DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Republican Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley has been winning Iowa elections for nearly six decades, yet Democrats are sensing vulnerability this time stemming from his refusal to hold confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee.
Underscoring the issue, party leaders even recruited a candidate with a fitting name — Patty Judge. The former lieutenant governor swiftly won the endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and has built her campaign bank account with an influx of donations, mostly from outside Iowa.
However, just as the progressive candidacy of Bernie Sanders turned the Iowa presidential caucuses into a nail-biter against the establishment favorite Hillary Clinton, Judge is facing a tough nomination battle against more liberal state Sen. Rob Hogg, who is supported by two key labor unions.
Hogg, a 49-year-old from Cedar Rapids who has written a book about climate change, had been considered the likely Democratic nominee before party leaders in Washington turned to Judge. Her experience as a farmer could appeal to rural voters, and her tenure as lieutenant governor and state agriculture secretary give her stronger name recognition across the state.
Since she entered the race in March, Judge, 72, has kept her focus clearly on Grassley, all but ignoring Hogg and two other Democrats running in the June 7 primary — attorney Tom Fiegen and former state legislator Bob Krause.
In early May, she released an online ad that criticized Grassley's actions blocking Merrick Garland's nomination to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Grassley and other Republican senators have maintained the next president should fill the seat.
"You really wonder whether or not he's doing his own thinking or has become a tool of Republican leadership," Judge said of Grassley shortly before she filed to run for Senate. "We're watching his aura of invincibility beginning to erode as Iowans realize he's no longer doing the job he was elected to do."
Even if there's some backlash against Grassley over the Supreme Court, the Democratic nominee still will face a tall task. The incumbent, who ranks fourth in the Senate in seniority, has $5 million available in his campaign account and hasn't lost an election since he first ran for the state Legislature in 1958.
If Judge is hoping to prove Grassley isn't invincible this fall, Hogg is trying to do the same against Judge in the Democratic primary. Although he hasn't been combative against her on the campaign trail or during debates, he has claimed to have stronger grass-roots support in the state.
"I think the best strategy for winning this is to focus on Iowans and talk to Iowans," Hogg told The Associated Press. "I don't think the way to win this campaign is spend all your time in D.C. raising money."
There has been no public polling, and Democratic activists said it's anyone's guess who will win. Although Iowa's general election turnout percentage is among the highest in the nation, primary turnout is far lower, adding to the uncertainty.
Megan Suhr, chairwoman of the Marion County Democrats in south-central Iowa, said the perception that Hogg is more liberal and not backed by national party leaders could help him in a year when Sanders and Republican Donald Trump have seen so much success.
A key difference between the two has been their stand on a lawsuit by the Des Moines water utility, which is trying to force three counties to reduce farm runoff into the city's water source. Hogg has supported the lawsuit while Judge joined with a private organization that criticized the utility and called for less confrontational actions.
Art Behn, who is chair of the Dallas County Democrats, said Judge's message that she's more electable also resonates with voters.
"The goal here is to defeat Grassley," Behn said. "A lot of people are thinking that Patty is better positioned to do that. They would vote for her in the primary in order to put her in that position."
Hogg has focused on small, in-state donations while Judge has received significant funding from outside Iowa. About a month after announcing her run, records show she had raised about $213,000 — more money than Hogg had raised altogether since last July. By mid-May, Judge had added another roughly $155,000. Hogg to-date has raised more than $250,000.
Danny Homan, president of the state's largest public employee union, criticized the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee's decision to recruit Judge shortly before the deadline to enter the race.
"I quite frankly am astounded and appalled by the DSCC coming into this state and hand picking a candidate without talking to anybody in this state ... and they decide who Iowa's candidate should be for the United States Senate," said Homan, who runs the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Iowa Council 61. Homan's union and the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, have endorsed Hogg.
DSCC press secretary Lauren Passalacqua said the group had concluded Judge was "best positioned to give Iowans the representation in the U.S. Senate they deserve" but declined to respond to Homan's comments.
Suhr, the Marion County chairwoman, said she expects a close race.
"I live in a district right next door to Patty ... our counties are neighbors, and it's not a slam dunk for her there," she said. "It's a wide open field."