Retired Navy Admiral Mike Franken clinched a decisive victory in this week’s Democrat senate primary over former Rep. Abby Finkenauer. Franken won over 55 percent of the vote, with Finkenauer winning 40 percent and physician Glenn Hurst winning just under five percent.
Franken’s 15-point margin marks a stunning turnaround from his first senate bid back in 2020, when Franken finished in a distant second place in the Democrat primary to real estate developer Theresa Greenfield. Greenfield enjoyed a strong fundraising advantage, bolstered by outside groups – namely the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer-aligned PACs – that spent millions to clear the primary field for Greenfield.
Despite raising and spending well over $40 million for her Senate bid – double what Republican incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst had cobbled together – Greenfield ended up losing in the general election by nearly seven points.
Franken clearly made fundraising a top priority for his second shot at the U.S. Senate. Shortly after announcing his second senate bid, Franken reflected on his first bid and underscored the importance of fundraising for a successful campaign in an interview with The Des Moines Register. And by most accounts, Franken did just that – raising over $2.8 million and spending $2.5 million, much of it on crucial TV ads.
Except Finkenauer still had the money advantage. Her campaign raised over $3.7 million and spent over $3.1 million, including on TV ads. One of Finkenauer’s strongest, earliest advantages in the primary, in fact, was fundraising.
And that’s just the beginning of laundry list of advantages Finkenauer had over Franken in the race. Off the bat, Finkenauer enjoyed a higher name ID among Iowans – augmented by her rising star status after she was successfully recruited by the Democratic Congressional Committee (DCCC) in the 2018 “blue wave” year. She had a built-in rolodex of donors in coastal Democrat bastions such as California, in addition to key endorsements from Democrat-aligned institutions such as Emily’s List, a Democratic PAC.
Instead of capitalizing on these advantages to cement her status as the clear frontrunner and best-positioned challenger to Chuck Grassley, Finkenauer made one blunder after another.
In January, for instance, Finkenauer went from aggressively supporting President Joe Biden’s signature “Build Back Better” legislation – including by attacking Arizona Democrat Sen. Krysten Sinema as a “sellout” in a Twitter rant – to distancing herself from it. “Heck, I don’t even know what’s in it,” Finkenauer said in a local TV interview that aired less than two weeks after Finkenauer’s “sellout”-tweet. Dropping support of a bill that seemed hopelessly gridlocked and unpopular in light of concerns about the multi-trillion dollar bill worsening inflation may have been the logical political decision, but Finkenauer’s execution of it from the beginning hardly came off as suave or competent.
Then, most notably, came Finkenauer’s nominating petition signature debacle. Finkenauer’s campaign was unable to leverage Finkenauer’s name ID and financial advantages to scrap together any more than the bare minimum number of petition signatures. After successfully appearing before the State Objection Panel for petition issues, Finkenauer’s campaign lost a subsequent legal challenge and was temporarily disqualified from even appearing on this week’s primary ballot. At that point, Finkenauer took to Twitter and blasted the integrity of the court by questioning the judge who ruled on her case’s independence and political motivations.
“This misguided, midnight ruling is an outrageous and partisan gift to the Washington Republicans who orchestrated this meritless legal action,” Finkenauer tweeted. The comments prompted criticism not just from Republicans, but from the immediate past president of the Iowa State Bar Association and even other Democrats such as Auditor Rob Sand and Rep. Cindy Axne.
The tweet that lost the race? #iasen https://t.co/0ikhVCnQwX
— Iowa Field Report.com (@IAFieldReport) June 8, 2022
Finkenauer ultimately took the matter to the Iowa Supreme Court and succeeded, but the whole incident highlighted her and her campaign’s incompetence. “It really just struck me the wrong way,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Iowa attorney general and past Democratic nominee for governor, told the Associated Press. Campbell was one of numerous Democrat donors and activists who dropped support for Finkenauer and instead back Franken.
Republican officials argue that it was these and other Finkenauer blunders that propelled Franken to victory, not his campaign strategy. “Franken finally arose from the dead to clinch the nomination – and there’s no one he should be thanking more than Abby Finkenauer,” a Republican National Committee spokesman said in a press release that monikered Franken as “Mike Frankenstein.” “With Democrats turned off by Finkenauer’s antics, it’s no surprise that Franken was able to close the gap and win by default as the least embarrassing candidate.”
All Franken had to do was avoid any avoidable hiccups – and by largely doing that, he secured victory as the Democrats’ plan-B candidate.
Franken’s general election fight will be a tougher fight. Forecasters are rating the Iowa senate race as “solid R,” the most favorable rating for Republicans. Grassley holds a wide fundraising advantage, and Franken’s positions on abortion and increased federal spending, however popular among Democrat primary voters, are unlikely to sway the general electorate of Iowa – which favored former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden by over nine points.