U.S. Senate candidates Chuck Grassley and Mike Franken clashed over abortion, inflation, health care costs and a range of other issues in their first and only televised debate Thursday night.
The incumbent, Grassley, is a Republican seeking his eighth term in the Senate. He faces a challenge from retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Franken, a Democrat, in the Nov. 8 election. Early voting begins Oct. 19.
Thursday night's hourlong debate on Iowa PBS is the only scheduled debate between the two candidates.
A July Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed Grassley leading Franken by 8 percentage points, 47% to 39%. That margin is narrower than in any Iowa Poll matchup involving Grassley since he was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1980.
As of July, the most recent time candidates reported their fundraising totals, Grassley had about $4 million in the bank compared with Franken's $1.1 million.
Sen. Chuck Grassley rules out 15-week national abortion ban
The candidates disagreed about what to do about abortion in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overruling Roe v. Wade and eliminating the national right to an abortion.
Grassley ruled out voting for a federal bill introduced by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham that would ban abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape or incest or to save the life of the pregnant person.
"I would vote no," he said.
Grassley has previously cosponsored another bill of Graham's that would ban abortion after 20 weeks, with those same exceptions. That bill was introduced in 2021, when Roe v. Wade was still in effect. Grassley said with Roe struck down, abortion is no longer a federal issue; it's a state issue.
He said the U.S. Supreme Court made the right decision in overturning Roe v. Wade, and decisions about restrictions on abortion should be made by elected representatives.
"Obviously it could be at the federal level, but we’ve been waiting for a long period of time to get this back to the states," Grassley said, "and that’s where it should be and that’s where I want it to be."
Franken has said he supports codifying Roe v. Wade into law. But when asked Thursday how such a bill should define viability, Franken said it shouldn't be a government decision.
"The short of it is during these most private times, personal times in a woman’s life, we shouldn’t have the government stepping in to determine when viability exists, etc.," he said. "The doctor knows this. The woman knows this. This is not something for government to step in and make those determinations."
Candidates spar over inflation, reducing costs
Both candidates criticized each other's position on inflation, while arguing they would work to reduce costs for Iowans.
Franken pointed to Grassley's vote against capping the price of insulin at $35 for people on Medicare and said Grassley has taken donations from the pharmaceutical industry.
"We can do a lot as a senator (to reduce inflation), but it takes longstanding altruism and intellect to make it happen and not being a stooge for big corporations," Franken said.
Grassley said he has long worked to lower prescription drug prices, including working to enact Medicare Part D and partnering with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., on his own prescription drug bill.
He said Democratic spending policies have increased inflation in the United States.
"When you’re in a hole, you quit digging," he said. "But the Democrats are not quitting digging."
Candidates debate Jan. 6, peaceful transfer of power
Grassley talked about his support for changes to the Electoral Count Act of 1887 that would raise the threshold for members of Congress to object to electoral votes cast for the presidency and clarify that the vice president's role is purely ceremonial.
In 2020, former President Donald Trump pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to interfere with the counting of electoral votes despite the fact that Pence had no authority to do so. The proposed law would make that lack of authority even clearer.
Asked if he would have declared Joe Biden as the winner of the 2020 election had he been presiding over the joint session of Congress as president pro tempore in place of Pence, Grassley dismissed the question.
"That’s not even a legitimate question because we are taking care of that issue right now by making sure in this legislation that I hope passes in November, December when we get back, that the vice president has got no discretion whatsoever," Grassley said. "His job is strictly ministerial. Just count the votes, nothing more."
Franken said Democrats have respected the results of presidential elections. And he said Grassley hasn't done enough to stand up to elements in his own party who sympathize with the people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
"This country has never had this before, but when a party goes off the rail because of lack of leadership and this craven desire to stay in office, to stay in power, then we’ve got problems," Franken said.
Mike Franken responds to allegation of unwanted kiss
Franken also addressed allegations that he kissed a former campaign staffer on the mouth without her consent. The former staffer filed a report with the Des Moines Police Department in April, but the case was closed and no charges were filed.
"That matter was investigated and found to be unfounded," Franken said. "And you know, I’m a husband, two kids: girl, boy, wife of 33 years, 40-year history of zero tolerance of sexual malfeasance, sexual misdeeds or gender-related harassment."
Franken said Grassley "has a problem with women" because of Grassley's political stances such as his opposition to abortion.
"You’re in no position to lecture me about women," Grassley replied. "You’re in no position to do that."
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: US Senate candidates Chuck Grassley, Mike Franken meet for only debate