How did Iowa state senator Joni Ernst become a threat to Harry Reid’s Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate?
“The Democrats have thrown everything but the kitchen sink at Ms. Ernst, and at the best this race is a tie, it’s still a pure toss-up in what should be a marginally Democrat environment in Iowa,” a GOP pollster told NRO.
This race was not supposed to challenge Democrats or drain their resources.
“I was confident Rep. Braley would win the day he announced,” state Democratic-party chairman Tyler Olsen said in February, “and I’m only getting more confident every day.”
What a change a Republican primary can make. Ernst, a state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, revealed herself to be a formidable political force. A cheeky ad about how she “grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” and thus could make pork-barrel spenders in Congress “squeal” ensured that voters would pay attention to her message even though she was she was outspent 10 to 1 by a wealthy opponent. Ernst eventually united the conservative and more moderate wings of the Republican party, earning endorsements from both tea-party icon Sarah Palin and former GOP standard-bearer Mitt Romney. She won the Senate nomination with 56 percent of the vote.
In the general election, despite an onslaught of negative ads — Democrats have poured over $13 million into the race, compared to $6 million from Republicans — two recent polls show that Ernst has closed a 13-point deficit; the race is now a dead heat. A USA Today/Suffolk University survey showed Braley leading 40.2 percent to 40 percent (a statistically meaningless difference), while Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling gives Braley a 41–40 lead.
Democrats tried to strangle her candidacy in its infancy, but failed. They began running ads against Ernst as soon as the primary ended; for about 10 days, voters were hearing or seeing only the attack ads, as Ernst wasn’t on TV.
Ernst has been accused of wanting to cut entitlement spending in order to “protect tax breaks for the Koch brothers.” A super PAC funded by Democratic billionaire Tom Steyer has spent $3.7 million reinforcing that attack. The League of Conservation Voters has attempted to paint her as a right-wing extremist with little intellectual heft.
Braley’s campaign is releasing ads faulting her for opposing a minimum-wage increase and supporting a personhood amendment that “would have banned many common forms of birth control,” according to the Braley campaign. Even when Braley is mildly positive, he goes negative. A new ad touting his support for seniors devolves into another attack on Ernst’s positions on entitlements.
“He is such a bad candidate that he’s not running on anything anymore except trying to paint Joni Ernst in a negative light,” says David Polyansky, a senior advisor to the Ernst campaign. said. “What he has run is a very narrow campaign that is really centered on trying to tear down Iowan Joni Ernst. It really remains to be seen if he ever moves off of that. And that’s what you do when you have a bad candidate and you’re not where you need to be in a campaign.”
If Ernst has surprised national Republicans, Braley has disappointed Democrats. A fourth-term congressman, he has proven himself a far weaker campaigner than Reid and company must have expected. The attorney-turned-lawmaker was caught on tape deriding Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law” at an out-of-state fundraiser with trial lawyers. The video of Braley putting on makeup before a campaign stop at a farm didn’t make him look any less elitist. His campaign also released an ad comparing Ernst to a baby “chick” that was panned as sexist, undermining the “war on women” mantra that sustained Democrats in the 2012 election.
In short, Braley has made mistakes that tend to confirm the Republicans’ preferred narrative about him. Ernst has generally avoided such errors, although Democrats trying to paint her as “too extreme” for Iowa were pleased that Ernst told the New York Times she was “flattered” to be compared to Sarah Palin “because she is a strong leader.”
Ernst’s political persona resists being caricatured as anti-woman or elitist (recall the hog-castrating ad), or dominated by billionaire special interests.
“People just aren’t going to believe that a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard is going to get pushed around by anybody,” an Iowa Republican political consultant said, referring to Ernst’s military background. “They do this guilt-by-association stuff because it makes the liberals feel better, but it’s kind of insulting that someone as accomplished as her who has come as far as she has in her life is now being portrayed as someone who can be so easily bought and paid for. It’s ridiculous. I think it’s one of the reasons why this isn’t working very well.”
Although Ernst is in much better shape than expected, one aspect of the race has Ernst’s supporters troubled.
“If Bruce Braley wins, it will be because they’ve won the absentee-ballot war,” Jamie Johnson, a member of the Iowa Republican Party State Central Committee, told NRO. “The Democrats have been beating us for the last several months for absentee voting, absentee-ballot requests.”
Braley’s edge reflects the Democrats’ traditional strength in that area and the remarkable weakness of the state’s Republican party, which was distracted from the general election by a power struggle between libertarians and more traditional Republicans.
The situation has improved since new leaders were elected over the summer. An Iowa Republican-party official said their team is “implementing a very robust absentee-ballot program” this cycle, though he acknowledged that the Democrats have an edge so far.
Early voting begins on September 25, which raises the stakes for the September 28 debate between Braley and Ernst.
Polyansky has tried to lower expectations about the debate. “We’ve got three debates coming up against a practiced Washington politician who is also a trial lawyer, so I think it’s a built-in advantage for Bruce Braley in these debate settings,” he said. “At the same time, I do think it’s an opportunity for Joni to introduce herself to a lot of Iowans who, really, still don’t know her.”
Either candidate could still win, but Braley will not have the heavy advantages in money and campaign organization that he enjoyed earlier in the race. Ernst’s resilience so far has also made outside Republican groups more willing to invest in her campaign. Freedom Partners Action Fund, for instance, announced Friday that it is launching a seven-figure ad campaign hitting Braley for failing to attend Veterans Committee hearings as a crisis developed.
“They’ve managed to raise some negatives on us, but we’re still tied, and now we are going to get an opportunity,” one Republican consultant said. “Our groups are finally showing up and it’s his turn.”
— Joel Gehrke is a political reporter for National Review Online.