain buy, and gut, your local newspaper? Elaine Godfrey has a beautiful story in The Atlantic about the demise of her hometown newspaper, the Burlington, Iowa Hawkeye. “By now, we know what happens when a community loses its newspaper,” Godfrey writes. “People tend to participate less often in municipal elections, and those elections are less competitive. Corruption goes unchecked, and costs sometimes go up for town governments. Disinformation becomes the norm, as people start to get their facts mainly from social media. But the decline of The Hawk Eye has also revealed a quieter, less quantifiable change.” (October 5, 2021)