The contest between Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley for retiring U.S. Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) seat was called “Iowa’s ugliest Senate race ever” by the Daily Beast. And judging from media reports as well as press releases from their campaigns, as well as surrogate groups, there’s little doubt that the two candidates are locked in a fight to the political death with each other.
At various points over the course of the race the Republican nominee, for example, has been accused of believing in United Nations plots to take over the U.S. as well as being too closely allied with conservative icon Sarah Palin, not to mention personally being an Earth-hating despoiler of Iowa’s rich farmland and a rich Republican seeking to keep Iowa’s workers trapped in a minimum wage cycle of despair.
Braley, meanwhile, has found himself in the soup for complaining about a neighbor’s “therapeutic chickens” crossing through his yard and for purportedly claiming he was just a humble Iowa farmer when, according to the Ernst campaign, he’s actually a rapacious trial lawyer and Washington insider intent on selling the Hawkeye State out to big corporations and even bigger government.
From all appearances, both campaigns seem to be following a pattern of attack, attack, and even more attack with nary a cessation in hostilities. Ernst, a longtime National Guard officer, has proven she’s comfortable with the idea of sustained combat and Braley, a four-term member of the U.S. House from the urban Waterloo area, is no dilettante in the ways of electoral warfare either.
Big money as well as logistical support is also finding its way to the two foes and their campaigns. A press release from the Sierra Club, an environmental advocacy group supporting Braley’s run, announced that more than $1 million from it and several similar groups would go towards TV and other voter outreach activities in an effort to defeat Ernst.
Gene Karpinski, chief of the League of Conservation Voters, said of the Republican: “Extremists like Sarah Palin and the Koch brothers are backing Joni Ernst because they know she would do their bidding in Washington. Her plan to abolish the EPA and threaten our air and water is just too extreme for Iowa.”
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune also joined in the fray, proclaiming that “Joni Ernst’s plan to gut the safeguards that keep toxics out of our air and water is music to the ears of big polluters and just plain dangerous for everyone else.” Like Karpinski, Brune went on to claim that the Koch brothers, longtime bogeymen of progressives everywhere, had hand-selected Ernst for the U.S. Senate.
The Democrat, though, has taken repeated fire from Ernst and surrogates over his service on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, or lack of service if the claims that Braley missed anywhere from half to three-fourths of committee meetings over a two-year period are true. With the military and especially its veterans enjoying support throughout much of Iowa, Braley’s purported absence at so many committee meetings immediately cast him in a bad light.
To add fuel to the fire, the Cedar Rapids Gazette fact-checked Republican claims of Braley absences and concluded that he’d missed 78 percent of full committee meetings in 2011 and 2012, though he’d missed only two of 17 Veterans’ Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee meetings over that same period.
Still, even with his attendance at almost all subcommittee gatherings, Braley could muster only a 50 percent attendance rate overall, something the Ernst campaign and its supporters seized on and exploited ruthlessly, given several months of national headlines about serial incompetency at the Department of Veterans Affairs, including the deaths of dozens of veterans while waiting months to years for medical appointments.
The Iowa Republican Party hit the Democrat hard over the veterans’ committee, with spokesman Jahan Wilcox saying in a statement: “Bruce Braley turned his back on our veterans, because when he had the chance to learn about the nationwide problems in the VA he skipped the hearing. If Braley did his job and didn’t skip 78 percent of Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings, he would have seen that the VA is crumbling and failing to provide our veterans care.”
In an effort to regain the initiative over the Republican, Braley on July 29 used an ad to accuse his foe of being in favor of minimum wage provisions that are “wrong for Iowa.” Ernst and her followers, including a group representing 10,000 small-business owners in the state, almost immediately struck back, however, accusing the Democrat of pushing economic positions sure to increase hourly labor costs for workers in those businesses.
“We’d like Congressman Braley to explain his theory on how Iowa small businesses and family farms can absorb such an increase without having to make difficult cuts elsewhere,” Vice President of the National Federation of Independent Business Gina Goeas said in a resulting statement.
Like Braley, Ernst is also benefiting from support from a number of politically active groups, including American Crossroads, the powerhouse conservative political action committee. The Karl Rove-backed PAC spent more than $400,000 on a 30-second TV ad that began airing in Iowa in July, in addition to the $3.1 million in advertising time the group has already reserved to support the Republican candidate right up through election day this coming November.
PACs such as American Crossroads and the Sierra Club’s own political action committee aren’t themselves affiliated with the candidates and as such also aren’t bound by federal laws limiting campaign contributions. Experts continue to predict a great deal of money will be spent in the Hawkeye State before it’s all over, too. Shawn McCoy, former communications director for the 2012 Mitt Romney campaign in Iowa and publisher of the Inside Sources politics website, noted in a May post that Braley may end up spending more than $14 million while Ernst would have to spend north of $17 million to defeat him.
So far, all the money spent on both sides to this point hasn’t produced a clear edge for either candidate. As of July 28, the Real Clear Politics average of polls gives Ernst only a +0.8 percent lead, well within the statistical margin of error for political polls. The Huffington Post’s own average of polls, taken from 16 separate assessments carried out by 11 different pollsters, gives the Republican only a +0.9 percent lead.
The race is far too close to call, in other words. What’s clear is that the bloody war of attrition being carried out in the Iowa U.S. Senate race shows absolutely no sign of either candidate asking for quarter, nor expecting to give any.