WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — With three weeks until Election Day and the Iowa Senate race in a virtual tie, Republican Joni Ernst is honing in on her military background to make her closing case to voters.
She’s burnishing her biography as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard at every turn and reserving her sharpest barbs against Democratic opponent Bruce Braley for matters of national security and foreign affairs.
In a speech Sunday night at a West Des Moines rally attended by Mitt Romney, Ernst outlined her strategy explicitly. “What I’d like to do,” she told a cheering crowd of well more than 100, “is compare and contrast my record when it comes to foreign affairs, foreign policy, military affairs, contrast that with Congressman Bruce Braley and President Obama.”
Ernst is doing so on the stump and over the airwaves. She’s used testimonials from soldiers she served with to rebut Democratic attacks and bolster her standing in two recent television spots and one radio ad. In a debate Saturday with Braley, she pointedly declared, “I’ve had my boots on the ground.”
With unrest in the Middle East and across much of the world, Ernst is hoping her years in uniform can help carry her across the finish line first in one of the nation’s tightest and most closely watched races. The Iowa contest is one of a small handful likely to decide control of the Senate.
In his speech, Romney cited Ernst’s National Guard service as preparation to succeed in Washington. “She has experience leading,” Romney said. “We send a lot of people to Washington who know how to talk but not a lot of people who know how to lead.”
Though her military background has been on display throughout the campaign — the words “Mother. Soldier. Independent leader” are plastered across the RV she uses to traverse the state — Ernst has increased her focus on it in the closing weeks of the campaign.
At the Romney rally, she accused Braley of being “disengaged from what’s going on around this world.” Nearly one-third of her speech was dedicated to foreign and military affairs, most of it blistering Braley.
Ernst accused him of voting “not once but twice” to defund troops in combat. “Now he will try and deny it now but what he was doing was putting politics ahead of our men and women in uniform and that is absolutely unacceptable,” she said.
She skewered Braley’s attendance record with the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee (Democrats have accused her of excessive absences as a state senator, as well). “He left 120,000 American veterans hanging out to dry without the health care not only that they deserved, but they had earned through their honorable service,” she said.
And she mocked his calls for Congress to return to debate what to do against the growing Islamic State, arguing he was too late to recognize the threat. “No kidding, Congressman Braley. Where were you two years ago?” she asked.
Braley has pushed back on all fronts, especially the accusation of voting against funding American troops. “This is a shameful and false attack. Joni Ernst knows she is misleading Iowans about Bruce’s record in order to hide her out-of-step agenda that puts millionaires and special interests ahead of Iowa’s families,” said Braley spokesman Sam Lau. Braley has said his votes on troop-funding measures were on broader bills that left limitless timetables for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “As a son of a Marine veteran, Bruce has always supported our men and women in uniform,” Lau said.
On the domestic front, Ernst, a state senator, has mostly tried to tuck herself into the slipstream of popular Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who is also on the ballot in November, claiming his success in the state, including on taxes and the economy, as her own.
In a Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll over the weekend, Branstad was one of only two politicians in the state to poll above 50 percent; the other was former President Clinton.
For his part, Branstad stuck to the military script on Sunday in selling Ernst. “John McCain is the only combat veteran in the United States Senate,” he said at the rally. “We have a chance for the first time in history to elect a woman combat veteran from Red Oak, Iowa.”
The Republican crowd cheered.