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Q&A: Chuck Grassley sounds off on Iowa politics, campaign lessons and Joni Ernst's hogs ad

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, questions a witness during a hearing on drones on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 23. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Sen. Chuck Grassley knows a thing or two about winning Iowa Senate races.

The conservative Hawkeye State Republican has been re-elected five times since he first won in 1980, most recently in 2010, and never with less than 64 percent of the vote. That might not be worth mentioning if Grassley represented a solidly red state. But he has managed this feat in a competitive, voter-literate presidential battleground that has re-elected outgoing Sen. Tom Harkin, a liberal Democrat, four times since he first won in 1984.

Grassley's name was recently thrust into the campaign to elect Harkin's successor when the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, questioned the Republican's ability to run the Senate Judiciary Committee. Grassley is the top Republican on that panel, and Braley, who is an attorney, told a gathering of trial lawyers that his race could determine whether the Judiciary Committee is run by a farmer like Grassley or someone like himself, who went law school.

In a major farming state like Iowa, that comment could cause Braley a huge political problem. At least that’s what Republicans are arguing. The Washington Examiner caught up with Grassley and asked him about Braley’s comment, what it takes to be successful in Iowa politics, and the GOP primary campaign. Grassley also discussed his views on a political advertisement released by Republican primary candidate Joni Ernst that has been roundly mocked by the Democrats.

Washington Examiner: You and Sen. Harkin have served for together for 30 years. You’re a conservative, he’s a liberal, yet both of you are well thought of at home and have been repeatedly re-elected. What is it about Iowa that makes that possible?

Grassley: I’ll bet you, if you ask Harkin, he’d tell you, we don’t really know. But this is what I think — I bet he’d tell you the same thing, because I get this question asked more out here than I do in Iowa. I think that Iowans are willing to give you a little margin if they disagree with you, if they think you’re doing a good job, sincere, not screwin’ off and stuff like that. That’s the only thing I can attribute it to.

Examiner: What lesson should the candidates running for Senate in Iowa this year learn from this fact?

Grassley: Don’t be overly partisan. Don’t be overly partisan. Now, Harkin’s more partisan than I am, but I don’t think he has that Image back home. I mean, I think you’d have to agree that he’s more Left than I am Right. I don’t think he’d be insulted if he heard me say that. I think that he does not have the Image of being highly partisan — he might among Republicans but not independents, and there’s more independents in Iowa than there are Democrats or Republicans.

Examiner: What did you make of Congressman Braley’s comments about you and being a farmer versus a lawyer?

Grassley: I'm going to have to demure, for this reason: I've put out a statement and I bet I've been asked 20 times in the last week to say more, and I don't want to say more because I just don't want to stir things up.

Examiner: Do you think what Braley said is problematic for his prospects in the Senate race? Many Republicans seem to think so.

Grassley: I want to give you an answer but I’m not answering your question. I think what happened there ought to be a lesson to every candidate for office — always assume that there’s always a television camera in front of you.

Examiner: Are you neutral in the Republican Senate primary?

Grassley: Yeah. In fact, I’m so neutral that I still don’t know who I’m going to vote for.

Examiner: Have you had a chance to see the [Joni] Ernst ad where she talks about castrating hogs?

Grassley: Yeah.

Examiner: Democrats have been ridiculing it.

Grassley: I think people make fun of it, but it tells you what kind of a person she is.

Examiner: Do you think that kind of message, that kind of Imagery, can be effective in an Iowa race?

Grassley: I think it’s very effective where she is now. I would question if it would be effective in September and October. But it’s very effective now.

Examiner: In other words, in a Republican primary.

Grassley: Yeah. But it’s also effective so people know that this is a person whose got all kinds of backgrounds. Been to Iraq, she’s active in the National Guard with a combat unit. She’s a farm wife and she’s a state legislator and mother and very conservative. It makes her out — I never heard anybody in Iowa take offense to it. I heard somebody on MSNBC make fun of it, but you might expect that.