Iowa once looked like one of the great GOP disappointments of 2014. Top-tier recruits such as Rep. Tom Latham and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds passed on the open-seat race and left Republicans with a handful of unknowns fighting a messy primary. Democrats, meanwhile, gave four-term Rep. Bruce Braley a free year to prepare for the general election.
But then Braley insulted the state’s most important constituency, the Republican Party discovered Joni Ernst, and suddenly a race rarely mentioned as a midterm battleground has become a legitimate pickup opportunity for the GOP. Republicans received another break Tuesday, when Ernst, a state senator from Iowa’s rural western half, won the GOP’s nomination outright. With 18 percent of the vote in, Ernst had captured just over 53 percent support. Not only did she avoid a run-off by crossing the 35 percent support threshold, her margin of victory is something few would have imagined possible just a month ago.
Ernst has yet to prove she can withstand the scrutiny of a marquee Senate race — some Republicans privately worry she won’t — and Democrats remain confident they hold the advantage in a seat the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin has held since 1984. Even the most optimistic of GOP strategists wouldn’t rank Iowa as one of Senate Republicans’ top targets this year.
But it has joined a collection of second-tier opportunities, a list that includes fellow purple-state battlegrounds Colorado, New Hampshire, and Michigan — each put into play by viable candidates and a favorable political climate for the GOP. And, like them, the Hawkeye State could eventually become an irreplaceable part of the party’s plan to take the Senate should it stumble elsewhere.
If Republicans do go on to win in Iowa, they’ll trace their victory back to the final week of March. It was then that a video leaked of Braley talking to a group of Democratic donors, urging them to prevent Republicans from retaking the Senate and letting fellow Iowa lawmaker Chuck Grassley take the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as next chair of Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
The comment went down as one of the worst gaffes of the still-young midterm season, and Braley apologized within hours.
But to Republicans, it provided the frame for Ernst’s entire candidacy: a small-time Iowa farmer (and veteran) taking on a condescending liberal more at home on either coast. (It also explains why most, if not all, Republican operatives preferred that Ernst win the party’s nomination over the millionaire Mark Jacobs, who could self-fund but would struggle to depict himself as a blue-collar champion.) That’s a potentially potent argument in a state that’s not just farm-heavy, but also one in which blue-collar white voters made up 56 percent of the electorate in 2010.
“It provides a strong contrast that I think a lot of Republicans in D.C. are anxious to have,” said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP. “Someone who comes from rural Iowa, who has a nonpolitician feel about her, running against an incumbent member of Congress.”
That March week was also a springboard for Ernst’s own campaign, when a soon-to-be viral TV ad about her experience castrating hogs made national news. The ad was mocked by late-night comedians, but it generated the kind of attention she needed to separate herself from her opponents and gain the attention of national groups. Ernst received the endorsements of a wide variety of people and groups, including Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
That attention could benefit her again this summer, when she’ll need to replenish her campaign coffers.
“I think you could also see a lot of interest shift from Michigan to Iowa,” said one Republican strategist with an eye on the national picture, referring to another midterm battleground where the presumed GOP nominee, Terri Lynn Land, has struggled to answer reporters’ basic questions.
Iowa leans left in presidential elections: Although President George W. Bush won it in 2004, the Democratic nominee has claimed the state’s electoral votes in every other presidential election since 1988. Despite iIowa’s heavily white electorate, President Obama won comfortably there in 2012 by 6 points.
But Republicans have done well in the Hawkeye State’s undercard races. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley has easily won every one of his election since first entering the Senate in 1980, and GOP Gov. Terry Branstad earned a fifth term in office in 2010 with a 10-point victory.
Democrats, for their part, maintain that they see the same race they always have: competitive, but one they’ll ultimately win without much fuss. Ernst is unproven and has shown little ability to raise much money, they argue, and will struggle to adjust her message for a general election.
Some of the positions she took in the GOP primary might also come back to hurt her. She has said she would vote against the farm bill and questioned whether the federal government should set a minimum wage — two positions Democrats will remind voters about constantly between now and Election Day.
“I’m sure this will remain a close race throughout the cycle, but it’s hard not to see how Democrats don’t have a clear advantage,” said one Democratic operative.
What We're Following See More »
Foreign Policy takes a look at the future of mining the estimated "100,000 near-Earth objects—including asteroids and comets—in the neighborhood of our planet. Some of these NEOs, as they’re called, are small. Others are substantial and potentially packed full of water and various important minerals, such as nickel, cobalt, and iron. One day, advocates believe, those objects will be tapped by variations on the equipment used in the coal mines of Kentucky or in the diamond mines of Africa. And for immense gain: According to industry experts, the contents of a single asteroid could be worth trillions of dollars." But the technology to get us there is only the first step. Experts say "a multinational body might emerge" to manage rights to NEOs, as well as a body of law, including an international court.
Not to be outdone by Jeffrey Goldberg's recent piece in The Atlantic about President Obama's foreign policy, the New York Times Magazine checks in with a longread on the president's economic legacy. In it, Obama is cognizant that the economic reality--73 straight months of growth--isn't matched by public perceptions. Some of that, he says, is due to a constant drumbeat from the right that "that denies any progress." But he also accepts some blame himself. “I mean, the truth of the matter is that if we had been able to more effectively communicate all the steps we had taken to the swing voter,” he said, “then we might have maintained a majority in the House or the Senate.”
Ronald Reagan's children and political allies took to the media and Twitter this week to chide funnyman Will Ferrell for his plans to play a dementia-addled Reagan in his second term in a new comedy entitled Reagan. In an open letter, Reagan's daughter Patti Davis tells Ferrell, who's also a producer on the movie, “Perhaps for your comedy you would like to visit some dementia facilities. I have—I didn’t find anything comedic there, and my hope would be that if you’re a decent human being, you wouldn’t either.” Michael Reagan, the president's son, tweeted, "What an Outrag....Alzheimers is not joke...It kills..You should be ashamed all of you." And former Rep. Joe Walsh called it an example of "Hollywood taking a shot at conservatives again."
In a sign that she’s ready to put a longer-than-expected primary battle behind her, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (D) is no longer going on the air in upcoming primary states. “Team Clinton hasn’t spent a single cent in … California, Indiana, Kentucky, Oregon and West Virginia, while” Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) “campaign has spent a little more than $1 million in those same states.” Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sanders’ "lone backer in the Senate, said the candidate should end his presidential campaign if he’s losing to Hillary Clinton after the primary season concludes in June, breaking sharply with the candidate who is vowing to take his insurgent bid to the party convention in Philadelphia.”