Democrats Have Their Own Mitt Romney Problem in Iowa

Bruce Braley isn’t comfortable with people on the campaign trail. It’s shaping up to be his biggest vulnerability in a battleground Senate race.

WATERLOO, IA - SEPTEMBER 27: U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) (L) picks up a ballot during early voting at the Black Hawk County Courthouse on September 27, 2012 in Waterloo, Iowa. Early voting starts today in Iowa where in the 2008 election 36 percent of voters cast an early ballot. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
National Journal
Emily Schultheis
Aug. 14, 2014, 2:03 a.m.

DES MOINES, Iowa””Walk­ing past live­stock barns and fried-food stands at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa’s Demo­crat­ic Sen­ate nom­in­ee, Bruce Bra­ley, hap­pily re­coun­ted his fa­vor­ite memor­ies of state fairs past, re­call­ing the con­certs he’s been to span­ning dec­ades, and men­tion­ing that his fa­vor­ite fair food is a “hot beef sundae” (mashed pota­toes, beef, gravy, with a cherry to­mato on top).

The only prob­lem: He was telling those stor­ies to two D.C. re­port­ers, not to po­ten­tial Iowa voters. Dur­ing that walk, after a form­al Q&A with those re­port­ers and on his way to flip pork bur­gers at the pork pro­du­cers’ tent, Bra­ley chat­ted with re­port­ers and a small hand­ful of staffers. He shook hands and met voters around the fair earli­er that day, but even then a large en­tour­age of staffers and vo­lun­teers kept many fair-go­ers at a dis­tance and made it tough for him to log any real one-on-one time with them.

It was a telling symp­tom of what’s be­dev­il­ing Bra­ley’s cam­paign. Once con­sidered a lead­ing Demo­crat­ic re­cruit, Bra­ley has fe­ver­ishly been fend­ing off a per­cep­tion that he’s elit­ist and out of touch with reg­u­lar Iowa voters.

His com­ments to a closed-door Texas fun­draiser of tri­al law­yers earli­er this year man­aged to in­sult both Iowa’s farm­ers and GOP Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, one of the state’s most be­loved politi­cians. Those com­ments en­er­gized Iowa Re­pub­lic­ans around GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst’s can­did­acy and fed the fire for their ar­gu­ment that Bra­ley doesn’t con­nect with Iow­ans””and caused na­tion­al Demo­crats to worry privately that Bra­ley’s habit of mis­speak­ing will cost them the Iowa seat, and po­ten­tially the Sen­ate, in Novem­ber.

In short, the am­bi­tious law­yer-turned con­gress­man has be­come the Demo­crat­ic ver­sion of Mitt Rom­ney and with the elec­tion ap­proach­ing, he’s work­ing over­time to com­bat the im­age be­fore it’s the only thing that defines him.

But with less than three months left un­til Elec­tion Day, how will he do it? Asked by Na­tion­al Journ­al about the GOP-fueled nar­rat­ive, Bra­ley said it was at odds with his middle-class up­bring­ing. “Tell them who I am. Tell them my life story,” he said, speak­ing out­side the Swine Barn at the state fair. “Tell them about work­ing mul­tiple jobs while I was go­ing to law school and go­ing to Iowa State to help pay my way through col­lege. Talk about what it was like when my fath­er had a severe ac­ci­dent when I was 2 years old and was laid up for about a year and he was the sole bread­win­ner in our fam­ily.”

The state fair, an an­nu­al staple of Iowa cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al life, seemed like the per­fect place to get in one-on-one time with voters and share that per­son­al story””but Bra­ley spent little time in­ter­act­ing with fair­go­ers. He spoke at The Des Moines Re­gister soap­box on a rainy Thursday morn­ing, then walked through the fair and flipped pork bur­gers at the all-im­port­ant pork pro­du­cers’ tent. Dur­ing most of that time, he had such a large en­tour­age of purple Bra­ley-shirt-wear­ing staffers and vo­lun­teers around him it was tough to find the can­did­ate.

The staffers served as a buf­fer between Bra­ley and the hand­ful of GOP track­ers and heck­lers who trailed him””one man dressed as a chick­en, an­oth­er as a pig””but ul­ti­mately ended up keep­ing away reg­u­lar people as well. It seemed to an­noy fair­go­ers more than en­dear him to them.

“Gimme a break,” one man said as he tried to pass by Bra­ley and the group in the Var­ied In­dus­tries Build­ing.

