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Cover Story

Ernst vs. Braley


The race for the open U.S. Senate seat between Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst has turned into a blockbuster battle with not only the future direction of Iowa politics on the line but perhaps control of the U.S. Senate and the fate of Barack Obama’s presidential legacy.

When U.S. Senator Tom Harkin announced his retirement and Democratic Party leaders anointed Braley as his successor, the congressman was the clear favorite to hold the seat. Unfortunately for the Democrats, a series of self-inflicted miscues by Braley, along with Ernst’s near-meteoric rise, have reshuffled the deck and created one of the most closely-watched races in the country.

An August Rasmussen Reports poll has the race knotted at 43 percent for each candidate. During the summer, the highly regarded Cook’s Political Report switched the race to toss-up status. The National Journal’s Hotline placed the contest in the top 10 of seats likely to flip parties, and the Washington Post’s Election Lab currently predicts Ernst has a 78 percent chance of winning the contest.

Braley’s gaffes have been widely chronicled: complaining about the lack of towel service in the House gym during the 2013 government shutdown, a tussle with his vacation property neighbors over wandering chickens, and his disastrous Texas trial lawyer speech where he famously stated, “If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice. Someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years, in a visible and public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or you might have a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

The liquor cart speech, which insulted farmers, non-lawyers and Grassley supporters, was a true “47 percent moment,” which may ultimately spell the political death of Braley. Emily Schul Theis of The National Journal recently wrote, “The ambitious lawyer-turned-congressman has become the Democratic version of Mitt Romney, and with the election approaching, he’s working overtime to combat the image before it’s the only thing that defines him.” Jennifer Duffy, of Cook’s Political Report, said, “The problem hasn’t been the campaign or even the message, but rather the candidate.”

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Ernst had her own misstep when discussing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. She said, “We don’t know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the intelligence that was operated on. I have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction.” After facing criticism, she clarified that, while the weapons were not there at the time of the invasion, Iraq had previously possessed WMDs and, “we don’t know exactly what happened to those weapons.”

What’s at stake

An Ernst win would give Republicans control of both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time since 1980. With two conservative senators, Iowans can expect a focus on agricultural issues and a push for reduced government. An Ernst win would also help shape the direction of the state Republican Party, assisting Gov. Terry Branstad and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds’ goal of creating a more moderate party.

A Joni Ernst win would give Republicans control of both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time since 1980. Photo By Jeff Storjohann, Carroll Daily Times Herald

A Joni Ernst win would give Republicans control of both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats for the first time since 1980. Photo By Jeff Storjohann, Carroll Daily Times Herald

A Braley victory would preserve Iowa’s status quo in Congress and maintain the current landscape of Iowa politics. Braley’s voting record is akin to Harkin’s, and he would likely focus on similar issues.

The winner could remain in office for years as Iowans tend to retain their elected officials. Iowa has not had an open U.S. Senate seat since 1974 when Congressman John Culver edged out David Stanley for the seat vacated by Harold Hughes. Grassley would topple Culver in 1980 and go on to serve six terms. Harkin defeated Roger Jepsen in 1984, moving from the U.S. House to the Senate, where he is about to finish his fifth term.

Whether Republicans win control of the Senate hinges on the outcome in a half-dozen states, including Iowa, and if the GOP controls both Houses of Congress, it will likely spell the end of the Obama presidency in terms of any further accomplishments.

The combatants

“Of all the candidates in the Republican primary, Joni Ernst is the one candidate the Braley campaign did not want to run against,” said Steffen Schmidt, professor of political science at Iowa State University.

And for good reason, as the other primary candidates (Sam Clovis, Mark Jacobs, Matt Whitaker, or Scott Schaben) would have been easier fodder for the Democrats. But Ernst poses several problems for Braley: she is a woman, a mother and a veteran. Those characteristics resonate with some of Braley’s natural base of female and feminist voters as well as some key issue areas such as education, children and families and veteran’s affairs.

Ernst, the 44-year-old Red Oak resident, grew up on a farm and currently serves in the Iowa State Senate. (Ironically, her family name was Culver.) She is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa National Guard and served a tour of duty in Operation Iraqi Freedom running convoys into Kuwait and Iraq. She is a graduate of Iowa State University and Columbus College. She was the Montgomery County Auditor from 2004 to 2011 and took over the state Senate seat of Kim Reynolds, when Reynolds became Iowa’s Lt. Governor.

