Challenges for Finkenauer after trouble on the Iowa Senate ballot

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Abby Finkenauer’s bid to win the Democratic nomination for a U.S. Senate seat in Iowa wasn’t supposed to be that big of a deal.

Finkenauer, 33, is one of the state’s most prominent Democrats and earned a reputation as a wunderkind in the Legislature before unseating a Republican congressman in 2018. She was the second-youngest woman elected to Congress and helped Democrats to retake control of the US House of Representatives year.

Though he would lose the Democratic-leaning district in 2020, his stature suffered little. He raised his profile on cable television and in email attacks on Republican Senator Chuck Grassley. All of it helped her raise millions of dollars before her run for Senate.

But Finkenauer’s campaign ran into unexpected trouble last month when, at least for a moment, it appeared he might not be allowed to run in the June 7 primary. A judge found errors in Finkenauer’s nomination petitions after Republican activists challenged his filings.

The Iowa Supreme Court finally secured his place on the ballot, but the turmoil — and Finkenauer’s response — prompted some prominent Democrats to take another look at his main rival, retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken.

Some Democrats blame Finkenauer, who criticized the ruling by the Republican-appointed state judge as “deeply partisan,” for being quick to blame political motivations and failing to acknowledge his own campaign’s organizational mistakes.

“It really seemed wrong to me,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general and a former Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

Campbell had contributed money to Finkenauer’s campaign, but had also been eyeing Franken. Finkenauer’s comments tipped the scales, he said.

“It’s the same thing that Donald Trump says, that it’s all about politics,” Campbell said. “I thought, what are my alternatives?”

Finkenauer’s campaign declined an interview request for this article.

There are few reliable primary polls, and the winner faces an overwhelming challenge in Grassley, who raised more money through March than Finkenauer and Franken combined.

Adding to the challenge, Iowa has shifted sharply to the right over the past decade, turning the Democratic primary into something of a test case for the party in Iowa and other once-competitive rural northern states on the way back to the Democratic Party. can.

Still, Finkenauer retains the support of more Democratic state lawmakers than Franken. She received an endorsement last month from the Iowa Federation of Labor, Iowa’s largest labor organization. She had also raised more than $3 million to Franken’s $1.8 million, according to the most recent financial reports.

Finkenauer has a higher national profile in addition to cable news appearances, in part as a regular spokesperson on Joe Biden’s presidential campaign ahead of the 2020 election.

But Franken has quietly built a competitive campaign, backed by former party officials like Campbell and former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge. Franken, who finished a distant second in the 2020 Iowa Senate primary, also raised more money in the first quarter of 2022 than Finkenauer, and had more money on hand going into the second quarter. Franken was also the first to begin airing television commercials, beginning in April. Finkenauer planned to start advertising next week.

Although Finkenauer and Franken agree closely on politics, they present strikingly different profiles.

Finkenauer is more than 30 years younger than the 64-year-old Franken. His message draws heavily on his blue-collar Dubuque working-class upbringing, as he did in both his campaigns for Congress and campaigns for the state legislature. Often smiling broadly, he campaigns with a passionate flair, as he did at a recent state Democratic fundraiser.

“I will never forget where I come from and who I fight for,” Finkenauer promised 600 state party activists at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines.

Tall, gray-haired and straight as a ramrod, Franken’s approach is understated. With a dry sense of humor, Franken spends most of his campaign time fielding questions from the audience, promoting a standard progressive platform but with a calmness unknown in much of politics today.

“I’m also running to reduce political tension to get these things done,” Franken told the crowd at the Des Moines banquet.

Finkenauer has been on a political course since college when she volunteered as a college student for Joe Biden’s campaign in 2008 and later as a legislative page. She won a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives at age 24 in 2014, earning a reputation as a vocal member in the minority party and a seat in the US House of Representatives four years later.

Franken has captained ships around the world, but he also worked on Capitol Hill longer than Finkenauer, as a legislative aide to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and a legislative liaison for the Navy Department during the Obama administration.

It’s Finkenauer’s stylistic contrast to the 88-year-old, gravelly-voiced Grassley that makes her the best fit for Andrea Phillips, a former Democratic Party state vice chair.

“The contrasts with Abby, you know, younger, fresher ideas, a newer generation, presents voters with a clearer choice,” Phillips said.

However, Phillips would like to have heard Finkenauer take responsibility for his campaign clerical error. Asked repeatedly by reporters, Finkenauer did not say that she was to blame for errors that the Iowa Supreme Court found were not significant enough to keep her off the ballot.

Finkenauer’s campaign offered the bare minimum of signatures needed from different counties, leaving her with almost no room for error. But the judge found that a small handful of the 5,000 signatures obtained by Finkenauer’s campaign were not properly dated, as required by state law.

“As a supporter, I probably would have liked him to come out and apologize,” Phillips said. “As a supporter, I would have liked to see an email from her saying that.”

At the party’s fundraiser, Des Moines Democrats Suzanne and Tom Fross were divided on the impact of the episode. Suzanne Fross, a retired state employee, said: “He handled it well. It was a Republican ambush.” Her husband, a manufacturing manager, said, “It was embarrassing. He should have recognized it.”

However, neither has decided who they will support with less than a month to go.

Longtime Dubuque Democratic Party volunteer Diane Gibson said she “didn’t need much of a push” to consider Franken after the episode.

“Abby has not taken responsibility for her own campaign’s failure to get the job done,” Gibson said. “That’s the mark of a rookie.”


This story has been corrected to reflect that among the former Democratic officials endorsing Mike Franken is former Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge, not former Lieutenant Governor Sally Pederson.

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