Democrat Mike Franken will take on Republican US Sen. Chuck Grassley in November, clinching an upset victory over perceived frontrunner Abby Finkenauer.
Franken, a retired Navy admiral, entered the race months after Finkenauer, but quickly built up steam, overtaking her in fundraising and beating her to the television airwaves in April. Finkenauer, a former US representative, had announced her campaign to national fanfare last summer and earned major endorsements, but she struggled to get on the ballot after Republicans challenged signatures on her paperwork.
By primary Election Day, Franken had outspent Finkenauer roughly five to one on television and digital advertising, helping to close the gap in name recognition he faced at the race’s outset.
The Associated Press declared Franken the winner at about 9:15 pm With an estimated 90% of votes cast, the AP reported Franken had earned about 55% of the vote over Finkenauer’s 40%. Glenn Hurst, a physician and city councilor, earned about 5%.
More: Iowa election results from Tuesday primaries
Dozens of Franken’s supporters, who donned bright yellow t-shirts, stayed glued to the television inside Des Moines’ Franklin Junior High, a former school, as the results trickled in Tuesday night. The crowd erupted in cheers and applause each time the vote count refreshed and Franken’s lead expanded.
As national news outlets began to Franken the victor, some supporters clustered around the television and screamed and clapped.
Smiling and with a fist raised in victory, Franken made his entrance to the watch party alongside his wife Jordan Franken and their children, Harris and Emma Franken.
“Tonight, you’ve bestowed upon me a great honor,” he said. “Iowa has much to offer this country. And we have the leadership now to make it happen.”
He promised to support Democratic candidates in Iowa “from the school board on up.”
“We’re going to work very hard,” he said. “The central premise of this campaign is leadership, which is often overlooked and underestimated. This will propel us. … It’s our time to lead the nation into a better tomorrow.”
Finkenauer was a two-term state representative before she won a seat in Congress in 2018. She lost her 2020 reelection bid to Republican Ashley Hinson. She held a separate watch party in Cedar Rapids where she addressed supporters shortly after Franken was declared the winner.
“I just got off the phone a few minutes ago with Admiral Franken,” Finkenauer said. “And congratulated him on one heck of a race, and for winning tonight in a way that I know is going to bring together Iowans to do what needs to get done in 2022, which is defeating Sen. Chuck Grassley.”
Hurst ran as the most progressive candidate in the race, emphasizing his support for policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. In a statement released Tuesday night, Hurst congratulated Franken and pledged to support his general election campaign.
“I entered this race to deliver on the progressive values of this state,” he said. “That work will continue. Voters are ready for a candidate who delivers healthcare to every person in this country. They seek a representative who is prepared to boldly address the climate crisis. … I know they will not be disappointed.”
The general election challenge is expected to be monumental for Democrats, who haven’t come within 20 percentage points of defeating Grassley since he first ran for the US Senate in 1980. Elections analysts say the race solidly favors Grassley.
More:Chuck Grassley sails past Jim Carlin in Republican US Senate primary; moves on to run for 8th term
Franken has focused on attracting independents and disillusioned Republicans with a campaign that emphasizes his experience in the military and in Washington, DC
“This is a state where some counties went 20% for Obama and then 20% for Donald Trump,” Franken said in a May primary debate hosted by Iowa PBS. “It is that middle segment who want logical, pragmatic, smart, dedicated national servants to work for them, leader servants. I believe I’m that person.”
Some voters said that’s why they chose to support Franken.
“If you want Grassley out, you’ve got to vote for the one that you think can beat him,” Joyce Mahl of Council Bluffs, 66, said after voting at a downtown Council Bluffs church.
But Grassley’s campaign immediately sought to characterize Franken as “the most liberal nominee in Iowa Senate history.”
“Franken hasn’t spent a lot of time in Iowa, so he’s got a lot to learn,” communications director Michaela Sundermann said in a statement Tuesday night. “Iowans will soon find out just how radical, out of touch, and hyperpartisan Mike Franken is.”
Franken leverages fundraising, advertising in final weeks
After spending nearly 40 years in the US Navy and working in Washington, DC, Franken returned to Iowa in 2019 to run for the US Senate against Republican incumbent US Sen. Joni Ernst.
That year, the powerful Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Democratic businesswoman Theresa Greenfield just days after she launched her primary campaign, helping to funnel millions of dollars into the race.