After the June primary, which Ernst won by a comfortable 56 percent, she took two weeks off for National Guard duty. Upon her return, remarkably, she was leading the race.

A Bruce Braley victory would preserve Iowa’s status quo in Congress and maintain the current landscape of Iowa politics. Braley’s voting record is akin to Sen Tom Harkin’s, and he would likely focus on similar issues. Photo By Douglas Burns, Carroll Daily Times Herald

A Bruce Braley victory would preserve Iowa’s status quo in Congress and maintain the current landscape of Iowa politics. Braley’s voting record is akin to Sen Tom Harkin’s, and he would likely focus on similar issues. Photo By Douglas Burns, Carroll Daily Times Herald

Waterloo attorney Braley won his first Congressional race in 2006 after eight-term incumbent Jim Nussle stepped down to run for governor. The 56-year-old Grinnell native is a graduate of both Iowa State University and the University of Iowa. He has enjoyed a successful tenure in Congress and knows his way around the legislative process.

However, Braley had difficulty beating unknown candidate Ben Lange in 2010. Lange nearly upset the sitting Congressman, who only won by a scant 4,000 votes out of more than 200,000 cast. Braley’s district, which is more heavily Democratic, seems to have had a hard time fully embracing him.

National Democrats have been slow to come to Braley’s aid. Bill and Hillary Clinton are coming to the Harkin Steak Fry, but they will be here for Hillary, not for Braley. The presence of President Obama would likely only hurt Braley, but both Obama and the Clintons could be pressing for more funding for the Braley campaign. Clinton and Obama may be tepid about going all in, as Braley was a John Edwards supporter in the 2008 presidential race.

The Squeal vs. The Peep

Which will come in first, the chicken or the pig?

Television advertising is a key aspect of any major campaign. Advertisements define candidates, set the tone of the campaign, help determine the issues and serve to attack the opponent.

In the past, candidate’s campaigns would directly produce their own ads, but after Supreme Court cases such as Citizens United and, any group is free to run ads independent of the campaign. Ads are particularly important in Iowa’s Senate race because both candidates had not been widely known across the State.

Ernst ads proved to be superior to Braley’s. Her “Squeal” ad served its purpose to break her out of the primary pack. It’s bold and unique approach will be discussed in political consulting circles for years to come.

Braley’s team responded with the “Peep” ad, featuring a baby chick and implying Ernst had never proposed spending cuts in the state legislature. Although the concept may have been clever, it backfired by portraying an anti-feminist message and merely re-enforcing the strength of the “Squeal” advertisement.

Reaction to the ad and Braley’s lackluster standing in the polls led to the firing of Braley’s consulting team. The new group is more aggressive with improved ads, the first a focus on minimum wage in an effort to insert more favorable issues into the mix for Braley. But his campaign has been late to attack Ernst on Democratic standards like Social Security and Medicare. Instead, Ernst’s team has preempted any attack with a new ad pledging her support for the popular social programs.

The Ernst campaign also beat Braley to the punch when their opposition research discovered Braley had missed 79 percent of his Veteran’s Affairs Subcommittee meetings. They quickly turned this gem into an ad that is particularly effective, leaving the impression that Braley isn’t doing his job while chaos and scandal have gripped the Department of Veterans Affairs regarding whether some vets received delayed care or may have died while on secret waiting lists at VA hospitals.

Braley’s new team then produced some quality ads on veteran’s issues but they are somewhat negated by the fact that Braley is on the defensive regarding that issue.

“It is very difficult to fix the hole created by Braley’s absence at Veterans Affairs hearings in the midst of a crisis. He is going to need a lot of validators. It’s why Democrats sent (former Senator and Secretary of the Navy) Jim Webb out to campaign with him. The other difficulty he has is that Ernst’s military record is pretty unimpeachable, and he didn’t serve,” said Duffy.

“All Braley can try to do is staunch the bleeding and minimize the loss. Veteran issues are unlikely to be a plus for him now, no matter what he does. But by making some counter-arguments, he gives Democrats and Democratic-leaning veterans a reason to stick with him,” said Larry Sabato, the Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Independent groups for Braley produced several attack ads against Ernst that seem to be falling flat on voters. One ad implies that Ernst is a friend of “Big Oil” and therefore opposed to ethanol and biofuels production. That may have worked perfectly on Mark Jacobs, but arguing that an Iowa farm girl is somehow beholden to Texas oil interests over Iowa farmers doesn’t ring true for many Iowa voters. It may be evidence that outside groups and their money may sometimes be misplaced when they don’t understand the political nature of a state.

