WEST DES MOINES, Iowa – Republican Joni Ernst has won the heated Iowa Senate race, giving Republicans control of the upper chamber and launching herself into the stratosphere of political celebrity.
"We're taking the Iowa Way all the way to Washington!"'
"We're taking the Iowa Way all the way to Washington!" she said in her victory speech here, citing her campaign slogan. Ernst upset Rep. Bruce Braley, who was considered a top recruit for Democrats in this swing state.
Ernst may be the cycle’s only breakout star. With banners that read, “Mother, solider, leader,” she’s captivated Iowa Republicans with a compelling biography and an anti-Washington message about "the Iowa way." She's already being billed as the party’s rival to Hillary Clinton, and will likely be a major spokesperson for the party in the key presidential state in 2016.
A Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, Ernst served in Kuwait and as a company commander in the Iraq War. She set herself apart in a crowded GOP primary field of second-tier candidates with an ad that highlighted her Iowa farm roots castrating pigs.
Democrats have taken to calling Ernst "the next Sarah Palin." They mean it in a negative way, but it's a tacit acknowledgment that Ernst has captured some of the star power Palin commanded in her heyday.
Ernst beat out Braley by decisively winning the men’s vote, by a 18-point margin – 58% to 40% and staying competitive for the women’s vote, which split 49% for Braley to 49% for Ernst, according to the NBC News exit poll in the state. As with all the competitive Senate races this year, this Iowa contents was affected by the broader political climate, particularly frustration with President Obama, who has 39% approval rating in the state. This sentiment was very noticeable among the independent vote. When asked for their feelings about the Obama administration, 60% of Iowa independents said that they were either angry or dissatisfied with the president, while just one-third – 30% -- said they were satisfied or enthusiastic. Independents broke for Ernst 53% to 42%.
Ernst won among all age groups except for 18-29 year olds. Interestingly, Braley won among self-described moderates 53% to 44%, but the much larger number of conservatives in the state meant she easily crushed him in the base. And she also won among all income brackets, except for those making less than $30,000 a year.
The seat has been held for 30 years by Sen. Tom Harkin, a progressive hero who has become an institution both in his state and in the Senate. But Harkin, 74, surprised many in the state when he announced he was retiring at the end of his fifth term.
The party recruited Rep. Bruce Braley, who has represented the northeast corner of the state since 2006. The entire party rallied behind him and anointed him as the successor to Harkin.
It was his race to lose. But a number of stumbles and an inability to energize Democrats in the face of compelling Republican in an anti-Washington crushed his dreams of carrying on Harkin’s legacy. Even multiple visits from both Clintons and Michelle Obama couldn't save him.
On Tuesday, Harkin and Braley decided to end the election together on the campus of Iowa State University, in Ames, where both went to college. “This will be my last political rally as an elected official. And it's where I had my first one,” Harkin told supporters in front of the campus' bell tower on this crisp fall day.
Braley too got his start in politics on this campus, “right over there at Carver Hall,” when he went to see Harkin speak. “And now it’s come full circle,” the Senate candidate said. The bell tower tolled behind him, interrupting his short speech.
The event was meant to be a sort of passing of the torch, but the hand off has been bumbled in recent days, thanks to both of these men.
On Saturday, a video surfaced of Harkin calling Republican Ernst “attractive” and comparing her to Taylor Swift. "I've already gotten in enough trouble with trackers,” Harkin said when students tried to get him to talk about a campus tradition of romance underneath the bellower.
An unflattering video clip wounded Braley too, perhaps fatally. This summer, tape of the former trail lawyer dissing popular Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa." The remark struck a nerve in a state comprised mainly of cornfields, and it reinforced a notion that Braley was too arrogant and elitist for Iowa. Even Democrats acknowledge it was a turning point in the race that Braley never recovered from.
While Democrats descended into finger-pointing and backbiting in its final days, Republicans were united.
At an event east of Des Moines Monday, all of statewide Republican nominees gathered together, literally cheering each other on.
“AG for AG!” they all shouted and put their fist in the air to promote Republican Attorney General candidate Adam Gregg.
“I want you to notice something as I stand here with almost the entire Republican ticket,” Gregg said. “When you look at our opponents, do you see them traveling the state together? Do you see them working together? No! They don’t want to have anything to do with each other. They point fingers at each other, they throw each other under the bus.”
He’s not wrong. In the waning days of the campaign, Democrats involved in House races were pointing fingers at those running Senate races, who were in turn passing blame to the lackluster gubernatorial campaign for dragging each other down.
The finger pointing will likely only intensify in the days after the campaign as Iowa Democrats try to figure out what went wrong, and look forward to the next election – where Ernst will likely play a role.