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Democrat Mike Franken has two months to beat the odds in his bid against Sen. Chuck Grassley

Clay Masters
IPR News
Retired Navy Admiral and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken walks with his wife along vendors at the Cedar Valley Pride Fest in Waterloo, Iowa on Saturday, August 27, 2022.

Retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken is on the ballot this November running as the Democrat to unseat long-time Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley. Polls have shown Grassley more vulnerable this election than he’s been in the past but the seven-term senator is still favored to win. Franken is keeping a busy campaign schedule as he works to drum up momentum and beat the odds.

Dozens of hungry people walk amongst vendors at the ¡Viva Perry! Latino Festival at Pattee Park in Perry on Saturday. It’s just before lunch and the aroma of pupusas and tacos fills the air as organizers set up a stage for a full day of singing, dancing and other activities.

Clay Masters
IPR News
Retired Navy Admiral and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken talks with attendees of the Viva Perry festival in Perry, Iowa on August 27, 2022.

Retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken mingles with some of the festival attendees. He’s wearing blue jeans, a dress shirt, a tie and a blue ball cap with NAVY scrawled across it in bright yellow. Franken’s wife and two of his staff members are traveling with him. Some people recognize the politician but he’s also still introducing himself.

“I would very much like to ensure that I am representative of your community here,” Franken said to a group of women while his communication director translates his English into Spanish.

Antonio Sanchez introduces himself to Franken and they talk briefly. Sanchez owns El Rey Market, Restaurant & Guns in Perry. He says he’d like to see Congress enforce stricter gun laws and reform immigration. While Sanchez doesn’t like to talk about politics, he says politicians are not thinking with their senses.

“I knew there was racism around this country,” Sanchez said. “I just didn't think it was that bad. I'm seeing them a little bit more ever since [Former President] Trump got into office.”

The Latino festival was his second stop of the day after a morning coffee with residents of Nevada, Iowa on a day that would find him holding a rally in Sen. Grassley’s hometown of New Hartford.

A Democrat faces some major headwinds taking on a longtime Republican Senator in 2022

The latest Iowa Poll published in the Des Moines Register in July showed Grassley leading Franken by 8 points. While it’s a sizable lead, it’s a narrower margin than in any Iowa Poll involving Grassley since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980.

While Franken raised more money in the last fundraising period, Grassley holds the lead in cash on hand, with more than $4 million in the bank. Franken has about $1.1 million.

Dallas County Farmer Warren Varley was volunteering at the Democratic booth at the Latino Festival in Perry on Saturday. He was eager to talk with Franken when he stopped by. Varley has run for a statehouse seat and thinks Franken is a great candidate but is cautiously optimistic.

“I’ve been through so many election cycles where Democrats were doing well in September and come November, things have fallen apart,” Varley said. “Particularly right now with the economy so volatile.”

Iowa has been trending Republican over the last ten years and the party in power at the White House traditionally doesn’t do well in a midterm election.

Clay Masters
IPR News
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken stops to take a picture with Cedar Valley Pride attendees in Waterloo, Iowa on August 27, 2022.

Franken says public opinion is on his side

Franken applauds President Joe Biden for signing the Inflation Reduction Act earlier this month and is pleased Democrats got something passed in Congress.

“I think our generation and the next will thank [President] Biden, the Senate and the House because it lays out a groundswell of support for a more electrified society,” Franken told IPR while he rode in a van between the Perry stop and a private fundraiser in Boone. “Like most bills, it's not perfect. But in my in my view, it's a lot better than nothing.”

Franken also points to Kansas’s recent rejection of a proposed state constitutional amendment earlier this month that would have said there was no right to an abortion in the state. He thinks Iowa voters would also reject a similar constitutional amendment.

“Nobody wants a freedom of choice taken away from and that's what … the Republicans have done,” Franken said. “Let's face it, [it’s] the most partisan Supreme Court in the history of America going back to the 1930s.”

Franken predicts marriage equality could be the next issue before the court. His fourth stop on Saturday happened to be at the Cedar Valley Pride fest in Waterloo where he met with voters and introduced himself to others.

Lee Hood stopped Franken at the festival and asked him if he supported ending the filibuster because he sees it as a “vestige of slavery that needs to go.”

“He said it was high time for it to go,” Hood told IPR. “I said it's long past time for it to go. He's got my vote for sure.”

Taking on the ‘institution’ of Chuck Grassley and pulling a move from his playbook

Franken’s final stop on Saturday was for an event in Chuck Grassley’s hometown of New Hartford. The campaign had to move the gathering of around 100 people indoors to a church because a storm was moving in.

“Regarding the rain outside ... Hell hath no fury than a Republican town with a Democrat in it,” Franken said as the crowd in the United Methodist Church hall laughed and applauded.

Clay Masters
IPR News
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Mike Franken speaks to a crowd of supporters at the United Methodist Church in his Republican opponent U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley's hometown of New Hartford, Iowa on August 27, 2022.

Franken was pulling a move from his opponent’s playbook. Grassley regularly touts hitting all 99 counties every year. In New Hartford, Franken celebrated the end of a 99-county tour of his own.

“Everybody believes that Chuck Grassley is an institution and nobody's going to beat him,” said Democratic state Sen. Bill Dotzler who was in the crowd Saturday night. “I lived here in New Hartford and I haven't seen crowds like this.”

Franken may shadow the moves of his opponent but he’s still facing a 40-year incumbent with more money in the bank. Voters can start requesting absentee ballots on Tuesday and will get a chance to see Sen. Grassley and Mike Franken debate on statewide Iowa PBS on Thursday, October 6, 2022.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.