Life after Iowa’s political Brangelina

How in the world does one cover an Iowa open Senate seat race?

I’ve been in the newspaper business since the days when they used typewriters, but it occurs to me that in my entire career, I’ve never seen one of those.

Iowa’s Grassley and Harken have become so perceived as a unit despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum (think of them as Congress’ Grassken or Harssley, like Hollywood has its Brangelina).

In the strange bedfellows category, as a matter of fact, Grassley and Harkin will have served 30 years together by the time Harkin retires at the end of the year. That’s the second-longest tenure for any state’s pair of senators from opposing parties in United States history, just behind the 37 years of South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond and Ernest Hollings.

How long have we had these two around? Let me put it into perspective for you. When they first served together in the Senate, movie tickets were $2.50 and “The Terminator,” “Ghostbusters” and “Police Academy” were showing.

“Thriller” was No. 1; Tina Turner was wondering “What’s Love Got to Do With it?” and Chuck Grassley probably wasn’t listening to Wham! pleading with him to “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go.”

Gas was $1.10 in Fort Dodge, apples 40 cents a pound and a new Dodge pickup was selling for $8,899, so keep that in mind when they tell you how they have controlled inflation.

Iowa’s political version of Starsky and Hutch came to power along with Care Bears, leg warmers and Hacky Sack. In their time, both of Iowa’s senators have been considered so unbeatable that opposition didn’t really even try most of the time. It was basically just assumed they would serve for life, and they nearly have.

Grassley, left to soldier on, will be 82 when he next comes up for re-election. He’s been in the Senate since 1981 and in public office nonstop since 1959.

So yeah, we’ve had Senate elections, but this will be the first time in the lifetime of about half of Iowa’s residents that someone new will be elected.

And I’ll have to learn how to actually report on such a happenstance. The way Iowans tend to stick with what they’ve got, it could be another 30 years before there is another changing of the guard.

The old saying in Iowa is that if you can get elected twice, you’re in for life. Steve King seems to be in the process of proving that. And I’ve seen only four different governors elected since my childhood – and Culver was such a lightweight he shouldn’t count. One term? Pffft. If you haven’t logged 25 years in Iowa, you’re not even broken in yet.

The Grassley/Harkin phenomenon has been an interesting one. By electing our two senators from opposite parties, you might say that Iowa has canceled out its own vote on the most contentious issues of the past two generations.

But I think Iowans are a people of balance, too. They tend to have a fairly open mind of social issues, but admire a frugal approach to spending of their tax dollars. Harkin and Grassley were a system of checks and balances all unto themselves. And above all, Iowans vote for people they think they can trust. People who will do what they say they’re going to. Even those from opposing parties who despised Grassley or Harkin had to have a bit of grudging respect for the character, work ethic and sincerity they shared in common.

With a new era beginning now with Harkin’s departure, there will be big shoes to fill, and woe be to the elected person who does not prove as trustworthy or steadfast as those two old campaigners have.

The political campaign itself has changed entirely. You used to get elected by showing up everywhere, shaking hands and kissing babies, then buying commercials showing you shaking and kissing some more. You walked parades, between the clowns (hey, just like in Washington!) and the Shriners in those noisy little cars. You met with local party brass in every county and pretending to listen to their strategical insights, you drank at the home of the local wealthy doctor or lawyer political groupie who is going to write someone a fat check, and flirted with their boorish friends.

Now, elections are won on Twitter, Facebook and by email burst. Neither party’s primary nominee for Harkin’s seat has even bothered to show their face around my city this primary season, as far as I know, but did just fine in the voting. The two candidates who did campaign here in the late going before election day got spanked soundly in the local voting.

I’ve yet to even meet either Joni Ernst or Bruce Braley, aside from their incessant emails. All I could tell you firsthand on Braley is that he must adore purple, since I see a lot of T-shirts with his name on them all in that shade. I know Ernst likes castrating pigs, making big political bank with a fortuitous catch-phrase promising to cut pork in Washington to “make ’em squeal.”

And that might be enough, since I do not want to cross a woman with that particular hobby.

It will feel odd, electing someone other than Grassley and Harkin, but hopefully new candidates will learn one thing from the warhorses – Iowans want campaigns of substance, ultimately something more than slogans and social media know-how.

If you want to grow old in office, you had better be able to deliver in that regard, just like Brangelina – um, I mean Grassley and Harkin – have.

Dana Larsen is editor of the Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and a former staff writer at The Messenger.