Iowa Senate Race: An Excuse for 2016ers to Come Early, Come Often

WASHINGTON – As the tight Senate race in Iowa enters its final stretch, a flurry of 2016 presidential hopefuls have taken advantage of the turf and started to jockey for their parties’ presidential nominations.

According to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday, the Iowa Senate race seems to be going down to the wire. The poll shows Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst continuing to lead the race to fill the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) by 2 percentage points, with 48 percent of likely voters supporting her. The margin remains the same as an Oct.15 poll that showed Ernst leading 45 to 43 percent.

Only 4 percent of likely voters remain undecided in a race that will help determine control of the Senate.

Independent voters – which are Iowa’s largest voting bloc – are backing Ernst over Rep. Bruce Braley, Iowa’s Democratic Senate nominee, 47 percent to 41 percent.

Braley, a fourth-term representative, has touted his Washington experience and his bipartisan record. His agenda focuses primarily on urban voters, promising a higher minimum wage, more financial support for students, and greater effort to curb climate change.

Braley’s gaffe-prone Senate campaign has made headlines several times, from disparaging Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as a “farmer who never went to law school” to complaining that he had to wash his own towel at the House gym during last year’s government shutdown. He also was mocked by the media for a squabble with a neighbor who let her chickens wander onto his lawn. The incident also provided ammunition to his opponent to dispute his claims of bipartisanship.

“Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property. You’re talking about bipartisanship, how do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you cannot walk across your yard?” Ernst said during a debate in September.

Ernst, a National Guard lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, won her party’s primary by emphasizing her rural roots and military background. A little-known Iowa state senator, Ernst burst onto the political scene earlier this year with an ad in which she touted her experience cutting pork because she grew up on a farm castrating pigs.

The Iowa Senate race is attracting millions of dollars. Some $35 million is being spent in Iowa – more than anywhere except for North Carolina and Colorado – both with larger populations than the Hawkeye State.

Many high-profile political figures have flocked to Iowa, including many potential 2016 presidential candidates aiming to position themselves for a nominating contest that is 15 months away.

Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are both scheduled to appear in Iowa this week. Clinton will visit Iowa for a second time in just over a month. She stumped for Braley and other Iowa Democrats at the 37th annual Harkin Steak Fry in September – her first visit to the state since her defeat by President Obama in Iowa’s 2008 Democratic caucuses.

Clinton is not the only potential Democratic candidate to visit Iowa – the first state in the nation to hold its presidential caucuses – and lay the seed for a run in 2016.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), whom some liberals want to run for president, campaigned in Iowa this month for Braley. Though Warren has repeatedly stated that she will not run for president in 2016, she has visited several states delivering a populist speech that touches upon a host of core Democratic issues, such as raising the minimum wage and inequality.

Clinton holds a substantial lead of 53 percent support from likely 2016 Democratic caucusgoers, according to a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa poll. Warren is a distant second, with 10 percent.

Traffic on the Republican side has been much heavier, with at least 10 prospective presidential contenders visiting the state in recent months.