Braley’s Missteps Have Democrats Worried in Iowa

The race has been seen as tightening since GOP candidate Joni Ernst won the June 3 primary, and polls find the race is now a toss-up.

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
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Emily Schultheis
July 28, 2014, 6:15 p.m.

Demo­crats nev­er ex­pec­ted that the 2014 can­did­ate most likely to put his foot in his mouth would be their own Bruce Bra­ley.

The na­tion­al Demo­crats who had long touted the four-term House mem­ber as a top Sen­ate re­cruit in Iowa are the same ones who privately worry that Bra­ley’s mis­steps are put­ting his chances at hold­ing long­time Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tom Har­kin’s seat in jeop­ardy.

And in a year where Demo­crats must de­fend vast ter­rit­ory and there’s little mar­gin for er­ror, los­ing Iowa — a race the party has seen as very win­nable — would be a big blow to their chances of hold­ing the Sen­ate.

Bra­ley entered the race in early 2013 after the vet­er­an Har­kin an­nounced his re­tire­ment, quickly clear­ing the Demo­crat­ic field and post­ing big fun­drais­ing quar­ters while the big and largely un­known Re­pub­lic­an field battled against it­self. That led to ex­pect­a­tions that this would be an easy race for Bra­ley, which one Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive with Iowa ex­per­i­ence said were “un­reas­on­able” for such a per­en­ni­ally com­pet­it­ive state.

The Iowa race has been seen as tight­en­ing since GOP can­did­ate Joni Ernst won the June 3 primary con­vin­cingly. That sense cul­min­ated this week­end with the news that Bra­ley’s cam­paign had par­ted ways with its poll­ster and ad-maker earli­er this sum­mer (first re­por­ted by Politico).

Chief among Bra­ley’s mis­steps this year, and ap­pear­ing most fre­quently in GOP ads, are his now-in­fam­ous com­ments from a fun­draiser in which he de­scribed GOP Sen. Chuck Grass­ley as “a farm­er from Iowa who nev­er went to law school.”

Polls find the race is now a toss-up: The most re­cent, from NBC/Mar­ist, found Bra­ley and Ernst tied at 43 per­cent each. Oth­er re­cent pub­lic polling has giv­en a slight edge to either Bra­ley or Ernst — a far cry from the con­sist­ent high-single-di­git leads Bra­ley was com­mand­ing earli­er this year.

“This race did a 180 when [Bra­ley] stubbed his toe on that ‘farm­er’ com­ment,” said former Des Moines Re­gister polit­ic­al re­port­er Dav­id Yepsen. “He may have mor­tally wounded him­self with that, be­cause he wasn’t well-known to a lot of people.”

And while Bra­ley still has con­sid­er­ably more money in the bank than Ernst — he has $2.7 mil­lion on hand, com­pared with $1.1 mil­lion for Ernst — the GOP can­did­ate out­raised Bra­ley slightly in the second quarter, prov­ing she can suc­cess­fully raise big sums.

All three top polit­ic­al pro­gnost­ic­at­ors — The Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port, The Rothen­berg Polit­ic­al Re­port and Larry Sabato’s “Crys­tal Ball” — have shif­ted the race to­ward Re­pub­lic­ans in re­cent weeks and now rate it as a pure toss-up.

The Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee put $500,000 be­hind an ad hit­ting Ernst last week, a sign na­tion­al Demo­crats have be­come in­creas­ingly con­cerned about the race.

Sev­er­al stor­ies since the “farm­er” com­ment have helped re­in­force, at least in na­tion­al circles, Bra­ley’s un­for­tu­nate pen­chant for put­ting his foot in his mouth: At a parade earli­er this month, Bra­ley ap­peared to an­swer a voter’s cheer of “We’re farm­ers!” with “So am I!” (The cam­paign said Bra­ley thought the voter had said “We’re for farm­ers,” which is why he agreed.)

Re­pub­lic­ans also seized on a story about Bra­ley and his wife com­plain­ing to the loc­al homeown­ers as­so­ci­ation about a neigh­bor’s chick­ens run­ning free, a story that helps fit in­to the GOP por­tray­al of Bra­ley as an elit­ist tri­al law­yer. An­oth­er re­port this week found he had missed the ma­jor­ity of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment over­sight hear­ings in 2011 and 2012.

“The last thing you want to be is some­body who ‘went Wash­ing­ton,’ and those stumbles sort of opened the door” to cri­ti­cism like that, said one Demo­crat fa­mil­i­ar with the cam­paign. “That’s a ca­ri­ca­ture that the Bra­ley cam­paign does not want to stick.”

The cam­paign worked to com­bat the im­age early, run­ning an ad earli­er this spring high­light­ing Bra­ley’s ties to the state and work­ing-class past. The pro-Demo­crat­ic group Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity PAC, too, came out with an ad this spring fea­tur­ing farm­ers de­fend­ing Bra­ley and his Iowa roots.

Demo­crats in the state say the “farm­er” re­mark and the per­cep­tion of Bra­ley it feeds haven’t yet had time to sink in with voters — nor have views about Ernst, whom Demo­crats will use con­sid­er­able re­sources to por­tray as too ex­treme for the state.

State Demo­crat­ic Party Chair­man Scott Bren­nan called some of the re­cent head­lines, like the chick­en story, “just sil­li­ness,” not­ing that can­did­ates’ words are “parsed and re­viewed” to a level that’s un­ne­ces­sary.

Demo­crats note that in a state like Iowa, which is split nearly evenly between Demo­crats, Re­pub­lic­ans and in­de­pend­ents, a tight race was in­ev­it­able — and that once Bra­ley’s al­lies go on the at­tack against Ernst, her num­bers will come down to earth.

Ernst has been on Na­tion­al Guard duty, which means the cam­paign has been some­what on hold — but with her re­turn to the cam­paign trail this week, Bra­ley and out­side groups will pounce. They plan to ar­gue Ernst is too right-wing for the purple state, and that her views are out of line with those of the voters.

They’ll high­light com­ments like the ones she made earli­er this year, in­clud­ing sug­gest­ing she was open to im­peach­ing Pres­id­ent Obama and say­ing she be­lieved Ir­aq did have weapons of mass de­struc­tion dur­ing the 2003 in­va­sion. The Daily Beast re­por­ted Monday af­ter­noon that, at a for­um last fall, Ernst sug­ges­ted the states could nul­li­fy fed­er­al laws.

Demo­crats also point to their su­per­i­or ground op­er­a­tion, which state party of­fi­cials say is the largest non-pres­id­en­tial-year co­ordin­ated cam­paign ever.

“It’s easy to see where, with a com­pet­it­ive Re­pub­lic­an primary, this race might have looked dif­fer­ent a few weeks ago,” said Norm Sterzen­bach, a vet­er­an Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ant in the state. “But due to the fact that the primary’s over, na­tion­ally the U.S. Sen­ate is in the bal­ance and this is an open seat in a swing state “¦ it was al­ways go­ing to tight­en up.”

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