Another ad has some tycoons in a room smoking cigars talking about how they have Ernst in their back pocket, saying she would only backtrack on them “when pigs fly.” The ad is almost comically produced. Given the Braley campaign’s experience with squeals and peeps, they should probably steer clear of any further references to pigs, chickens or any other farm animal.

The ground game

For several decades now, the Iowa Democratic Party has deployed a far more effective get-out-the-vote effort than Iowa Republicans have mustered, and it has resulted in shifting Iowa from an all-red state to a purple state that leans Democratic.

Democrats are better organizers at the county and precinct level and have a larger cadre of activists who are willing to stuff and stamp envelopes, walk door to door and staff phone banks. The party has effectively used groups such as labor unions, teacher unions and students to provide the work force necessary to carry out their get-out-the-vote plan.

Several years ago, Democrats in the legislature were also successful in creating same day voter registration and have loosened absentee ballot restrictions. These strategies have increased Democratic turnout and are likely responsible for some of the Democratic gains.

In the 2012 general election, 43 percent of Iowa voters cast an early vote using absentee balloting. Of those voters, 42 percent were registered Democrats and 32 percent were Republicans, giving Democrats a 68,359 statewide voter edge from absentee ballots. In many precincts and counties, Republicans actually produced more Election Day voters but Democrats won races due to early votes already in the bank.

In April, Democrats held a statewide voter registration edge of 603,319 to 600,204 for the Republicans. But the GOP utilized the June primary to pad 20,000 more voters. Democratic registration numbers remained flat, largely due to the lack of a primary for U.S. Senate, governor and three of the four Congressional races.

Those extra GOP voters could provide an important edge in the Senate race. Republicans also wisely persuaded Sam Clovis to run for statewide office. Clovis, who surprised many with a strong second place showing in the GOP Senate primary, will help ensure a respectable turnout of his supporters, many of whom are further right and may otherwise have stayed home on Election Day.

Many believe Gov. Branstad has been instrumental in getting Clovis on the ballot and in marshalling the renewed GOP effort to compete for absentee ballots and increased turnout efforts.

“Ernst’s relationship with Branstad has been largely overlooked,” said The Cook Reports Duffy. “But I suspect it is going to pay some dividends.”

While the Braley campaign may boast an advantage in the critical area of voter turnout, the GOP may be counting on a number of these smaller steps to add up to victory for Ernst.

For the love of money

In the past, a candidate’s campaign “war chest” was usually the best predictor of who would eventually prevail in an election, as the candidate with the most money would almost always win. But since the Supreme Court has opened the contribution floodgates, it is impossible to determine who has the upper financial hand in the Iowa race.

Outside spending on television advertisements now dwarfs the candidate’s campaign spending on ads. Those groups include the Environmental Defense Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and NextGen Climate Action on behalf of Braley. On the Ernst side, they include Americans for Prosperity, American Crossroads, American Heartland PAC and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Both campaigns enjoy generous expenditures from their respective Senate Majority PACs in Washington.

“Most modes of independent spending in 2014 are contingent upon decision-making by a tiny group of financiers and their hired guns,” Sabato said. “This means decisions can be made quickly and implemented rapidly. They appear to be guided by public and private polling as much as anything else. Given the close nature of the Iowa contest, I would expect both sides to be very amply backed by this kind of campaign spending.”

The finish line

The Iowa race may come down to which campaign edges out the other in its respective area of strength. Can Ernst continue to create the positive images of her intriguing personality and control the key issues while continuing to define Braley in a negative light sufficiently to win over undecided voters? Can Braley defend himself against those images just enough to allow his voter turnout machine to edge her out at the finish line?

Sabato, whose university’s Center for Politics also publishes the highly regarded Crystal Ball website, says the Iowa race is a true toss-up.

“Braley needs a boost in voter contact and GOTV since Democratic constituencies tend not to participate in midterms to the degree GOP voters do,” he said. “Ernst needs to capitalize on her media appeal because even in a midterm, a candidate perceived as too far to the right isn’t likely to win in today’s Iowa.”

A Braley victory will surely set off a loud squeal within the Iowa GOP. But if Ernst wins, Iowans may never hear another peep out of Braley. CV

James Strohman teaches political science at Iowa State University, contact

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