Monday, August 18, 2014

Race of the Day- Iowa U.S. Senate

78 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

For decades, politically competitive Iowa has been represented in the U.S. Senate by a conservative Republican and a liberal Democrat. These Senators have managed to win reelection after reelection by winning the votes of Iowans who are beyond their party base, by virtue of their reputations for constituent outreach and hard work, particularly when it comes to fighting for the state's farmers. This year, Democrat Tom Harkin is putting a lid on 30 years in the Senate and a liberal Democrat and conservative Republican are squaring off to replace him. Whomever is able to better reach out beyond their party's base should win a very close race, and of course the overall political environment in Iowa and around the country may play a key role as well.

Early last year, Harkin announced his retirement, and it become clear early on that Democrats would pin their hopes on Congressman Bruce Braley. A successful trial attorney, Braley won his seat in 2006, taking over a district that had been held by Republicans. That district continued to move to the left and Braley has never been shy about his ties to trial lawyers, labor unions, and his overall liberal record. He seemed to be in very good shape to succeed Harkin in Washington as the cycle began, especially as top Republican recruit targets such as Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds and Congressman Tom Latham declined to run.

The GOP field would grow to be fairly crowded although the contenders were not seen as political all-stars. Polls would show Braley ahead of all of them. The Republican candidates would collect endorsements from Iowa politicians as well as others throughout the country who took an interest in a race that could decide the balance of power in the Senate. Past Presidential candidates supported hopefuls who might have helped their efforts in the past, and some of those in the GOP who might run for President again, also wanted to be involved in the first caucus state.

Republicans were expected to be pretty fairly divided headed into the June primary.  It seemed very possible that under Iowa party rules, no candidate would receive 35 percent of the vote, and thus the nomination would be thrown to a convention where anybody might emerge, but with the distinct possibility that Iowa activists, many of whom were aligned with the Ron Paul movement, could pick someone unelectable, and maybe even someone who did not even compete in the primary.

However, when the votes came in, the primary was not even close. The major candidates who were basically blown away were  former U.S. Attorney Matthew Whitaker, who had been the party's Treasurer nominee in 2002, wealthy businessman Mark Jacobs, who advertised heavily and pointed to his outsider status, and conservative activist and radio host Sam Clovis. The victory went to State Senator Joni Ernst, who had emerged as a frontrunner late in the campaign, but people had to marvel at the fact that she won with 56 percent of the vote and by a nearly 40 percent margin. That was a surprise landslide for Ernst. Needless to say, no convention would be necessary.

Ernst succeeded in uniting a wide coalition of establishment Republicans and Tea Party sympathizers. That was evident by the fact that both Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin had endorsed her primary candidacy. Just 44 years old, the State Senator stressed her status as a wife and mother, as well as her biography which involved growing up on an Iowa farm as well as Army service in the Middle East as  Lt. Colonel in the Iowa National Guard.

What received Ernst a lot of attention was an ad she ran in which she deftly addressed the camera and talked her experience castrating pigs as she was growing up and comparing it to knowing how to cut the pork in Washington. "Let's make 'em squeal", she states and conservatives in Iowa and around the country enjoyed the figurative imagery of her taking it to Harry Reid and others in Washington. Once the commercial received notice, money poured in and her momentum was hard to stop.

A Braley vs. Ernst battle in Iowa should be one of the marquis races in 2014. By virtue of being elected to Congress in a competitive district, Braley probably has more political experience, but he has suffered a series of pretty bad political missteps on the trail. Months before the primary, a hidden camera type video surfaced of Braley talking to his fellow trial lawyers at a Texas fundraiser and seemingly mocking the concept of the state's longtime senior Senator, Charles Grassley taking over the Senate Judiciary Committee if Republicans were to win a majority and having purview over tort reform legislation they opposed. He described Grassley as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." When the video found its way back in Iowa, needless to say the state's farmers could not have been happy by what looked like a pretty elitist derision of their intelligence. The Democrat candidate was forced to apologize to Grassley and "anyone I may have offended."

In another more recent episode, Braley ran an ad in which he portrayed Ernst as a do-nothing State Senator who merely chirped about cutting spending. That might be a reasonable line of attack but the ad depicted Ernst as a baby chicken. It is pretty amazing that nobody in that campaign might have thought that sexist connotations could be drawn by using a "chick" against a female opponent.

Despite these missteps by the Braley campaign, polls continue to show a close race, although some recent ones have Ernest narrowly ahead, which speaks to the competitiveness of Iowa federal politics. The state's incumbent GOP Governor has a large lead and this point and may produce some coattails Ernst as well as Congressional candidates, as every district in the state is drawn to be fairly competitive.

Ernst has shown surprising strength in her first high-profile race, but much remains undetermined about how the campaign will develop. The debates may be highly watched and it is worth nothing that Braley is a very experienced trial lawyer who could have skills in that format. Ernst will hope that what is seen as a warm and likable demeanor will help her in those formats. Democrats will continue to try to compare her unfavorably to Sarah Palin though as a right-wing extremist and political lightweight.

This race should be close until the end. Braley has stayed around despite some big mistakes and if those are in the past for him, he definitely cannot be counted out in winning a race for a Senate seat that has belonged to an ardent liberal for two generations now. If I were predicting this race last month, I would have said it was a Tossup but would have given the slightest of edges to Braley.

I really had to think about this one, and this may eventually change before all is said and done, but I think the year is continuing to shape up as a strong one for Republicans in the Senate, and usually, almost all the close Senate races tend to fall the same way on Election Day. Right now, I think a variety of factors are falling into place for a narrow Republican win in the Hawkeye State. The Republican nominee has already shown an ability to outdo what the polls had predicted and if that happens again, she will be in great shape.

It is fair to say that if Ernst picks up the seat in Iowa, the U.S. Senate will have also gone Republican, and a farmer from Iowa will be chairing the Judiciary Committee, much to the dismay of Bruce Braley and his fellow trial lawyers.

Ernst campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 4 D (3 Safe, 1 Tossup), 6 R (2 Safe, 2 Leans, 2 Tossup)
Overall predicted thus far: 38 D, 36 R (net Republican gain of 3)


At 9:34 AM, Blogger Steve Boudreaux said...

Assuming Branstad gets over 60% in the gubernatorial contest, I could see Ernst winning the U.S. Senate race due to her military experience and support from Veterans.


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