Franken was outspoken about the effect he felt the outside money had on his chances. And although his campaign picked up momentum late in the race, he fell substantially short on primary day that year, earning about 25% of the vote.
When he announced his 2022 bid, Franken told the Des Moines Register he had learned from that campaign and would spend much more time on fundraising early to ensure he could compete statewide. He said he had been assured that national Democrats would take a more hands-off approach this cycle.
Franken announced his campaign in October 2021 — several months after Finkenauer had launched.
In March of this year, Finkenauer was better known than Franken, according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll.
That poll showed Franken was viewed favorably by 21% of Iowans and unfavorably by 11%, leaving about two-thirds who didn’t know enough about him to form an opinion.
But Franken quickly grew his fundraising numbers. By April, he was outpacing Finkenauer in quarterly fundraising, though she raised more over the course of the entire election. In their most recent financial reports, Franken reported raising about $2.8 million overall and Finkenauer raised about $3.7 million.
Franken funneled a substantial amount of that money into advertising, far surpassing what Finkenauer spent.
A poll his campaign released in the closing days of the election showed him leading Finkenauer by 2 percentage points.
Franken targets pitch to independents, but dismisses ‘moderate’ label
Franken was born in rural Lebanon, Iowa, where he was one of nine kids and worked on farms and in a slaughterhouse. He went to college on a US Navy scholarship.
He held a variety of roles in Washington, including as the first military officer on US Sen. Ted Kennedy’s staff, at the US Department of Defense and as chief of legislative affairs for the Navy.
Franken emphasized his record of service in the military and in Washington on the campaign trail and in television ads.
“Over the horizon and closer to home, our values are being put to the test — on Ukraine, attacks on democracy and voting rights, inflation, threats to health care and women’s rights,” he said in his first ad.
Franken has pitched himself as a unifier in Iowa politics who can appeal to independents and Republicans with his rural roots and military background. But in a televised debate hosted by Iowa PBS, he dismissed the idea that he is a political moderate.
“In social programs, I’m very progressive,” he said. “In some issues overseas and foreign affairs, I’m inventive. And I’m all over the map. This is in response to a learned situation as an executive for 40 years.”
He favors eliminating the filibuster in order to cement abortion protections into federal law. He supports expanding Medicare over time to move toward “Medicare for all who want it.” And he believes forgiving student loan debt is a “divisive” issue that ignores a larger problem.
Grassley has the edge in November election
Grassley easily defeated state Sen. Jim Carlin in a primary election Tuesday.
Grassley’s long tenure in the state paired with a political climate that is broadly expected to favor Republicans make him the favorite to win in November. National elections analysts rate Iowa’s US Senate race as “solidly Republican.”
Grassley’s closest US Senate election came in 1980 when he was first elected to the seat, upsetting the Democratic incumbent, US Sen. John Culver, by 8 percentage points. Since then, no Democrat who’s challenged him has been able to win even 40% of the vote, giving Grassley winning margins of as much as 42 percentage points.
But Democrats point to a recent softening in Grassley’s polling numbers, arguing he’s more vulnerable than ever before.
A June 2021 Iowa Poll showed that 64% of likely voters said they thought it was time for someone new to hold Grassley’s Senate seat. Just 27% said they would vote to realect Grassley. That included a sizeable share of Republican likely voters — 37% — who say they were ready for someone else.
In September 2021, the Iowa Poll showed Grassley’s favorability ratings lagged other Republicans. Among Republicans, 81% rated him favorably. That fell short of the 90% favorable mark Republican gift Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and the 91% rating they gave to Trump.
Still, the same poll showed Grassley with a clear 18-point lead over Finkenauer, who, at the time, was the best-known Democrat to have announced a run.
“It looked like he had some vulnerability, but a majority of likely voters still view him as a winner,” pollster J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., said at the time.
There has been little other public polling in the race.
But in a May primary debate hosted by Iowa PBS, Franken expressed optimism that he would fare better than Democrats who have previously taken on Grassley and lost.
“We have had a fabulous campaign thus far,” he said. “And I believe this rousing acceptance that I have gotten from the state of Iowa, this time around in particular, will follow through to November and we’ll beat Chuck Grassley handily.”
Des Moines Register news intern Grace Altenhofen contributed to this report.
Brianne Pfannenstiel is the chief politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at email@example.com or 515-284-8244. Follow her on Twitter at @brianneDMR† Associated Press contributed to this report.