WASHINGTON — Sen. Chuck Grassley said Monday it may be time for Iowa Republicans to end the legendary Ames Straw Poll, but insisted the state's much derided caucus system is still sound.
When asked during an interview with BuzzFeed what steps the state can take to maintain its first-in-the-nation status, the 79-year-old Republican said: "Well, maybe not have the straw poll." But "beyond that," he said, the state's primary system remains viable.
An expensive and consuming ritual derided for its lack of success in predicting the eventual GOP presidential nominee, the quadrennial straw poll has become a key moment for movement conservatives in the state. Whether it was tapping evangelical firebrand Pat Robertson in the 1987 straw poll or Rep. Michele Bachmann in 2011, conservative Christians have used the poll as a way to make their voices heard not only in the state, but nationally.
Indeed, Bachmann's win vaulted her, albeit briefly, to the top of the GOP pile, kicking off a revolving door of figures who auditioned as the movement's alternative to Mitt Romney.
That, in turn, forced the former Mass. Governor further and further to the right, a tactic that helped undermine his general election bid against President Obama.
Grassley is the dean of the state's Republican party, and opposition from him could give a boost to those in the party looking to do away with the poll.
Grassley, however, insisted the state's some what antiquated caucus system — which still uses paper ballots — remains an effective way for both parties to pick nominees.
However, he did acknowledge that some form of monitoring is needed to avoid the kind of problems that marred the 2012 caucuses. Although Romney was originally declared the winner — result that helped build momentum as the race moved into New Hampshire — former Sen. Rick Santorum was ultimately named the victor.
"You can't have Santorum a loser one day and winner the next day. Even though it's very close. But I don't think that destroys the credibility of it," he said.
"A lot of people say the caucus isn't viable anymore. I don't think that's true. But we're going to have to make sure we can prove to the candidates as well as to the voters that their ballots are going to be counted, and counted on time," Grassley added, quipping that maybe state officials should bring in some sort of "Jimmy Carter style monitoring."
Grassley also aggressively pushed back against the broader question of whether or not Iowa should retain it's position as "First In the Nation" for its primaries.
"Well you might say seven or eight of them haven't amounted to much. But don't forget, Obama wouldn't be president of the United States if hadn't of beat Mrs. Clinton in Iowa. Because he had to show people an African American could get elected in a white state. And then Jimmy Carter came down and lived here for two years, or he wouldn't have been president of the United States."
"So we have made some presidents."
Meanwhile, Grassley predicted that if Rep. Steve King — one of the most conservative members of the House — decides to run for outgoing Sen. Tom Harkin's Senate seat, it could clear the primary field next year.
"[Rep. Tom] Latham pulled out. That leaves King as an incumbent congressman. Is he going to run or not? He's looking at it very seriously," Grassley told Buzzfeed.
And while there are other solid Republicans considering a run, "if King runs I don't think any of those run. If [he doesn't] run, we could have a Republican primary, but it'd be amongst people who are fairly well known."
Grassley said he's upbeat about Republican chances to taking Harkin's seat.
"I think there's two things that tell me we've got a chance at wining. Number one, there's a vacancy. Number two, Iowa's kind of a purple state … Iowa can go either way, ya know. We've got equal division in the congressional delegation, we've got one house controlled by the Republicans, one by Democrats in the state legislature, we've got a Republican governor."
But with a Democratic primary unlikely, Grassley did worry that money could become a factor.
"I think money will be a big problem, because I think Democrats will have plenty of money, particularly if they don't have a primary … Now I think if it looks like Republicans have a good chance of winning, we could probably get the money. But the trouble is you might not know that until a year from this summer. Our primary's in June," he said.
Despite his role as the elder statesman of the party, Grassley said he's not getting seriously involved in the primary: though he has spoken to one candidate. "I said to him, 'You're the only one I'm going to encourage to run, I'm not going to tell anyone they shouldn't run.' Because everyone I've heard talked about is a viable candidate … that's as far as I'm going to go. I'm not going to get involved in the primary."
John Stanton is a senior national correspondent for BuzzFeed News. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
Contact John Stanton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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