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.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is considered a likely GOP presidential candidate, visited Iowa on Wednesday to stump for fellow Republicans.
“Joni Ernst will make a much better senator than Bob Bailey,” Paul joked in reference to the gaffe made by First Lady Michelle Obama earlier this month when she mispronounced the Democrat’s name.
Paul, who has visited several campuses across the nation, told the students and others gathered at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) event Wednesday afternoon that he wants to fight for their freedom.
“I’m concerned for your freedom, not only your economic liberty, but your personal liberty,” he said.
Paul’s appearance at UNI was meant to boost the campaign of Rob Blum, who is running for the seat being vacated by Braley. Blum is gaining on Democratic state Rep. Pat Murphy in what was once considered a safe race for the Democrats. Blum has picked up some key endorsements in recent weeks from Republican heavyweights and local newspapers.
According to a poll of likely GOP voters asked who would be their top choice for president, Paul came in third place for their first choice of presidential candidate with 10 percent. Mitt Romney, who has denied repeatedly that he is running for a third time after losses in 2008 and 2012, took first place with 17 percent. Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson rounded off the top three candidates, getting 11 percent of the votes.
After Blum’s event, Paul attended a rally at the University of Iowa with Ernst.
Another prospective presidential candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, made a stop in Iowa Thursday to boost Ernst’s campaign – his eighth visit to the Hawkeye State since last year, the Houston Chronicle reported.
That same day, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was in Davenport to raise funds for Gov. Terry Branstad’s re-election campaign.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has made several stops in Iowa to stump for Ernst. His latest appearance was at the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition’s 14th Annual Friends of the Family Banquet in September alongside two other early favorites to win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination – Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Iowa Republican presidential caucuses, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, winner of the 2012 caucuses, have also visited the state numerous times to campaign for their fellow Republicans.
Finally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) will headline the Scott County GOP Ronald Reagan Dinner this week. The Florida Republican will appear the next morning with Blum to deliver a speech at his headquarters.