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.”
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.
“He hasn’t announced, but I think he’s going to run,” advised National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.).
Retorted Grassley: “I tell Rick Scott the same thing I told you: I’m going to make up my mind September, October, November.”
The sunny spring day he went for a Bambino’s burger was a typical one for Grassley, whose renowned 27-year-long streak of 8,927 votes was derailed only by the coronavirus. Even after catching the virus he still ran most mornings, in typical Grassley fashion.
He spends his recesses schlepping around the state with a handful of aides in tow, traveling the 99 County tour he invented. He takes dozens of questions a day on topics ranging from inflation to the Supreme Court, and handles his interlocution deftly. He only occasionally relies on aides for an assist, such as his scheduler and adviser Jennifer Heins, who is nearly always by his side.
In that vein, Grassley seems to unintentionally charm even his political opponents despite being the Senate’s chief curmudgeon. When he got close to one constituent in the restaurant, he assured her “it’s so I can hear you. It’s not to intimidate you.” Speaking to a high school class in the nearby town of Elkader, he got worked up about rising tuition: “Am I yelling? I’m sorry.”
“I don’t consider myself a charming person,” he said afterward. “You heard me yelling at those kids.”
It’s all part of the Iowa-farmer authenticity that’s kept his state satisfied for decades. Grassley occasionally flubs a name or number, calling his colleague Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) “Sen. LeBron” at one point. But plenty of senators misspeak, and he’s one of few willing to face questions extemporaneously for hours on end.
“He knows more about Iowa than, I would guarantee, anybody in Iowa,” said his junior Hawkeye State GOP senator, Joni Ernst.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who’s sparred with Grassley for years, deemed him “extraordinary. Physically and mentally. I work with him every day. That’s all I can tell you.”
Grassley always looks the part: Rimless glasses, elephant ties and sometimes his signature sweater vests. He fires off typo-riddled tweets that take on a life of their own, from the Beltway-famous “assume deer dead” to “If u lost ur pet pidgin / it’s dead in front yard.”
Sometimes he’ll tell staff that “I feel a tweet coming on.”
“These cable companies are getting to big like goggle so they can ignore their customers FNC has taken their ticker off. For those of us tired of hearing the same story ten times we can mute and read,” he railed this month.
Grassley doesn’t read the replies: “90 percent of them hate me. It’s too depressing.” Yet he never deletes a tweet, no matter the misspellings or reading comprehension challenges. Asked about that recent viral tweet about Fox News Channel’s news ticker, Grassley replied: “I’m disgusted!” He’s now watching CNN but hopes Fox notices his demand.
That might seem a long shot, but it’s how the indefatigable Iowan operates. After he listened to a constituent talk about limiting paper waste on Medicare forms, Grassley said he’s never thought of it but will “take it back as a Grassley suggestion.”
And when riled-up cattlemen in Monticello guffawed at his proposal to fine bad-acting meatpacking executives rather than jail them, Grassley absorbed the jeers, then said he might toughen up his own legislation.
During a day of 5 stops and about 300 miles of driving, he was asked just once about his reelection. But Grassley’s future is certainly on Iowans’ minds.
Thomas Hansen, who chairs the Winneshiek County GOP and mounted an unsuccessful House bid last year, said Grassley is “held in very high esteem … But to be honest with you, what I have been hearing is, it’s time to let new blood into his seat.”
There are rumors that Grassley wants to elevate his grandson, statehouse Speaker Pat Grassley, into the Senate. But that isn’t happening, according to the senator and his allies.
“I know for a fact that is not true,” said state Rep. Lee Hein, a Republican close to Pat Grassley. He said Pat Grassley is not interested in being a senator and encouraged Chuck to run again.
Until the incumbent makes his decision, the state’s Democrats are frozen — and not particularly chatty. State Auditor Rob Sand has expressed interest in the Senate race, but backed out of an interview in Des Moines the day before. Rep. Cindy Axne, another potential Democratic Senate candidate, declined an interview request.
J. D. Scholten, who nearly defeated former Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) in 2018, is also contemplating a Senate run. He said Iowa Democrats have work to do regardless of Grassley’s future.
“Having dealt with folks out in D.C. the past couple cycles, I don’t think they understand fully what’s going on here in Iowa,” Scholten said. “If you’re a Democrat in this state, you really need to create a movement.”
It’s “not impossible” for Democrats to break through, Scholten argued. After all, in 2018 they captured three House seats, and Scholten himself nearly captured the fourth.
A Des Moines Register poll in March showed many Iowans don’t want Grassley to run again. Yet there may be something of a Grassley exception for the state’s elections. Democrats tried to beat him in 2016 as he blocked a high court appointment. Even facing a candidate named Judge, Grassley won by 24 points.
Some think there’s little reason to believe 2022 would be much different.
“God, I hate to give you an on-the-record comment on this,” sighed Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who led Democrats’ campaign arm in 2016. “He’s the difference between whether this is a competitive race, or whether Chuck Grassley just wins again.”