Sen. Charles E. Grassley is an institution in Iowa, and started the year a prohibitive favorite to win a seventh term. But as the point man for blocking consideration of a Supreme Court nominee, the Republican is getting some concerted needling from Democrats determined to paint him as the poster boy of congressional obstructionism.
They are even bringing in one of Grassley's potential opponents to the Capitol to help make that point.
"Iowans believe you are elected to do that job," former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge said Tuesday after joining Democrats for their Tuesday policy lunch. That line of attack strikes at the core of Grassley's carefully cultivated image. In January, the 82-year-old set the Senate record for most time without missing a vote, more than 22 years and counting. His campaign website is Grassleyworks.com.
But Democrats believe they have a cudgel to use against him with the Supreme Court, and their courting of Judge shows they're serious. They brought her to Washington for meetings with top Democratic officials including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Judge, 72, a former lieutenant governor, announced March 4 she was joining several other Democrats in a primary race. And she wasted no time putting the nomination fight front and center.
"He waited 36 years to become chairman of the Judiciary Committee and now is refusing to do his job in my opinion," Judge said in the Des Moines Register video announcing her candidacy.
Just how vulnerable Grassley might be is an open question. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report/Roll Call rates his seat as Safe Republican . He has universal name ID, partly due to his visit every year to all 99 counties in the state, the so-called Full Grassley.
But the political calculus changed last month when Justice Antonin Scalia died, and Republican leaders, including Grassley, said within hours of hearing the news that the next president should be the one to pick a replacement.
GOP senators have since doubled down, telling President Barack Obama they will not even meet with a nominee, much less hold hearings in Grassley's committee or put the nomination on the floor.
After lunch, Senate Democratic leaders kept right on taking swings. "Republican leaders have dictated that the Judiciary Committee chairman isn't even allowed to hold hearings,'' said Patty Murray, of Washington, the No. 4 Democrat in the Senate. "And just yesterday, as you heard, one Republican leader said that anyone thinking about accepting a nomination should watch out since Republicans are going to treat them like quote, 'a piñata,' Murray told reporters. "I would say that sounds a whole lot like a threat that Donald Trump would make, except I don't think he speaks Spanish."
Reid has spent the past couple of weeks chastising Grassley during his opening floor remarks, going so far on Monday as to show up with a sign that read: "This isn't the Chuck Grassley we thought we knew," behind him. The quote was from a recent Des Moines Register op-ed by two former Iowa lieutenant governors, Joy Corning, a Republican, and Sally Pederson, a Democrat.
"Now as each day passes, the senior senator from Iowa is trying desperately to justify his blind loyalty to the Republican leader and to Donald Trump," Reid said, tying Grassley to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the GOP presidential front-runner. "Senator Grassley is grasping for any rationale — anything that will excuse him for not doing his job."
Grassley stormed to the floor to return fire: "The tantrums from the other side continue," he said.
Democrats are well aware of Grassley's political strength. But they are hoping the Supreme Court fight and possibly Trump or Cruz at the top of the ticket will produce a wave that sweeps Grassley from office. Grassley typically wins re-election easily, but Obama did win his state twice.
"He is of course a very formidable candidate. She's a very interesting opponent," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., said of Judge. "She has her own career, she has her own life. She clearly has midwestern roots."
"I think a lot of Democrats will be supportive," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the chamber's No. 3 Democrat. "Patty is a candidate who shows people aren't happy with their senator's stance."
As Democrats filed out of lunch with Judge, many repeated a canned line that easily translates to a campaign ad, that she is "one judge Sen. Grassley can't ignore."
Judge still faces a primary. State Sen. Rob Hogg was an early favorite to win the June 7 primary. Former state Sen. Tom Fiegen is also running; former state Rep. Bob Krause might jump in.
Grassley said he is not worried about Judge: "She's got a tough road ahead against Sen. Hogg.''
Iowa is one place the National Republican Senatorial Committee likely didn't count on spending money, particularly with so many other seats to defend. There are 24 Republican seats up this cycle, and seven are in states Obama won twice.
If NRSC Chairman Roger Wicker of Mississippi is concerned, he showed no sign of it Tuesday: "I think Sen. Grassley will be fine.''
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this story .