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.”

The Peep ad caught almost immediate return fire from Ernst and her supporters, though. Its use of baby chicks, they said, constituted a sexist attack in which Braley was calling his female rival a chick. University of Iowa political science professor and politics watcher Timothy Hagle also widely tweeted, “Imagine if a GOP candidate had used a ‘chick’ in an ad against a female opponent.”

Not wanting to miss out on the action, the National Republican Senatorial Committee quickly issued a press release slamming Braley for what it said was his “blatant hypocrisy” in using chick imagery against his female opponent.

RSCC press secretary Brook Hougesen wrote, “Does anyone doubt that if a male Republican candidate ran an ad comparing a female Democratic candidate to a chick, reporters’ inboxes would be filled with outraged press releases demanding that the ad be condemned and then taken down? Of course not.”

Out on the stump, Ernst and surrogates have relentlessly attacked Braley, hitting him over his trial lawyer past, his alleged disdain for Iowa farming values and for his “Washington insider” status.

A potential Senate seat for Republicans is at stake in this contest, with such a pickup key to GOP plans to wrest control of that body from Democrats. The Ernst-Braley fight is more than just an Iowa-specific brawl this electoral season and both parties as well as numerous political action committees on both sides of the aisle know it. In fact, money from all over the country is rolling into both campaigns and independent groups plan to saturate the Hawkeye State’s airwaves with mostly negative ads.

Drake University political scientist Arthur Sanders, in an interview with the Des Moines Register, also predicts the combat between Braley and Ernst will be “very expensive and very hotly contested” as well as “possibly pretty nasty.”

The bad blood between the two competing parties isn’t just confined to the state, either. Ernst was recently forced to apologize for her husband calling Hillary Clinton a “hag” on his Facebook page and Braley was exposed as being one of many congressional Democrats that demanded the Internal Revenue Service investigate Tea Party associated groups applying for nonprofit status.

Iowa is a state with divided loyalties and its more urban and college-oriented areas typically favor Democrats while rural regions tend to go for Republicans. The state’s governor, Terry Branstad, is a moderate Republican but its congressional delegation is evenly split between the two parties, as are its two Senate seats.

According to the latest Real Clear Politics average of polls, Braley holds a +0.8 percent advantage over Ernst, owing to a June 16 Quinnipiac poll that put him four points up on his rival. Prior to that poll, Ernst had held a +0.4 percent lead, though only for a short time. With polling this tight, it just may be that matters between the two candidates will remain as tightly packed as an Iowa hog pen right up through Election Day.

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)