When Senate candidates struggle with the basics

Republican senatorial candidate State Sen. Joni Ernst, speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition fall fundraiser on Sept. 27, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Justin Hayworth/AP)
Republican senatorial candidate State Sen. Joni Ernst, speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition fall fundraiser on Sept. 27, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa.
The political world spends a fair amount of time considering the role of low-information voters in an election. But what happens when the line between low-information voters and candidates is blurred?
Iowa is home to one of the nation's most competitive U.S. Senate races, and last night, the major party candidates -- Rep. Bruce Braley (D) and state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) -- faced off in a lively televised debate. The Des Moines Register reported on some of the highlights.

[Ernst's] low point was "stubbornly pushing the claim that Obamacare cut Medicare benefits, an argument repeatedly debunked by nonpartisan fact checkers, and her confusion on a question about current 'job-killing' regulations, where she cited cap-and-trade, which is not law," [Kedron Bardwell, an associate professor of political science at Simpson College in Indianola] said. [Dennis Goldford, a Drake University political scientist] said Ernst is "an excellent performer." "She looks right at the camera. She seems to radiate a certain kind of confidence," he said. But Ernst didn't often say anything of substance, Goldford said.

It ultimately comes down to whether or not it matters when candidates for statewide office have no idea what they're talking about.
On climate change, for example, the far-right Iowan said, "I don't know the science behind climate change. I can't say one way or another what is the direct impact, whether it's man-made or not."
On Social Security, which Ernst wants to privatize out of existence, the Republican said, "Within 20 years, the system will be broke," which isn't even close to resembling reality.
On federal regulations, Ernst blamed a federal "cap and trade" law for undermining job creation, despite the fact that there is no federal "cap and trade" law.
On contraception, Ernst was asked about her efforts to pass a state law that would have banned in-vitro fertilization and forms of birth control. She responded, by way of a defense, that her bill didn't pass, which hardly counts as a persuasive retort.
On the minimum wage, Ernst still doesn't seem to understand that the federal minimum is a floor and that states are free to approve higher levels if they choose.
When a U.S. Senate candidate is this confused about basic issues so close to Election Day, it's tempting to think the candidate must be on the verge of a humiliating defeat. Except in Iowa, the evidence points in the opposite direction.
A Des Moines Register poll released over the weekend found Ernst leading Braley by six points, 44% to 38%.
Ernst, perhaps more than any other statewide candidate in 2014, comes from the Akin-Angle-Mourdock-O'Donnell wing of the Republican Party, representing an often-bizarre combination of discredited conspiracy theories and fringe policy ideas.
The difference is, the voting mainstream was viscerally uncomfortable with Akin, Angle, Mourdock, and O'Donnell, all of whom lost. Ernst, meanwhile, appears shockingly well positioned to actually win a seat in the United State Senate.
And given the candidate's stated positions, that's pretty remarkable. Ernst has endorsed banning abortions and many forms of birth control; privatizing Social Security; and impeaching President Obama. She's argued that Saddam Hussein really did have weapons of mass destruction and people on Medicaid "have no personal responsibility for their health." She's dismissed the very existence of a federal minimum wage as "ridiculous" and credits the Koch brothers for the strength of her candidacy. She's dabbled in nullification radicalism and has endorsed enough conspiracy theories to qualify her as the head of a Glenn Beck fan club.
But in Iowa, Ernst "seems to radiate a certain kind of confidence." The election -- and the future of the Senate -- may come down to whether or not it matters if that confidence is warranted.