He’s been in the Senate for more than four decades and a fixture in Iowa since starting his political career more than 62 years ago.
And now at age 87, Republicans in and out of Iowa are buzzing about this key question bound to reshape politics in the state and at the national level: Will Sen. Chuck Grassley call it quits and forgo a bid for an eighth term?
In an interview with CNN, Grassley said he would make a decision in “September, October or November. That’s what I’ve been telling everybody.”
Asked about potential replacements, including his grandson Pat Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, Grassley shot back: “You’re already assuming I’m not running. I love my work. I’m working hard for the people of Iowa, and I get a lot of support from back home.”
The questions about Grassley’s future come as Republicans in Washington are bracing for more retirements as they plot their way back to the majority – after five of their members have already announced they plan to call it quits rather than run again next year. On Monday, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri stunned his colleagues by announcing he would step aside, while Republicans are eagerly awaiting word on whether Grassley and Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin might do the same as well.
Even as Grassley has yet to reveal his plans, Republicans in the state are jockeying to replace him.
“We probably have about a dozen very, very talented Republicans who can easily step up in that position,” Sen. Joni Ernst, the junior GOP senator from Iowa who won a hard-fought reelection bid last year, told CNN.
Ernst said if the governor ran, “she would be the one to watch. I think she’s phenomenal.” And she added of Pat Grassley, the state House speaker: “He does have obviously a recognizable name. But I think there will be a lot of folks vying for that position.”
Yet the two-term Republican was quick to add she had a preference: She wants the incumbent to run again.
“I think he’s going to run,” Ernst said. “I’m encouraging him to run.”
The names span the gamut about potential successors, including Rep. Ashley Hinson, who won a tough race in the fall, as well as former acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker.
While Reynolds has mused about the possibility of running – and rumors about her interest have reverberated from Des Moines to Washington – she has told friends that she is most likely to seek reelection to the governor’s seat.
Grassley is keeping his future plans remarkably close to the vest, with even many of his aides and former advisers not certain of his intentions. They said it is a decision that he will reach with his wife, Barbara, in the coming weeks or months.
“The conventional wisdom in Grassley world is that he retires, but as we all know, he’s not always conventional,” one longtime Iowa supporter told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid getting ahead of the senator’s decision. “It would be more of a surprise if he runs – but if he does, he could easily win.”
But Grassley would be 89 by Election Day in 2022. If he sought election to an eighth term and won, he would be 95 if he served out the duration of his full six years.
As he has for years, Grassley dismisses questions about his age or fitness for office.
“This morning I got up at 4 o’clock like I do six times a week and jogged two miles,” he told Iowa reporters on a conference call late last month. “If I can do that every day, I hope nobody has any questions about my ability to conduct a campaign. It’ll be up to the voters to decide whether or not I should be reelected. But I hope they won’t say I can’t conduct a campaign.”
But the prospect of a potential Grassley retirement is the subject of considerable talk among Republicans in the nation’s capital and in the Iowa Statehouse, where Grassley started his political career in the state House of Representatives after winning in 1958.
Iowa voters sent Grassley to Washington in 1980, winning election on the same ballot on which Ronald Reagan won the presidency, and he’s served in the US Senate ever since.
And while an open seat could give Democrats an opportunity there, the state has trended red in recent election cycles, and even top Democrats see the seat as a reach in their bid to hold their narrow Senate majority.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, cited the GOP-held seats in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and North Carolina as among the top targets for his party.
For the Iowa race, Peters said they are talking to potential Democratic candidates who may run for the seat.
“It’s certainly a state we’re going to look it,” Peters said of Iowa.
Potential Democratic candidates for the seat include Rep. Cindy Axne, retired Admiral Mike Franken, state Sen. Liz Mathis, former Gov. Chet Culver, state Rep. Ras Smith, state auditor Rob Sand and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he’s told Grassley that he should run again.
“I think he’s going to run,” Scott said. And if Grassley opts out, Scott signaled his committee would stay out of the primary to replace him. “I don’t plan on getting involved in primaries, except I’m going to support all incumbents.”
David Kochel, a veteran Republican strategist in Iowa who has advised Ernst, Reynolds and others, suggested it could be the most wide-open race in a generation or two if Grassley decides against a bid.
“I think it has the potential to be a very big field,” Kochel said. “Our three Republican members of Congress are all freshmen, so there is no obvious heir apparent in the delegation.”
Kochel added: “The governor appears headed to a reelection campaign and with GOP gains across the board in 2020, it will make an attractive seat for someone who can get through a primary.”
CNN’s Alex Rogers contributed to this report.