In a campaign so far defined by hogs and chickens, the race for the open Iowa Senate seat that most expected to fall to Democrats is now perhaps the closest in the country.
And with the control of the Senate majority at stake in the upcoming election, Democrats are dispatching their biggest stars to help, starting Sunday with Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Democratic candidate Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, was once the front-runner to succeed Democratic powerhouse Sen. Tom Harkin. But Braley has spent the last few weeks trying to regain the upper hand after some self-inflicted wounds allowed Republicans to cast him as an elitist former trial lawyer disconnected from the state’s rural interests.
His rival, Joni Ernst, emerged as something of a sensation en route to winning the GOP nomination, but now she, too, is slipping in the polls amid attacks over her stated support for privatizing Social Security and sponsorship of a bill that would outlaw abortion.
With just seven weeks to go, a CNN poll released Friday gave Braley the slimmest of leads over Ernst, 49% to 48%, within the margin of error. It was in line with other surveys that showed the coin-flip race has budged ever so slightly back in his direction.
Faced with a surprisingly strong Republican threat in the Iowa Senate race, Hillary Clinton is marking her long-awaited return to the campaign trail by headlining Harkin’s annual steak-fry fundraiser Sunday with her husband. Michelle Obama will campaign for Braley next month.
The race’s tossup status can be traced back to a pair of events in the spring that spoke directly to the state’s agrarian sensibilities.
Ernst, a state senator, broke through a crowded Republican primary this year with an ad touting her agricultural roots as an asset should she land in Washington.
“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork,” she said in the 30-second spot. “Let’s make ‘em squeal,” was the ad’s kicker, which made a national splash.
Soon after, her campaign got another boost after a pro-Republican opposition research firm released video showing Braley appearing to speak dismissively about farmers.
During a speech to attorneys, Braley, a former head of the state trial lawyers association, vowed to enact tort reform by joining the Senate Judiciary Committee, if elected. He warned that if he and his fellow Democrats lose the Senate in November, “you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” as the panel’s chairman. He was referring Iowa’s longtime Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who does not have a law degree and is in line to lead the committee if his party regains the majority.
Now Braley is working to shake the image Republicans have created of him. He compared the Republicans’ campaign to the so-called Swift boat attacks against John F. Kerry’s military record in the 2004 presidential election.
“We’ve seen this before,” he said. “I am going to be talking to Iowa voters about who I am, what I’ve done and where there is a stark divide between us on the issues. And they couldn’t be clearer on economic issues that affect working families.”
There’s an urgent need for Braley to connect with Iowa’s voters on more favorable terms, analysts say. A recent focus group conducted in Iowa of so-called Wal-Mart moms — women who shop at the discount store and have children under age 19 — found that most had no impression of the Democrat.
“Authenticity is important,” said David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political reporter who now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Braley’s farmer comment “alienated some people. It tended to define him and the race earlier. But it also energized Republicans and was incredibly deflating to Democrats who already were feeling down.”
Braley spent hours working the Labor Day picnic crowd in Sioux City, a friendly audience but also one worried about the tightening race. As the congressman chatted with supporters eating hamburgers in a riverside park, James Fields, a lifelong union member, urged Braley to fight back against the “lies” about him on television.
“I’m just glad to have people like you who can cut through some of this,” Braley responded.
Hoping to play up his support from farmers, Braley’s campaign is touting the recent endorsement of the influential Iowa Corn Growers Assn., which cited Braley’s record in Congress on behalf of the industry. The endorsement didn’t sit well with Ernst supporters, some of whom launched a campaign to pressure the trade group to rescind its decision.
Nevertheless both candidates still appear largely defined by the images voters have seen on TV screens and in campaign pitches, both Ernst’s castration ad and those that replay Braley’s “farmer” comment.
The castration ad was foremost on the mind of Doug Boelman of Cedar Falls, 68, as he greeted Ernst at a senior center in Waterloo — Braley’s hometown. Boelman said that he, too, was born and raised on a hog farm — and knew a thing or two about castrating. “I think there’s a secret club across Iowa,” Ernst joked.
Ernst’s plain-spoken style has drawn comparisons to former GOP vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Though Iowa has never elected a woman to federal office, national Republican strategists say Ernst, who served in the National Guard for 22 years, has proved to be a dynamic campaigner with an attractive biography.
Asked about comparisons to Palin, Ernst winced. “I’m a strong, independent woman and I think that’s what the Democrats are having a really hard time with,” she said.
After she won the GOP’s June primary, Democrats sought to blunt her momentum by questioning Ernst’s experience. They launched an ad featuring a baby chick to argue that, despite her promise to tackle pork-barrel spending, Ernst had never made a “peep” on the issue when she was in state government. Ernst’s campaign condemned the ad as sexist.
Democrats more recently are pointing to Ernst’s support for the privatization of Medicare and Social Security, which she expressed during the Republican primary race, but has since downplayed.
The attacks may be working. When Ernst addressed seniors in Des Moines, she was grilled by one attendee about what options she would propose to fix the government programs, and she pointedly refused to endorse one.
In her most recent ad, Ernst vows to protect Social Security and returns to what Republicans see as her strength: her biography. “I’ll go to Washington as a mom, a soldier and as someone who really cares about the Iowa we leave our children,” she said.
Braley sees two factors that can turn the tide for him: the Democrats’ aggressive get-out-the-vote effort and an upcoming series of debates. But he must also contend with a national environment that continues to favor the GOP.
“If Braley loses it’s going to be because of his own mistakes, but it will also be that … the tide is not with the Democrats, it’s with the Republicans,” Yepsen, the longtime Iowa reporter, said. “The question is will the Democratic base turn out as well as it needs to, to save Braley.”
Ken Mertes, a former state labor union president who is running for a state House seat, predicted that Braley would regain his lead. “He’s a tough campaigner and he’s on the right side of all the issues,” Mertes said. “I just think the people aren’t aware yet of where [Ernst] is on the issues.”
But asked his assessment of the race, Mertes offered two words: “uncomfortably close.”