Hog Wild in the Hawkeye State: The Race for Harkin's Seat

With Joni Ernst’s recent Iowa Republican primary win, the field’s now set for the race to succeed Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Bruce Braley is the designated combatant in the battle to keep the seat Democratic.

A state senator, Ernst shot to prominence due to a campaign video, one in which she proudly proclaimed that she’d grown up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. Her “pork-cutting skills,” she announced, would “make ‘em squeal” in Washington.

Braley, an attorney, has represented the Hawkeye State’s 1st Congressional District since 2007. He’s a former trial lawyer, and the Ernst campaign as well as the state GOP hasn’t hesitated to refer to him as “trial lawyer Bruce Braley” at every opportunity. He didn’t help his cause by being caught on a video mocking farming as well as Iowa’s other senator, Chuck Grassley, who he said was “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Braley is a non-farmer hailing from a more liberal and populous area of the state.

A lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard and an Iraq veteran, Ernst also rides a Harley Davidson motorcycle and clearly isn’t afraid of a fight. To the delight of Iowa conservatives, a follow-up campaign video depicted her riding a Harley -- itself called a “hog” by fans  -- and packing a handgun. Sarah Palin also endorsed the conservative Republican early, lending her star power and attracting campaign contributions.

Ernst is a native of Iowa’s Montgomery County, a rural area of less than 11,000. Her strong primary win prompted the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to immediately proclaim her Palin’s clone. In a widely published email blast, DSCC Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter characterized her as “bought and paid for by outside interests.”

He went on to say:  “Her rigid partisanship and support for the federal government shutdown not only won her the support of Sarah Palin, but proved that Joni Ernst is the Sarah Palin of Iowa who would bring more gridlock and dysfunction to Washington.”

Interested voters have also written to various newspapers expressing their suspicion of Ernst as nothing more than a Palin carbon copy. One Davenport writer declared to the Quad-City Times that eastern Iowa finally had the distasteful possibility of seeing its own “Sarah Palin/Michelle Bachmann style of representation in Joni Ernst.” The NRA, the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity, groups roundly disliked in Democratic circles, would also receive favors from the Republican, the writer noted.

Both campaigns also slammed each other right from the start. Within hours of the field being set, Iowa’s airwaves were flooded with commercials touting the respective candidates’ virtues and calling out their opponents’ faults. The day after Ernst won the nomination, Braley released an attack ad called “Peep” in which he said the Republican was “a typical politician who says one thing but does the exact opposite.”

The ad is unsparing in its criticism of Ernst, saying that when she had the chance to do something about Iowa pork barrel politics she instead remained on the sidelines.

“In the state Senate Ernst never sponsored a bill to cut pork. Never wrote one measure to slash spending,” the ad’s female voice intones. Political groups such as Progress Iowa have joined the pile-on, gleefully referring to her as “Right Wing Joni.”