Jepsen, Branstad, and Grassley
Despite the efforts of my Friends of Dick Turner committee, Iowa Attorney General Turner decided to not run for U.S. Senate in 1978. Instead, another conservative stepped forward: former Lieutenant Governor Roger Jepsen.
Jepsen had been a state senator from Davenport and was then elected to Iowa’s #2 executive position in 1968. Back then, governors and lieutenant governors were elected separately for two-year terms (rather than as a team). Jepsen drew more votes in the general election than Robert Ray, a liberal Republican who became the new governor, and he outpolled him again when they both ran for reelection in 1970. Jepsen flirted with a 1972 primary challenge to Ray but instead retired from politics.
I’m not sure if Jepsen supported Gov. Reagan in 1976, when he challenged Pres. Ford, but Reaganites within the Iowa GOP—myself included—were enthusiastic in backing Jepsen’s 1978 candidacy. In the primary, he easily defeated the more-liberal Maurice Van Nostrand, favorite of Gov. Ray and the party establishment. In the fall, we were excited when he upset liberal Democratic incumbent Dick Clark. Unfortunately, Sen. Jepsen was turned out of office six years later by Tom Harkin.
That same year—1978—we elected another conservative to statewide office: Terry Branstad. I first saw him in action at the 6th District GOP platform convention, in Storm Lake, in 1976. He was a young state representative from Lake Mills and a strong Reagan supporter. He argued against the proposed giveaway of the Panama Canal, negotiated by Henry Kissinger, and spoke in favor of other conservative platform positions.
I got to know Terry better when he was in Spencer, two years later, seeking the Lieutenant Governor nomination, at the home of my political mentors Harry and Helen Rasdal. He was running to replace liberal Lt. Governor Art Neu. At the GOP district convention that year, I met Roger Jepsen and staffed the Branstad campaign table with Lorna Burnside of Storm Lake. Terry handily defeated two more-liberal candidates in the primary: Willard Hansen and Brice Oakley (backed by the Ray-Neu wing of the party). The primary in June 1978 was a wonderful day, with wins by Jepsen and Branstad. Four years later, Branstad moved up to the governor’s chair when Ray retired.
Terry Branstad, while still in the Iowa House, became an acquaintance of mine when he signed up to be on the mailing list of my Friends of Conservative Candidates committee (successor of FODT). In the spring of 1979, Lt. Governor Branstad came to Spencer, with his wife Chris, to attend my high school graduation party, at our home. Enjoying the moment, and with a house full of people, no one in my family even thought to take a photo of the occasion for posterity!
In 1980, we added a second conservative Republican to the U.S. Senate: Charles E. Grassley. I had become aware of Chuck Grassley in early 1975. He had succeeded legendary conservative H.R. Gross in representing the old 3rd District, including my maternal grandparents in Floyd County. As a newspaper publisher, Grandpa Crowder got to know Grassley when he was a member of the Iowa House and, eventually, the U.S. House.
Feeling that my own Congressman, a liberal Democrat, was not going to adequately represent me, I started writing to Congressman Grassley about my concerns. I wasn’t even in his district but I felt a connection to him. So, I was excited when he decided to run for Senate in 1980. Once again, Iowa’s establishment Republicans, including Gov. Ray, supported a more liberal candidate in the primary: former state party chairman Tom Stoner. Grassley beat Stoner by almost 2-to-1. He went on to comfortably defeat liberal Democratic incumbent John Culver at the same time Gov. Reagan was unseating Pres. Carter.
After decades in Washington, Chuck Grassley is still the same honest, plain-spoken farmer who entered politics on a part-time basis in the late 1950s. He’s also still a maverick who is willing to part company with party leadership for the sake of core principles. He hasn’t sold out.
I was excited to have an opportunity to reintroduce myself to him at the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa. I sat next to Sen. Grassley and his wife Barbara during one of the Iowa delegation breakfasts. We had an enjoyable conversation. At one point, as we reminisced about Iowa political history, he said, “I think you remember more about my career than I remember myself.” He was very kind and unassuming, even though I was part of the minority Ron Paul contingent at the convention. He remains one of my political heroes!
Jepsen, Branstad, and Grassley were all routinely attacked by the Des Moines Register as right-wing extremists who were unelectable because of their supposedly scary views and narrow appeal . . . until they were elected to high office. The three men were also opposed by the state GOP elite—a pragmatic, monied group that disliked their consistent conservatism, including being pro-life on abortion.
Such slander and resistance—yet eventual triumph because of grassroots support—resembles the Reagan candidacy of 1976 and 1980 and the Trump candidacy of 2016. Republicans can be truly conservative and electable, principled and inclusive. Conservatism is popular when it's properly understood by the candidate and properly presented to the voters.
Cropped one-of-a-kind photograph, showing Sen. Harold Hughes and Rep. Charles Grassley, center and right. Presumably taken by a Charles City Press photographer in the early 1970s. I found this picture when sorting through Grandpa Crowder's personal archives.