Several commentators, including RealClearPolitics co-founder Tom Bevan, have noted that Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat running to succeed Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin in Iowa, made a huge mistake when he was taped telling Texas trial lawyers that if Republicans get a Senate majority, “you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.” The gist of the commentary has been that Braley made a huge mistake given that while Iowa may not have as many farmers as it once did, it still has a lot more farmers than lawyers, and a lot of non-farmers and non-lawyers who think more of farmers than lawyers. All correct.
But there's another way in which Braley's comment is boneheaded. That “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law” is Iowa's senior Sen. Chuck Grassley, first elected in 1980 and re-elected in 1986, 1992, 1998, 2004 and 2010. In his five re-election races, he has won between 64 and 71 percent of the vote. According to the latest Quinnipiac poll, Grassley's job approval is 62 percent, while only 27 percent disapprove. That's better than Harkin's 55-percent approval and 31-percent disapproval, which themselves are very good numbers for an incumbent who is now serving his 30th year in the Senate. Both senators, by the way, were first elected to the House in 1974, a very Democratic year in which Harkin beat an incumbent in a Republican-leaning district while Grassley won an open seat in a less Republican-leaning district. My sense is that Harkin, often a tough partisan, has been very reluctant to criticize Grassley publicly. When you look at his numbers, you can see why. He understands that Grassley is hard-working, smart and politically astute. (My sense is that Grassley similarly doesn't attack Harkin: he can read numbers too.)
In the Quinnipiac poll, Braley gets between 40 and 42 percent of the vote against four little-known Republicans, who get between 27 and 31 percent of the vote. If I were Braley, I would be wanting to run against one of those 30-percent candidates, not against an incumbent senator with 62-percent job approval.