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Iowa Senate race heats up after Democratic stumbles

Democrats entered were favored to win Iowa's Senate race, but Democrat Bruce Braley's stumbles and Republican Joni Ernst's charm have made it a toss up.
Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, helps out on the grill in the Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, August 7, 2014.
Senate candidate Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, helps out on the grill in the Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, August 7, 2014.

DES MOINES, Iowa – On a recent visit to the Iowa State Fair, control of the Senate boiled down to a fight between two opposing camps: people in chicken suits versus people in corn suits. Such are the indignities of running in one of the most competitive – and crucial – races of 2014.

Democrats this year are on defense in seven Senate contests in states that voted for Mitt Romney in 2014, all of them difficult races. Republicans need only six more seats to retake the Senate. With such a small margin for error, a loss for Democrats in swing state Iowa, which backed Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012, would make it incredibly difficult for the party to maintain their majority. 

That’s why the Senate race here between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and GOP State Sen. Joni Ernst is one of the most closely watched this year. The non-partisan Cook Report recently upgraded Iowa to a toss-up from "lean Democratic" and outside groups are pouring cash into attack ads and turnout operations to try to move the needle. An NBC News poll last month found the candidates tied at 43%. 

"At this point this is the top non-red state race in the country in terms of competitiveness. That wasn’t the case in the spring."'

At the state fair, the crowd for Braley began taking their seats more than an hour before he arrived, despite the pouring rain. When the four-term congressman finally took the small stage at the Des Moines Register Soapbox, the fair’s annual rallying spot for politicians, he was showered with chants of “Go, Bruce, Go!”

But it wasn’t just supporters there to greet him. There was also a man dressed as a rooster, sporting a sign that said “Bruce Braley cares about CHICKENS more than VETERANS” -- a reference to a dispute between Braley and a neighbor over whether she should be allowed to keep “therapeutic” pet chickens. The GOP operative who surfaced the story, Jeff Patch, trailed the candidate handing out foam chicken toys and hoping (in vain) that he would pass the chicken coops on his tour of the fair’s livestock. A handful of young activists with Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers that plans to spend $300 million nationally this year, also followed Braley with a person in a pig costume waving anti-Obamacare signs. 

Photos: Pork and Politics Mingle at the Iowa State Fair

The next morning, Ernst took the same stage to similarly enthusiastic chants of “Go, Joni, Go!” Like Braley, she also had some less supportive company in the audience. Two people arrived dressed as giant ears of corn, mocking Ernst’s waffling on whether ethanol subsidies – which Iowa politicians from both parties say are critical to farmers -- should exist. About a dozen activists with NextGen, the environmental group backed by billionaire Tom Steyer that recently launched a $2.6 million ad campaign targeting Ernst, waved “Oil Companies For Joni” signs. Ernst supporters moved in to cover them with their own campaign signs to keep them out of photos of her speech.

The contest here to replace Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who’s retiring after five terms, is hardly the only one to attract colorful protests. But the antics also reflect the direction the contest is headed: Each candidate is trying to win by turning the other into an ugly caricature.  

Ernst’s side wants to paint Braley as an effete trial lawyer more comfortable at a Washington fundraiser than an Iowa barnyard. Braley’s side is selling Ernst as an extremist Sarah Palin acolyte more concerned with bomb throwing than governance. Control of the Senate may depend on which of these two cartoonish profiles can sink in. 

‘Out of touch’ 

Speaking with msnbc in a coffee shop in downtown Des Moines, Braley, 56, described himself as a populist whose values were forged growing up in a working class family in tiny Brooklyn, Iowa. His first ad of the campaign featured his mother talking about how the family struggled financially after Braley’s father was injured working at a grain elevator. 

“My parents grew up on Iowa farms during the Great Depression, so they taught me a lot about economic hardship,” he told msnbc. “I got my first job working in 3rd grade delivering the Des Moines Tribune and I basically have had a job almost ever since then.”

But Republican opposition researchers have done an impressive job putting their own image of Braley into the mix. In March, the GOP super PAC America Rising posted a video of Braley warning donors that Chuck Grassley, the state’s popular Republican senator, could become the chairman of the Judiciary Committee if Republicans retake the Senate even though he was “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”

Braley apologized for the remark, but it helped lay the foundation for more attacks depicting him as the elitist embodiment of everything people hate about attorneys. 

