A campaign fought over U.N. conspiracy theories and “therapeutic chickens” may seem absurd, but Iowa’s Senate race may be one of the most coldly methodical face-offs in the country this November.
In one corner is Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman from the industrial city of Waterloo. In the other is Republican Joni Ernst, a first-term state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard from the rural county seat of Red Oak. Both have clear strengths, clear weaknesses, and campaigns that are not afraid to go for the jugular.
Since Ernst won a surprising landslide in the Republican primary in June, the two campaigns have been engaged in a measured back and forth as each candidate seeks to define the other to Iowa’s very purple electorate. Braley’s campaign is seeking to paint Ernst to Iowa voters as an extremist Sarah Palin clone. Ernst’s campaign is trying to depict Braley as an out-of-touch, elitist trial lawyer. Each campaign is convinced that its characterization of its opponent is accurate and will resonate with the electorate.
The strategy so far has resembled a chess game. Every attack has been met with a counterattack. It kicked off with a bang in the days after the June 3 primary, when Braley released a web ad criticizing Ernst for supporting increased government spending in what seemed to be frustration over her primary opponents not pushing that message. Ernst responded by accusing Braley of sexism because his ad, which featured a baby bird not making a peep, had a “chick” in it. Both attacks were rather silly.
Ernst’s record in the statehouse was far from liberal, and there wasn’t anything remotely sexist about Braley’s ad. But because Ernst had come away nearly unscathed from a primary campaign in which her opponents had been loath to attack her, Braley made the effort to get one last shot in on her from her right. And her response was an attempt to put Democrats on the defensive and reframe the “war on women.” Shortly thereafter, Iowa Democrats began pushing out clips of Ernst embracing the views of Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists, who believe the United Nations is trying to ban private property and force rural residents to live in cities.
That strategic pattern has persisted. When video leaked of Braley appearing to claim falsely to be a farmer at a Fourth of July parade, footage surfaced the next day of Ernst contemplating the benefits of impeaching President Obama and calling him “a dictator.”
The footage was six months old but garnered national attention, and led to reports of other instances in which Ernst entertained questions about impeachment. In the aftermath, a Republican blog reported a claim that Braley forced the neighborhood association around his summer home to pay nearly $2,000 in legal fees after his wife complained about a neighbor’s chickens, which were used in animal-assisted therapy, crossing into their yard. The ensuing hubbub prompted the right-wing opposition research shop America Rising to publicize the story and attack Braley for refusing an apology gift of organic eggs from the chickens’ owners and allegedly threatening a lawsuit instead. The author of the original blog post has since been hired by the Republican Party of Iowa.
A source familiar with the Ernst campaign said he thought Braley’s attacks on the Republican standard-bearer were falling short. He suggested that Democratic attempts to paint Ernst as “some kind of extremist were ringing hollow and not moving numbers.” Instead, Ernst is seen as a “likable, relatable person” who is cut “from the cloth of small-town Iowa.”
By contrast, Braley, despite a similar upbringing, has “burned his work boots,” the source said, adding that the four-term congressman’s time in Washington and as a trial lawyer has left him with “the affect of someone who is out of touch.” The source said he thought the Ernst campaign’s attacks on Braley have been effective, as his private life matched his public image as “a litigious guy who wants to go fight and argue,” while Ernst is just like “the woman you grew up with next door.”
In a June interview with The Daily Beast, however, Braley described himself as a pragmatic moderate willing to reach across the aisle. Problems in Washington can’t be solved “by sending people there who are going to add more conflict to the problem,” he said. “You need proven problem solvers like me who can sit down with Republicans and Democrats, and bring them together to solve the problems that we face.”
Braley touted his bipartisan record in Washington on legislation to promote renewable energy and help veterans. But the four-term Democrat did dodge a question about whether Obama has been an effective president. “This Senate race isn’t about whether President Obama has been a successful president,” Braley said. “It’s about whether one or the other of us has the right vision for the state of Iowa.”
The congressman pushed back at attacks on his background as a trial lawyer, saying, “I spent my life learning how to listen to people’s problems, how to negotiate on their behalf, how to draft documents to try to solve problems, and how to work with people.” He also talked up his agricultural experience—“My family has been farming in Iowa since 1847; Iowa became a state in 1846”—and reminisced about a youth spent working on farms and at grain elevators.
Democrats were more pointed in its statements about Ernst. One Democratic operative said that everything the Republican’s campaign has done so far has been “an effort to attack Braley personally,” while Braley's campaign has been focused on issue differences. The Democrat contrasted Ernst’s desire to privatize Social Security, abolish a federal minimum wage, and support for fetal personhood to Braley’s desire to preserve Social Security, raise the minimum wage, and protect a woman’s right to choose.
These attacks are likely to continue—on both sides. Braley’s campaign appears to embody an ethos his top strategist, Jeff Link, refers to as “the Harkin rule.” Named after Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is retiring in January, the rule is to “always attack and never defend.” Republicans in the state, many of whom cut their teeth under longtime Iowa governor and notoriously relentless campaigner Terry Branstad, aren’t gun shy, either.
The campaign is likely to be close. Iowa is a perennial swing state, and polls show the race in a virtual tie. And while Braley has what is universally acknowledged to be a superior field operation, Ernst benefits from having Branstad, who is expected to win easily, at the top of the ticket.
With so much at stake and such a small margin for error, expect plenty more—occasionally ridiculous—attacks and counterattacks.