Politics

Why the Senate’s Oldest GOP Member Is Seeking Yet Another Term

Grassley speaks into a microphone at a hearing.
Sen. Chuck Grassley on Capitol Hill in April. Bill Clark/Getty Images

Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley was first elected to political office in 1958, midway through the second term of President Dwight Eisenhower. I learned this fact earlier this year and have thought about it every day since. At 88, he is the oldest Republican senator, and second-oldest overall by a few months (to California Sen. Dianne Feinstein), in the oldest Senate in American history. He will turn 89 shortly before the 2022 midterms, in which, as he announced on Friday morning, he will seek reelection yet again. If he wins, which he probably will, his six-year term will end when he is 95.

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Grassley announced his intention to run at 4 a.m. Iowa time with a .GIF of him jogging, as he does each morning following his sharp 8 p.m. bedtime. (Lobbyists, and not always the ones most on the up-and-up, used to intercept Grassley on his morning jogs and then join him and his wife for breakfast. Simpler times.)

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In many occupations, an 88-year-old thinking about re-upping a contract through 2028 might get pulled aside by his close confidantes for an uncomfortable conversation. That is not the case in the Senate. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairman, Florida Sen. Rick Scott, have been urging Grassley to run all year. Mitch McConnell pushed Grassley to run.

To understand why—aside from them enjoying Grassley’s company—let’s take a brief tour of what’s going on in a couple of other Senate races where Republicans have announced their retirement.

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In Missouri, where Sen. Roy Blunt won’t seek reelection, the crowded GOP primary features a disgraced ex-governor who on Friday encouraged Arizona to decertify its election results, even after the “audit” found more votes for Joe Biden, as well as the rich guy who pointed a gun at Black Lives Matters protesters in 2020 from the lawn of his castle—the main image when you visit his campaign website—and is now posing as a farmer of sorts.

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In Ohio, let’s put it like this: One of the main Republican candidates duking it out for retiring Sen. Rob Portman’s seat, Josh Mandel, is currently feuding on Twitter with two of Martin Luther King Jr.’s children. The Trump-off between Mandel and his main competitor, Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance, has been straightforwardly disturbing to watch.

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If Grassley were to retire, the Senate Republican primary to fill his seat would be equally, if not more, insane. It would be expensive and risk nominating a joke candidate who would then require resources to get across the finish line—and, once across the finish line, would be a real pain in office. Grassley, by contrast, is pretty close to a sure bet. A Des Moines Register poll last week showed Grassley leading the likely Democratic nominee, ex-Rep. Abby Finkenauer, by 18 points.

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So, it’s not always ego. The needs of the party, and all those in its constellation, is often a reason why older members and senators stick around when they could be enjoying retirement. In 2014, Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran was in his mid-70s. He was convinced to run again, though, to prevent a true-believing Tea Party candidate, Chris McDaniel, from taking the seat. Cochran was a longtime member of the Appropriations Committee and by then the ranking Republican on it, and much of K Street earned its salary through its connections to him. Cochran pulled off a grueling primary win, with much help from the Chamber of Commerce, and coasted in the general election. He retired early for health reasons, in 2018, and died in 2019. But it was good for McConnell as long as it lasted.

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Chuck Grassley is in much better health, at 88, than Thad Cochran was in his mid-70s. You can  expect his campaign to spend a lot of energy playing with metaphors about “running,” as his announcement did, to prove his youthful vigor and unlimited stock of energy. It will probably work out better for him than the infamous 2018 campaign of pushup contests did for Florida ex-Sen. Bill Nelson. We expect a similar campaign in 2027, when Grassley is again coaxed to run for reelection to prevent a primary between seven Capitol insurrectionists and the by-then moderate option, Steve King.

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