ADEL, Iowa – When David Young first became Sen. Charles E. Grassley’s chief of staff seven years ago, the senator sat him down for a talk. Young thought he was in for the riot act or a long list of rules.
Instead, as he tells it in the parking lot where people are shucking corn for the Adel Sweet Corn Festival, Iowa’s beloved senior senator recounted some advice he received when he first came to Washington.
“He said, ‘[whatever] your constituents want, anything and everything, you do it,'" Young recalls. "'If they want you to cut their toenails, you cut their toenails.’”
A few weeks later, Young went out and bought enough toenail clippers for the entire staff as a reminder of their mission. Today, Young recounts that tale as a candidate for Iowa’s open 3rd District. Grassley tells the same story in Young's first general election radio ad.
Young jokes that he probably needs to start carrying around toenail clippers. "Undoubtedly, someone’s going to come up to me and say, ‘Cut ‘em Dave,'" he jokes, saying he might also need "a 5 gallon Purell pump” to finish the job.
Young is running for the seat currently held by Rep. Tom Latham, R-Iowa, who is retiring after 10 terms. He faces Democrat Staci Appel, a former state senator, in a highly competitive race. The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates the contest as a Tossup .
The former staffer came out of obscurity to win the Republican nomination: Young placed fifth in the six-way primary, but emerged victorious in the fifth round of balloting at the nominating convention later that month. Iowa Republicans say Young ultimately prevailed because throughout the entire race, he made sure everybody liked him — even if he wasn't their first choice.
But to win the seat this November, Young must prove he can be the star of the show, not just the nice guy behind the scenes.
“It's definitely been a transition,” Young tells CQ Roll Call, “being the one where it's your thoughts and opinions that matter and don't matter and people want to hear what you have to say as opposed to someone else.”
More than a decade ago, Young drove from Iowa to Washington, D.C., all of his belongings in his car, to sleep on a friend's couch. He first knocked on Grassley's door, but he didn't get the gig. Instead, he interned for Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., quickly ascending his office's leadership ladder, and eventually worked for Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., before Grassley finally hired him in 2006.
In a political climate where even a whiff of "Washington insider" can be detrimental to a candidate, Young is not concerned.
“That’ll bring Grassley out of the cage,” he said, launching into a near-perfect impression of the senator’s growl.
While shucking corn the night before the festival, it's clear Young has honed his engaged listening skills — perhaps a result of tending to constituents for nearly a decade. He lets nearby shuckers do most of the talking — "I came here to shuck!" he demurs, when someone notes he isn't using the event to glad-hand. A day later, he sounds genuinely interested to know people’s stories, comparing notes with a woman who went to a neighboring high school, asking her boyfriend how he got involved in his current job.
Later, one man calls him a “manipulator” after grilling him on cutting spending. Young says he wants more laws to sunset, so that they can be undone if they turn out not to be effective, and he wants to end pork barrel spending. But he does not have a reply on what exactly he would cut from federal funds coming to Iowa.
As the man berates him, Young calmly answers, “I’m listening to you. ... I appreciate these conversations.”
The man finishes by saying he’ll probably be voting for Young anyway on Nov. 4.
“A lot of the time my mouth is shut and my ears are open,” Young tells CQ Roll Call.
But at times, this comes at the expense of making sure voters know who Young is, and why he’s talking to them. Over several hours, locals mistook Young as a candidate for state representative, city council and Senate. In fairness, Young briefly did run for Senate this cycle until Latham announced his retirement.
He never says a mean word about his opponent, whose campaign did not make her available to CQ Roll Call during the four-day trip, despite repeated requests. Even his tracker, the Democratic operative who follows him with a camera in hopes of catching him mid-gaffe, elicits a kind response. He said he had gotten to know "Tyler" and even invited him to dinner with his staffers — on the condition he turn off the camera.
Other Republicans are happy to do the dirty work for him.
“[Young] is the epitome of Iowa nice,” Gov. Terry Branstad told CQ Roll Call at the State Fair. “And [Appel] is the opposite. She is one of the meanest, most —” he cut himself off, before launching into a story of how Appel called a friend of his “a shark” when she was campaigning against him for the state Senate.
“I mean, she is just unmerciful in terms of personal attacks on people,” he added.
“OK,” Young said, when asked about Branstad’s remark later that day, as he prepared to shuck corn for the Adel Sweet Corn Festival. After a pause, he added, “I've met my opponent once, shook her hand, and she shook mine, and said, 'Have a good day.'"
At the moment, Young trails his opponent in fundraising. Since Appel had no primary, she's been raising money since 2013. She had $725,000 in the bank at the end of June. Young had just $88,000 in cash on hand when he got the nod.
But Young said he is catching up and is already laying out a media plan. Earlier in the day, Speaker John A. Boehner had been in town to hold a lunch fundraiser for him, which raised $125,000, according to Young. He had another recent fundraiser with Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy that netted $60,000.
On Saturday at the festival, they are serving up the corn that everyone shucked the day before.
Young puts four ears of corn on his plate. He slathers the first one in butter, piles on some salt and pepper, and eats his corn typewriter style, moving across a whole row before starting on the next one. He is methodical and focused, and though he does not seem to be rushing at all, in less than a minute, he has completely finished his first ear of corn. He pauses for a moment, tucks a napkin into his blue button-down shirt, and starts on the next ear, finishing at the same breakneck speed.
He approaches his conversations with voters with the same level of seriousness and focus. When a man sticks a freshly shucked ear of corn in his face the night before, pretends it’s a microphone, and asks him about his feelings on Iraq, Young answers earnestly.
“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our soldiers over there. I think it's a little bit too late right now what we're doing, but I'm glad we're finally doing it. We need to take care of our people, with those surgical strikes ... and there is a humanitarian side to all this that we should always think about,” Young says.
“You know, you're taking this way too seriously,” the man chides laughingly.
“Well," Young says, "I take this seriously."