The police report came out at perhaps the worst possible time for Mike Franken.
The Iowa Democratic Senate nominee was giving incumbent Republican Chuck Grassley his toughest challenge since the seven-term senator won his first race in 1980. Franken beat former Rep. Abby Finkenauer (D-Iowa) in the primary and recently outraised Grassley as a Democratic group spent against the incumbent.
Then the conservative Iowa Field Report published an April report his former campaign manager filed with Des Moines police, alleging that Franken kissed her without consent. The woman who filed the report told police that Franken has kissed other women and had what she called “1950s interactions” with them, but did not describe the behavior as sexual or aggressive.
Franken denies the incident, which did not result in charges, and says he had never before been accused of unwanted advances on women. The retired Navy vice admiral said in an interview that people in his state have already moved on.
Yet he’s not letting the timing go unnoticed. While describing himself as an advocate for accountability, Franken pointed a finger at Republicans for the “desperate move” of publishing the report in “a Republican paper funded by Chuck Grassley, funded by the Republicans.”
“I am an active supporter of any effort to uncover and disclose assaults of any matter. But this one didn’t happen,” Franken said. “I'm just so disappointed that anything negative has come up about this. Because we're on all eight cylinders. We're cruising along … that was just an oddity. That's no longer part of the picture.”
The Iowa Field Report's write-up of the Franken police report was authored by GOP consultant Luke Martz, whose LinkedIn profile identifies him as the site's founder and editor.
Responding to Franken’s comments about how the police report came to light, Michaela Sundermann, a spokesperson for Grassley, said “dismissing her allegations of assault as politically motivated is baseless and disrespectful.”
“Mike Franken is not the victim here, and he should hold himself to a higher standard as a candidate for public office,” Sundermann said.
With just seven weeks until Election Day, the allegation jolted a once-sleepy Iowa race, which is on the periphery of the Senate map as parties and super PACs make their final spending decisions for the midterms. It’s closer than expected, according to public polls, but not as close as Democrats’ other pickup opportunities in Ohio, Florida and North Carolina.
In addition, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is protecting a half-dozen incumbents in battleground states. Bringing those senators back is the DSCC’s primary job and easiest path to retaining the majority — which made Franken’s job challenging even before the police report’s publication.
Being an Iowa Democrat isn’t easy to begin with these days: Democrats have lost the past four Senate races. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer disparaged Franken’s chances recently over dinner with colleagues, according to Punchbowl News. Schumer also left Iowa out of his $15 million allocation toward Senate races.
Despite the chilly reception so far, Franken believes the Democratic leader will get on board.
“I think Chuck Schumer's happy with our performance, and secretly — he may not be saying that in public — he's proud of how we're doing. And I would expect that [once] he has a poll … and suddenly we are at two points, or we're ahead? That suddenly his interest will skyrocket,” Franken said.
Maybe not. David Bergstein, a spokesperson for Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, said: “The DSCC is not involved in this race.” The Schumer-linked Senate Majority PAC, whose affiliated Duty and Honor PAC spent roughly $250,000 attacking Grassley according to AdImpact, declined to comment.
It’s not a surprise that Franken may be on his own this fall given his history in the state. He challenged DSCC-backed candidate Theresa Greenfield in 2020, losing the nomination by double digits. (Iowa's GOP incumbent, Joni Ernst, ultimately defeated Greenfield by 6 points.)
This time around, many Washington Democrats thought Finkenauer would prevail and face Grassley in the fall, but Franken trounced her by 15 points.
It’s unclear how damaging his former campaign manager's allegation will prove. Democratic candidate Cal Cunningham's North Carolina Senate bid imploded in 2020 after an extramarital affair was revealed. Former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is unrelated to Mike Franken, resigned his seat in 2017 after several women alleged he made unwanted advances on them.
Al Franken resigned amid Alabama’s special Senate election, when former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) defeated GOP nominee Roy Moore following allegations of sexual misconduct against the Republican that included romantic pursuit of teenagers.
Mike Franken's former campaign manager did not reply to a text message sent to a number listed to her.
“I've never had this, you know, [in] my 40-year professional history. I've never had this before. Never. Large organizations, small organizations, on ships, on land in the Pentagon, in other offices. Never,” he said in the interview.
Franken presents as a Democrat who might be unpredictable as a senator. He didn't commit to backing Schumer as leader in the same interview where he vowed the New Yorker would be pleased with his campaign, declaring he’d like to see who else is running. He called Grassley a “party hack” and asserts that as a senator he wouldn’t be “beholden to party politics.”
As he challenges the 89-year-old Grassley, the 64-year-old candidate said he’s open to changing the filibuster rules to codify Roe v. Wade. Asked if he believes in any abortion restrictions, he replied that he’d leave that to women and their doctors: “I’m not qualified for that discussion. I’m not a woman.”
He also didn't weigh in directly on whether President Joe Biden should seek the White House again: “I’m not saying he should run again or should not.” But Franken does broadly associate himself with the idea that Americans deserve new political leaders.
That would presumably include him, an ascension that would require a stunning win over Grassley after the alleged kiss, all without much help at all from the Democratic Party. Grassley’s set to spend more than $2.5 million on ads this fall, according to AdImpact, in addition to a coordinated buy with the National Republican Senatorial Committee with a mid-six figure total, according to an NRSC aide.
Franken, by contrast, currently has under $900,000 on the books this fall, though has not booked all of his fall reservations and an aide said he will soon be securing more. He insisted that he’ll surprise everyone. Still, he says he “would like to have outside support.”
“My sense is that we will close him and pass him and beat him with points to spare,” Franken said of Grassley. “This is going to go well for us.”