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This Iowa farmer has his finger on the 2020 pulse

Hint: It’s Chuck Grassley

Charles E. Grassley’s sway over tariffs and trade may help the GOP senator save President Donald Trump from himself. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Charles E. Grassley’s sway over tariffs and trade may help the GOP senator save President Donald Trump from himself. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — The eyes of the world are again on Iowa, hallowed political ground that punches far above the weight of its six electoral votes.

The state’s senior senator, Charles E. Grassley, a Republican now in his seventh term, says Hawkeye State voters “want people that don’t have extreme right or left views.” It’s also simple math: Democrats and Republicans each make up less than one-third of Iowa’s registered voters, so winning over independents is critical.

No one in Congress has more influence over the federal budget than Grassley, who chairs the Finance Committee. He oversees two-thirds of all spending and every dime of tax revenue collected — which also gives him sway over tariffs and trade.

That power might help save President Donald Trump from his own policy agenda. Grassley, a self-described conservative, is unlikely to push bills that alienate the two-thirds of Americans Gallup says identify as moderate or liberal. As he said in March hearings on Trump’s fiscal 2020 budget: “A president proposes, but Congress disposes.”

Watch–Grassley: Congress has given too much trade authority to the president

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He wants to unite Trump and Democrats to rein in prescription drug costs, even if it means taking on his own GOP committee members. And he’s willing to consider tax increases to finance a big infrastructure package.

Grassley usually takes a more traditional Republican view of taxes, crediting the 2017 tax cuts for a return to 3 percent economic growth last year, or roughly the post-World War II average. He acknowledges that debt and deficits have become an afterthought, but says faster growth is the elixir: Reducing the debt, he says, won’t happen by raising taxes. “It’s going to be through more taxpayers.”

The longest-serving GOP senator has won through good times and bad for his party. Grassley was first elected to the House in the 1974 post-Watergate midterms, when Democrats netted 49 House seats. In his first Senate re-election campaign in 1986, Grassley won by 32 points, while Republicans lost eight seats as well as control of the chamber. Since then, he’s never gotten less than 60 percent of the vote.

There are lessons in Grassley’s crossover appeal, since Iowa’s relevance stems from more than just the “first in the nation” caucuses. As University of Northern Iowa professors Donna R. Hoffman and Christopher W. Larimer note, Iowa is one of just five states labeled a “battleground” in every presidential election since 2000. Iowans have picked the winner in six of the last seven elections, a feat matched or topped by only three other states; Iowa’s record would have been perfect like Ohio’s if Al Gore hadn’t defeated George W. Bush by 4,144 votes in 2000.

The last time a Democrat won the presidency without Iowa was 1976, thanks to Georgia’s Jimmy Carter blazing a trail across the South — a far-fetched outcome for today’s Democrats. And as Grassley points out, Trump got more Iowa votes than any GOP presidential candidate since Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952.

Another election holds warnings for Trump: In 1988, Michael Dukakis won Iowa when voters punished George Bush for a farm crisis they blamed on the Reagan administration.

Similarly, Trump’s trade war threatens his hold on the Farm Belt. Midterm losses by two GOP House incumbents in Iowa districts Trump won in 2016, where Democrats made his tariffs an issue, are a bad omen. And just 36 percent of likely voters in a recent Iowa poll said they’d “definitely” vote for Trump in 2020.

An Iowa State University study last September found trade disruptions would slam the state’s agriculture industry, knocking some 10 percent off Iowa pork and soybean revenue. That’s at a time when Iowa farm income was already down almost 60 percent from five years earlier, according to the Agriculture Department.

USDA predicts farm incomes overall will rise this year, but pain will continue for hog and soybean farmers. That’s without new retaliation threatened by Mexico and the European Union unless Trump lifts his steel and aluminum tariffs. Grassley has told Trump if those tariffs don’t come off, it will cost him his proposed U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade pact, potentially locking Iowa farmers out of two of their top three export markets.

But Grassley, himself a corn and soybean farmer, commends Trump for standing up to China’s violations of global trading norms, even though it’s Iowa’s other largest market for farm exports. While not a fan of Trump’s tariffs, he says without them China wouldn’t have come to the bargaining table.

“I had people that would question the wisdom of [Trump’s] tariffs, but I never had agricultural people say, ‘I’m not going to vote for him,’” he says. “In fact, some people said just the opposite: ‘You know, it’s going to hurt a while. But what the president is doing is the right thing.’”

Trump’s potential undoing in 2020 could be his unpredictability, Grassley says. But if Trump can keep the 85-year-old farmer in his corner, it could bring good election news for him again in Iowa.

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