Bra­ley spent the ma­jor­ity of his time walk­ing and talk­ing with his moth­er, who at­ten­ded the fair with him that morn­ing. He did stop to shake hands and meet people in a Fu­ture Farm­ers of Amer­ica tent and in the Swine Barn””but seemed more of­ten to con­nect with young kids than chat up their par­ents.

“Those rab­bits are pretty cool, aren’t they?” he said, bend­ing down to talk to two boys in front of a cage of rab­bits. “I bet they’re pretty soft.”

By con­trast, Ernst, who at­ten­ded the fair the fol­low­ing day, seemed to rel­ish her one-on-one time with voters. Walk­ing through the fair with GOP Sen. Chuck Grass­ley, she stopped seem­ingly every few feet to say hi to””and of­ten hug””fair­go­ers and po­ten­tial sup­port­ers.

“Look at the state­ments he has made,” Ernst told re­port­ers of Bra­ley. “He set the stage him­self. I don’t need to elab­or­ate much on how out of touch he is, he has done that for Iowa.”

There are changes afoot with­in Bra­ley’s cam­paign, which shook up its roster of con­sult­ants earli­er this sum­mer: His team dropped ad­maker AK­PD in fa­vor of Saul Shorr and dropped poll­ster Di­ane Feld­man for Geoff Gar­in. (The cam­paign noted that this was a postprimary switch, say­ing it was about gear­ing up for the gen­er­al elec­tion and not about fix­ing any per­ceived short­com­ings.)

The can­did­ate’s most re­cent ad, re­leased this week, struck a more per­son­al and emo­tion­al note than his pre­vi­ous ones. It fea­tured a man talk­ing about the murder of his daugh­ter, Hol­ley Lynn James, and Bra­ley’s ef­forts to suc­cess­fully pass a bill named for his daugh­ter that fought sexu­al as­sault and do­mest­ic vi­ol­ence in the mil­it­ary.

“When Hol­ley was murdered, what I was more afraid of than any­thing is that the world would go on and it would be as though Hol­ley nev­er ex­is­ted,” he said. “Bruce Bra­ley helped keep that memory alive, and it adds more per­man­ence to Hol­ley.”

Still, Re­pub­lic­ans are glee­ful in ref­er­en­cing to the “farm­er” com­ments, with state and na­tion­al politi­cians us­ing it as a run­ning joke even at events far away from the Sen­ate race. The com­ment has got­ten in­to the blood­stream of Iowa polit­ics and seems un­likely to leave.

At a Boone County GOP pic­nic, former Sen. Rick San­tor­um of Pennsylvania re­ferred to the “elite idea that if you don’t have nice tow­els in the nice gym” “”he didn’t men­tion Bra­ley by name, but it was clear to whom he was re­fer­ring. (Bra­ley once said that dur­ing the gov­ern­ment shut­down, the House gym didn’t have tow­el ser­vice and mem­bers of Con­gress were “do­ing our own laun­dry down there.”)

Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky also ref­er­enced Bra­ley in a speech at the GOP Vic­tory of­fice in Urb­andale: “If I were run­ning for the U.S. Sen­ate in Iowa, I would think it’s prob­ably a bad strategy to trash Chuck Grass­ley and farm­ers in one sen­tence,” he said. “In fact, as a phys­i­cian, it’s not hard to con­vince me I’d rather have a farm­er than a law­yer any day.”

Bra­ley’s hope is that he and Demo­crat­ic out­side groups can con­vince voters that Ernst is ex­treme, and far out­side the main­stream of Iowa””a mes­sage his team has be­gun push­ing and says will be po­tent.

Ernst has faced her own cam­paign prob­lems. Dur­ing the GOP primary, she sug­ges­ted that im­peach­ing the pres­id­ent should be an op­tion, a com­ment she and her cam­paign have since walked that back. Ernst also sug­ges­ted she was op­posed to the Re­new­able Fuel Stand­ard””a huge gaffe in a state like Iowa””and then held a press con­fer­ence at the fair to pro­fess her sup­port for the sub­sidy. Bra­ley’s cam­paign has already run a re­cent ad hit­ting Ernst over the min­im­um wage.

Speak­ing at the soap­box, Bra­ley de­cried Ernst””whom he men­tioned only as “my op­pon­ent”“”for back­ing a “tea-party agenda” that “drives people apart.”

The fol­low­ing day, Ernst told re­port­ers that the the “too ex­treme” at­tacks are “a lot of cam­ou­flage.”

“Don’t you no­tice [Bra­ley’s] the only one push­ing that? It really is very much a dis­trac­tion,” she said. “I work very well with all types of people. I don’t see where they’re com­ing up with the ex­treme.”

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