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May 1st, 2012

Primary Preview: Grassley vs. Sweeney in HD 50

Perhaps no primary contest in the state of Iowa will be more closely watched than the one in House District 50. It’s an intra-party showdown between two incumbents. Both are among the most prominent members of the House Republicans. One is the grandson of longtime Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. The other is the chair of the House Agriculture Committee. The race between Pat Grassley and Annette Sweeney could have far reaching implications.

Many consider Pat Grassley to be their heir apparent to his grandfather’s U.S. Senate seat, once the elder Grassley finally decides to step down. This primary contest is crucial to Pat Grassley’s political livelihood. Annette Sweeney poses a very formidable challenge. She is very popular among Iowa’s agricultural community and is well respected by Republicans around the state.

Redistricting forced the two House Republicans together. The new HD 50 mixes part of Hardin County, where Sweeney lives, with part of Butler County, where Grassley lives, and combines them with all of Grundy County, which neither has represented before. Grundy County might be the key ingredient to this race. Whoever prevails there is likely to win the primary.

“They both have a home advantage in the county they live in. Grundy County is kind of new to both of them, so Grundy County is kind of the battleground, if you will, for both of them,” central committee chair Brian Andersen told

Representatives Grassley and Sweeney participated in a candidate forum in Grundy Center on Monday. Chairman Andersen served as the moderator. Each candidate answered the same 10 questions, submitted by attendees in written form ahead of time. The topics included the economy, education reform, and property tax reform. They were also asked which legislative achievements they are most proud of.

Pat Grassley has not authored any legislation during his six years in the Iowa House. However, his proudest achievements were the responses to tragedies in his district. Following the 2008 tornadoes that hit Parkersburg, Grassley was named the ranking Republican member on the Rebuild Iowa committee.

“I was very fortunate to be able to step up to the plate and an issue that I knew when that tornado happened that would dominate the next few years of my legislative career, which it obviously did,” Grassley said. “The other issue, and these always center around tragedies and it’s too bad, and that would be the Ed Thomas bill that I had the opportunity to play a huge role in.”

The Ed Thomas bill is named after Aplington-Parkersburg football coaching legend Ed Thomas, who was murdered by a former student, just hours after being released from a mental hospital. The bill, passed with the support of the Thomas family, is geared toward preventing similar situations.

Annette Sweeney pointed to three pieces of legislation that she authored as her proudest achievements in the Iowa House. That includes the “Ag Protection Act”, which was signed into law in March. The bill makes it a crime to apply for a job in agriculture under false pretenses. It came about after animal rights activists posing as farm hands videotaped incidents that they alleged amounted to animal cruelty.

Sweeney also pointed out her recent amendment aimed at stripping state funding from abortion providers. “We passed it in the House, it went over to the Senate, so it’s in conference committee right now. Also with that amendment, the money would be allocated first to federally qualified healthcare centers. We want to be able to do total healthcare for women, instead of just of targeted items. So, I was very, very excited about that.”

Another key question during the forum focused on the legislative priorities of the two candidates if they were able to hold majorities in the Iowa Senate and Iowa House. Pat Grassley pointed to same sex marriage.

“All we’re asking to do is let Iowans have the opportunity to vote to define marriage. I think that’s common sense. Whether you agree with it or disagree with it, we’re putting it up to a vote of the people. That’s what this country is founded on,” Grassley said. He also mentioned property tax reform and passing a budget, two issues that have stalled in the legislature this year.

Sweeney concurred that a vote on marriage would be a priority. “We need also that life begins at conception. We need to make sure that we have that. Also mental health reform, that hasn’t been touched since the 1960s,” Sweeney said. She also mentioned restructuring departments such as the DNR.

The candidates were also asked how many times they have missed a vote on the House flood. Pat Grassley proudly proclaimed he had not missed any votes during his six years in the legislature. Sweeney pointed to three instances where she missed votes. Two were medical emergencies involving family members. The other was when her son was delivering his retirement speech to FFA.

The final question was perhaps the most important one. The candidates were asked what makes them the most qualified person in the race. Pat Grassley pointed to his six years in the Iowa House, being chair of the Economic Growth Committee, and holding town hall meetings in each town he represents every year. Curiously, he did not mention his farming background.

Annette Sweeney’s answer showed she holds a vast advantage over her 29 year-old Grassley in terms of life and business experience. “What I bring to the table is leadership and life skills,” Sweeney said. “I’m not asking anybody to vote against anyone in this primary. What I’m asking you to vote for is somebody that has taught school, that has been a sole manager of a grain livestock operation. Together with my husband, raised two sons to adulthood. They’ve both been educated in Iowa, stayed in Iowa.”

Sweeney also pointed to her time as the executive director of the Iowa Angus Association and as a small business owner. She also reminded the audience of the legislation she crafted “from scratch”.

Picking a winner of this forum is very difficult. The crowd did not respond with applause except at the beginning and the end. Representative Sweeney spent a lot of time steering the conversation back toward agriculture. At times, it might have been too much. However, there were several farmers in the crowd.

Representative Grassley provided more detail than Sweeney on issues like the economy and the budget. His answers focused more on issues facing Iowans in general, as opposed to just farmers.

The forum was fairly informal. Both candidates spent a little time joking with each other and also expressed their mutual admiration. Grundy County GOP Chairman Brian Andersen said he thought the forum was fairly even, which is also how he envisions the primary election shaping up.

“The major advantage for Representative Sweeney is she’s the chair of the ag committee and we are very heavy in agriculture in Grundy County,” Andersen said. “Representative Grassley, of course he’s got his grandfather as senator. His family is maybe a little geographically closer to Grundy County and he has more family ties to Grundy County. It makes it kind of an even race in my opinion.”

Neither candidate seems to have a large financial advantage in the race. Although Pat Grassley has the full backing of his famous grandfather and his supporters, Annette Sweeney is able to rely on deep-pocketed agri-businessmen like Bruce Rastetter to help fund her campaign. It all comes down to what GOP primary voters in Hardin, Butler and Grundy County prefer: business experience combined with strong ties to the ag community, or a young, rising star hoping to continue the Grassley legacy.

About the Author

Kevin Hall
Kevin Hall brings almost two decades of journalistic experience to TheIowaRepublican. Starting in college as a radio broadcaster, Hall eventually became a television anchor/reporter for stations in North Carolina, Missouri, and Iowa. During the 2007 caucus cycle, Hall changed careers and joined the political realm. He was the northwest Iowa field director for Fred Thompson's presidential campaign. Hall helped Terry Branstad return to the governor's office by organizing southwest Iowa for Branstad's 2010 campaign. Hall serves as a reporter/columnist for

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