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Politics

Midterm madness: The politics of snowmobiles and chickens

With the U.S. battling militants in the Middle East and muddling through a less-than-spectacular economic recovery at home, let us pause for a moment to consider the issues of snowmobiling, errant chickens and a disputed 12-year-old paint job.

Voters in Alaska and Iowa have had that privilege as they host two of the country’s hardest-fought U.S. Senate races — contests that could very well determine which party controls the upper house of Congress starting in January.

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FOR THE RECORD

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An earlier version of this post said a Republican group had aired a TV ad supporting Iowa candidate Joni Ernst. The group aired a Web ad.

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In Alaska, Democratic incumbent Mark Begich faces Republican Dan Sullivan, who recently took a shot at Begich’s snowmobiling bona fides in a TV spot featuring Cory Davis, a medalist in the gravity- and death-defying X Games. All whiskers and attitude, Davis suggested the heavily bundled senator was merely pretending to ride a snowmobile — or snow machine, as they’re called in Alaska -- in one of his reelection ads this year.

“I’m tired of the phony politicians and Mark Begich’s laaame tricks,” Davis said.

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An indignant Begich called the Sullivan ad a lie and told Politico he had the frostbite to prove it was really, truly him beneath all those layers of clothes, jouncing across the snowy plain.

There was, as always, a political subtext. Alaskans take a fierce, clannish pride in their Alaska-ness and the romance of the rugged individual, real or imagined.

Begich is from an old-line political family; his father, Nick, was an Alaska congressman who died in a 1972 plane crash when Begich was 10 years old. The incumbent, in turn, has questioned Sullivan’s Alaska credentials, pointing out he moved to the state in 1997 — his wife is a native — then spent several years away in the Washington suburbs while working in the George W. Bush administration. 

There is certainly no denying Begich’s much-deeper Alaska roots, though Sullivan returned to the state and served as attorney general and head of the Department of Natural Resources. So instead, said Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore, Sullivan took after Begich’s manliness, the implication being that if the Democrat’s not tough enough to ride a snow machine, “he’s not tough enough to fight for Alaska.”

In Iowa, where Republican Joni Ernst faces Democrat Bruce Braley in another too-close-to-call Senate race, the issue has been chickens.

Or, more specifically, four hens that had the pesky habit of wandering onto Braley’s vacation property in pretty Holiday Lake, Iowa.

This year Braley’s wife, Carolyn, took the matter to their neighborhood homeowners association. Braley followed with a hint of legal action. So the owner of the chickens addressed the matter by building a wire fence in her backyard, corralling the perambulating poultry.

Issue solved, but not Braley’s political headache.

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Ernst, a state senator, seized upon the dust-up to portray Braley, a four-term congressman and former trial lawyer, as not just overly litigious but spiteful and not very nice. A Republican group supporting Ernst put up a web ad chiding her opponent.

“A true Iowan would’ve just talked to his neighbors,” a female narrator said. “But not trial lawyer Bruce Braley.”

The chickens came home to roost — no, strike that - the issue resurfaced Sunday near the close of a debate between Ernst and Braley, whose campaign boils down to painting his GOP rival as too extreme for Iowa, where voters are accustomed to their U.S. senators working on state matters in a bipartisan fashion.

“Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property,” Ernst said. “ You’re talking about bipartisanship. How do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?”

“That’s just not true,” Braley shot back.

Less than 24 hours later, Buzzfeed published an account of a 2002 legal dispute over an unfinished paint job on Ernst’s residence. The candidate’s husband, Gail, won a judgment against the painter and had his property garnisheed when he was unable to pay the sum.

The Iowa Democratic Party, in the manner of such things, was quick to publicize the dispute, suggesting Ernst is not that sweetly neighborly, or averse to legal action, after all.

Other less-weighty issues have flitted, firefly-like, across the campaign landscape this year: In Minnesota, where Democratic Sen. Al Franken held a pair of traffic cones to his chest, simulating pointy breasts. (“Thoughtless moment,” he said in an apology.) In Louisiana, where Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu poured beer into the mouth of a tailgating Louisiana State football fan. (“It’s just the way we roll,” she said, sans apology.)

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In 1988, an entire fall presidential campaign revolved around the Pledge of Allegiance and whether Democrat Michael Dukakis was sufficiently ardent in his love of the U.S. flag — and that was long before Twitter, Instagram and other social media and their news tributaries were blamed for dumbing down the political process.

It is easy to dismiss to such matters as sophomoric foolishness, distracting from the far more consequential Issues Of The Day. But, said Elizabeth Skewes, who has written extensively about political campaign coverage, to some voters issues like free-ranging chickens offer a window into a candidate’s character.

A politician “can make all the promises he or she wants,” said Skewes, who teaches journalism and media studies at the University of Colorado. “The question is, at their core are they a good person? Are they someone I can trust? For a lot of voters, there are various different paths trying to suss that out.”

Some, though, remain dubious.

Jerry McBeath, an emeritus University of Alaska political science professor, said the spat over snowmobiling was simply a function of millions and millions of dollars pouring into the state’s bitter U.S. Senate contest -- to a point where the candidates “are just looking for stuff to spent it on.”

“Junk,” said McBeath, who has witnessed decades of electioneering in Alaska.  “Trivial stuff.”

So the race — and control of the U.S. Senate — won’t be decided by which candidate has the greater cred tearing across the tundra?

“That’s a safe statement to make,” McBeath responded dryly.

Can’t promise a chicken -- or snowmobile -- in every pot, but for more campaign news and analysis follow me on Twitter: @markzbarabak


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