“He’s out of touch,” David Kochel, an adviser to Ernst, told msnbc. “He may have grown up in a small town but he traded in the work boots for the tasseled loafers as a lawyer.” 

Trying to make the farmer episode stick, the National Republican Senatorial Committee passed around an old video of Braley aggressively questioning a witness’s academic credentials in a health care hearing. Republicans have also reminded everyone of the time Braley talked about the House gym’s lack of towel service during the government shutdown. And last month the story of how Braley and his wife filed a complaint with their local homeowner’s association over their neighbor’s pet chickens hit the press.

While Patch’s initial write-up claimed Braley “threatened litigation” in the case, Braley strongly denied the dispute went that far. 

“It’s absolutely false,” Braley told msnbc. “I never threatened a lawsuit. Never. And anyone who claims that I did isn’t being truthful.” 

Now Republican groups are attacking Braley’s commitment to the troops. Concerned Veterans For America, another Koch-backed organization, is running a TV ad jumping off a Des Moines Register report that Braley missed a hearing on veterans care the same day he attended three fundraisers. Buried in the story was the fact that Braley didn’t miss the hearing to attend fundraisers -- he was at an oversight hearing on the Fast and Furious gun program scheduled at the same time. But with the scandal around wait times at Veterans Affairs hospitals in the news, Republicans are seizing on his light attendance record to accuse him of being asleep at the wheel.

It’s an especially frustrating line of attack for Braley, who has long considered veterans care one of his signature issues. He noted to msnbc that on the same day being highlighted in the CVFA ad, he attended a separate hearing on veterans’ jobs and greeted an Honor Flight of World War II and Korean War veterans from Iowa. Asked by msnbc to name his proudest achievement in Congress he immediately cited a law he introduced and passed in 2012 that expanded a housing grant program for injured veterans. It was named after Andrew Connolly, an Iraq War veteran in Dubuque, Iowa who Braley helped apply for a grant to move into a wheelchair-accessible home.                        

The legislation, Braley said, “started out as a constituent service that turned into great public policy that’s helping wounded warriors today get the benefits they deserve.”

Democrats were favored to win the Iowa race early on, but Braley’s penchant for “shooting himself in the foot,” as one national Democratic operative put it to msnbc, has stoked worries that the party might face an upset. Braley recently replaced his top ad-maker and pollster.

This kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen to Democratic candidates, whose most potent weapon in recent cycles has been their dull consistency. While Republican nominees have a tendency to self-immolate in races they’re favored to win, Democrats have done so only rarely.

This contrast accounts almost entirely for the current Democratic majority: Without Republican Sen. George Allen’s “macaca” moment, Democrats wouldn’t have retaken the Senate in 2006. Without disastrous GOP candidates in 2010 including Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle, Democrats wouldn’t have held the Senate that year. Without Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock’s remarks about rape in 2012, Democrats would barely have a chance of keeping it today. The only equivalent Democratic implosion was Martha Coakley’s loss to Scott Brown in a special election in Massachusetts in 2010. 

But Braley isn’t the only one fending off a slew of attack ads. Democrats think Ernst’s own vulnerabilities give them a strong shot at hanging onto the seat.

Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican Senate candidate, attends a sheep judging at the 2014 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, August 8, 2014.
Joni Ernst, Iowa Republican Senate candidate, attends a sheep judging at the 2014 Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, August 8, 2014.

For someone whom Democrats have labeled a tea party flamethrower, Ernst, 44, couldn’t have picked a less controversial topic during her visit to the state fair.   

Taking the stage at the Soapbox, Ernst told the crowd she wouldn’t be delivering a “political” speech.

“I am going to take my time on this soapbox to talk about something that I feel is very, very important…those brave men and women who serve in our United States Armed Forces,” she said. 

From there, she launched into a tale about her time in the Iowa Army National Guard, boasting how her unit earned the respect of officers in Kuwait by working in “142 degree Fahrenheit weather, in 95% humidity, in full gear.” It was an inspiring story, although it’s worth noting that the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134 degrees.

The next day at another high-profile political showcase, the Family Leadership Summit in Ames, Ernst said she would take “a little detour” from campaigning and instead talked about Iowa values and repeated a Biblical parable. 

It was an unusual pair of speeches that offered only passing hints of her political views. At the fair, she said she was “appalled at the heartbreaking way our Veterans Affairs administration is being run today,” although she did not mention Braley’s name. In Ames, she said “when Iowans find themselves at odds with each other, the way we should do business is through words, amicably, with a handshake,” an apparent nod to Braley’s chicken fight.

