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Grassley and Franken had just one Senate debate. There was not much time and a lot to cover.

Iowa PBS Pool Photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
Iowa PBS hosted a debate for Iowa's U.S. Senate seat with retired Navy admiral Mike Franken, D-Sioux City, and U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-New Hartford, Thursday at the Maytag Auditorium at Iowa PBS studios in Johnston.

Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has to fend off his Democratic challenger Mike Franken before he can serve an eighth term in the United States Senate. Voters in Iowa and across the country are seeing fewer U.S. Senate debates this midterm election. Grassley and Franken debated for one hour on Thursday night in Johnston.

Iowa is part of a larger trend of fewer debates altogether nationwide this midterm election. Wisconsin, Arizona, Pennsylvania and Georgia all have competitive U.S. Senate races and voters will only get to see one debate. That’s also the case in Iowa where the state’s 89-year-old Republican U.S. senator faced his 64-year-old Democratic retired Navy admiral opponent in a one hour debate in an empty auditorium at Iowa PBS’s Johnston studios.

It’s hard to fit a lot of issues in one single debate

There were a lot of issues for the moderators to address in this only chance for voters to see Franken and Grassley together and not in attack ads.

“I wish you wouldn’t interrupt me,” Grassley said to Iowa Press moderator Kay Henderson at one point, taking issue with the pace of questions. “I wanted to do time limits… You wanted free flowing. I’m free flowing.”

But the format of the debate didn’t get in the way of the two candidates attacking one another in their opening answers to the moderators' questions. Franken pointed to Grassley’s long tenure in the U.S. Senate and said he could be doing more to stop the divisiveness in politics following the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

“He's part of the Bessemer furnace to fan the flames of this in this craven desire to stay in office,” Franken said of his opponent. “I will be like that young draft pick that person that's going to bring the team up.”

Sen. Grassley pointed to positive statements Franken has made about President Joe Biden’s time in the White House. The latest Iowa Poll regarding President Biden’s favorability published in the Des Moines Register showed most Iowans think the president shouldn’t run for office again in 2024.

“My opponent has said that Biden is doing a fabulous job, the people of Iowa, Republican, Democrat, independent that come to my 99 County meetings. They think inflation and energy and the border are out of control.”

Iowa PBS Pool/Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
Democrat and retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken debates Republican incumbent Sen. Chuck Grassley on Thursday

Franken tried to make his harassment allegation about Grassley’s record on women’s issues

While the debate mostly centered on issues, it also provided a chance for Iowans to hear Franken respond to a police report that surfaced last month. The Des Moines woman who accused Franken of kissing her without her permission commented publicly for the first time in a report published on Thursday morning.

In April, Kimberley Strope-Boggus told a police officer she met with Franken in March, shortly after she’d been fired from the campaign and the two discussed a new campaign role for her. Strope-Boggus is quoted in a Politico article saying both political parties have treated her like a “disposable pawn” since a Republican-aligned website published her police report last month.

Franken was asked to respond during the debate and said the matter was investigated and found to be unfounded.

“[I have a] 40 year history of zero tolerance of sexual malfeasance, sexual misdeeds, of gender related harassment,” Franken said and then pivoted to attacking Sen. Grassley. “What's particularly annoying about this issue is I also have zero tolerance for the political causation of this issue and how my opponent has taken this as I spent years of his age and seniority and time in the Senate to use this as a tool and what he's doing is weaponizing women's rights.”

Sen. Grassley looked at Franken and responded.

“You're in no position to lecture me about women and I would clarify for you the Grassley campaign did not release this,” Grassley said. “I knew about it when I read it in the paper.”

Iowa PBS Pool Photo/Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Register
U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley debates his Democratic challenger Mike Franken on Thursday in Johnston.

Sen. Grassley said he would vote “no” on a federal ban on abortion

The two candidates had very different views on abortion rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer handing the rights to regulate abortion to the states.

South Carolina Republican U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced a bill last month that would ban abortions nationwide and Grassley was asked how he would vote on it. Grassley didn’t answer the question when he was initially asked and said he’s always been “pro-life” and “pro-family."

“The people of the United States get a chance to voice their opinion to their elected representatives and that surely is better [for a] democracy than unelected judges of the courts to make that decision,” Grassley said.

When pressed by a moderator, Grassley said he would “vote no.”

Franken has said the U-S Senate should codify Roe V Wade. Franken was asked how he would define viability which was part of the ruling.

“We shouldn’t have the government stepping in to determine when viability exists,” Franken said. “The doctor knows this. The woman knows this. This is not something for government to step in and make those determinations.”

The hour-long debate covered much more than abortion and women’s rights. Franken came out in favor of President Joe Biden’s steps decriminalizing marijuana. Grassley talked about a desire to pass bipartisan bills he’s co-sponsored dealing with prescription drugs and large tech companies.

When the hour was up, they traded a handshake and walked off stage.

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