Democrats Should Worry About Iowa

Republican nominee Joni Ernst has to prove she’s a strong candidate, but she faces a run-of-the-mill Democrat in a state prone to swing toward the GOP.

Joni Ernst was struggling to get traction in the Iowa Senate primary.  Then she ran an ad about hog castration.
National Journal
Alex Roarty
June 3, 2014, 6:55 p.m.

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.

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