But Ernst’s style of campaigning has served her well so far. In fact, she broke out of a crowded Republican Senate primary almost entirely on the strength of one ad built around her folksy charisma. 

“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” a smiling Ernst said in the March TV spot. “So when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork.” Perhaps more than pork as well: At the end of the spot she pledged to take on “big spenders” and “make ‘em squeal.”

Video of the ad went viral online and caught the eye of Sarah Palin, who endorsed Ernst days after it aired. From there, Ernst’s campaign caught fire.

Her role as a grassroots darling caught her opponents off guard. Several Republican officials in the state told msnbc that they considered Ernst significantly closer to the state GOP establishment led in Iowa by Governor Terry Branstad than tea party candidates in other Senate primaries. Mitt Romney endorsed Ernst weeks before Palin did and Kochel, Romney’s old Iowa strategist, is a top adviser. Ernst, in turn, had endorsed Romney in the last two presidential primaries.

“She's conservative enough that Sarah Palin got involved, but she's really a Branstad candidate,” Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor with Cook Report, told msnbc. 

But Ernst’s background – farmer, Army veteran, mother, gun enthusiast – and buoyant personality helped paper over the kinds of differences that sparked bitter primaries in other GOP Senate primaries. With both the tea party and establishment wings of the party solidly behind her, she cruised to a dominant primary win and earned a nice boost in the polls heading into the general election. 

“Iowans can relate to her, they understand her. She’s like someone who grew up across the street, or goes to your church, or works down the hall, she’s one of us,” Kochel told msnbc. “I think that’s the secret to her primary win, but it’s also going to be the secret to her win in the general election.”

But Democrats saw an opportunity in her primary win as well. As long as Iowa Republicans were introduced to Ernst as Palin’s favored candidate, why not just introduce her to Iowa voters as a Palin clone in the general election?

Here they got some help from Ernst’s own words. Last month when Palin came out for impeachment, Democrats flagged a video from January in which Ernst said President Obama had “become a dictator” and suggested impeachment as a possible remedy. A few weeks later, they circulated a story on Ernst’s various flirtations with “nullification” of federal laws. Braley’s campaign is currently running a television ad calling Ernst “too extreme for Iowa” that cites her opposition to federal minimum wage laws.

“In this election, there are going to be clear choices for Iowa voters between someone who’s going to continue to work across party aisles to try to bring people together…or someone who supports a tea party agenda that’s going to stand in the way of progress for Iowa,” Braley said at the fair.

Braley and his supporters, including NextGen, have also gone after Ernst for saying she’s “philosophically” opposed to biofuel standards that have helped boost demand for Iowa corn, arguing they show she’s a tool of big oil interests like the Kochs. Ernst says she does not favor eliminating the renewable fuel standard unless the government cuts off subsidies to all other industries as well. 

The attacks have some potential to throw Ernst off balance. On Friday, she held a press conference with Republican Gov. Terry Branstad to restate her support for the renewable fuels standard, which Branstad said had been questioned by “false attacks” that were “financed by some California billionaires.” But it was an awkward explanation: Ernst defiantly promised to defend Iowa’s government largesse one moment, while suggesting it shouldn’t exist in the next. "If we could get rid of all tax credits, that would be wonderful,” she told reporters when asked about tax benefits for renewable energy. She added that she favored broader tax reform to achieve this goal.

Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist and adviser to Braley, told msnbc he expected Ernst to try to repeat her primary strategy of using her personal appeal to tiptoe past difficult debates. 

“The last thing Ernst wants to talk about is anything related to a policy position,” Link said. “They want to just focus on character assassination of Bruce and then just talk about her resume.”

One thing both sides agree on: they expect the race to go down to the wire. Each side has advantages in their favor. Democrats have a reputation for keeping up a superior turnout operation, while Republicans have a strong top of the ticket in Branstad, who is expected to cruise to an easy re-election as governor.

“Although there was a consensus in Washington this was going to be an easy race we kept trying to argue Iowa was a purple state,” Link said. “Our thinking from day one was that this is going to be a tight race.” 

Tim Miller, the executive director of American Rising, called Iowa a “coin toss.”

“At this point this is the top non-red state race in the country in terms of competitiveness,” Miller said. “That wasn’t the case in the spring.”