- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

JOHNSTON, Iowa (AP) - Democrats in Iowa vying to challenge Republican Sen. Charles Grassley in his upcoming re-election race used a televised debate Thursday to reiterate their criticism of the longtime senator’s leading role in a U.S. Supreme Court nomination fight.

The four candidates, including former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge and state Sen. Rob Hogg, began the hour-long debate in Johnston focusing on what Democrats see as an opening to defeat Grassley in November - his decision not to hold hearings for President Barack Obama’s U.S. Supreme Court pick.

“The No. 1 job of the Senate Judiciary chair is to hold a hearing on a presidential nominee for the Supreme Court,” said Hogg, referring to Grassley. “This obstruction is unprecedented.”

Judge, a former state agriculture secretary who was recruited by national Democrats to join the race in March, brushed aside any criticism that her late participation in the race was problematic in an election cycle dominated by outside candidates. She said the longtime senator, who is seeking his seventh term, has spent too much time in Congress.

“I think Chuck Grassley is the establishment candidate,” she said.

Grassley has steadfastly opposed any confirmation hearings or votes on Judge Merrick Garland until Americans elect the next president.

The candidates, including attorney Tom Fiegen and former state legislator Bob Krause, were also asked about their plans to address issues ranging from agriculture, road infrastructure, the minimum wage and water quality. Water quality has received a spotlight in the state amid growing concerns and a lawsuit by the Des Moines water utility that seeks to force county officials to reduce farm runoff.

Hogg attempted to challenge Judge on her involvement in a private organization that criticized the utility’s lawsuit and called for less confrontational actions.

“You cannot ask them to give up that lawsuit,” he said.

Judge instead focused on her support of increasing the state’s sales tax by less than a penny to put money into a soil and water conservation fund created by voters in 2010.

The candidates used some of the free air time to take jabs at one another. Hogg pointed out that Fiegen had lost several campaign races. Judge said Hogg was not well informed about her involvement on a failed collective bargaining bill when she was lieutenant governor.

The debate at the Iowa Public Television studios is one of two televised debates between the candidates before the state’s June 7 primary. There has been no public polling of the race, though Judge is considered at an advantage because of her name recognition, since she has been on several statewide ballots. She has also been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and raised more money than the other candidates - which she has said is key to beating Grassley.

“We’ve got to make Washington work again, and I believe that I can do that,” she said.

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