Braley’s ‘farmer from Iowa’ remarks could spell election trouble for party

Greg Nash

Iowa Democrats are worried Rep. Bruce Braley’s remark that Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) is a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” could come back to haunt him.

Braley’s Senate campaign is in damage control mode following the release of a video in which the Democrat tells Texas trial lawyers at a fundraiser that he’s better equipped to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee than his state’s senior senator.

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“If you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years, in a visible or public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Braley said in the clip, which Republicans have been gleefully circulating. “Or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because, if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Braley immediately issued a public apology to Grassley, but the comments could still be a problem this fall.

“It’s unfortunate. Certainly as someone who was in elected office for almost 20 years, I understand the foot-in-mouth problem,” former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D) told The Hill. “It is a problem for him. Sen. Grassley is very highly regarded, not just among Republicans, but by Iowans.”

Braley’s remark plays directly into the narrative Republicans have long pushed about him: that he’s a wealthy trial lawyer who’s out of touch with the average Iowan and farmers. The footage will be fodder for campaign ads this fall, when the GOP hopes to make a race where Braley has had the edge into a tougher battle.

“Politically there’s a backlash. If you take the statement out of context I could see how a farmer could feel offended by that, and there’s a lot of people who are going to do just that, take it out of context,” former Iowa Steelworkers Union Political Director John Campbell told The Hill.

Republicans are overjoyed about Braley’s slip of the tongue.

“For months, reporters and pundits have been searching for the next Todd Akin-like candidate. Turns out that they were looking in the wrong party,” National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesman Brad Dayspring said in a Wednesday morning email to reporters.

Mark Jacobs, one of the four Republicans vying to face Braley this fall, already has a radio ad that includes part of the clip. The energy executive called the comments an “insult” to both Grassley and Iowa farmers and said he’s “proud of Iowa and all the families who make their living off the land.”

Braley’s campaign has tried to remedy the gaffe. He gave an in-person apology to Grassley and issued a public apology as well, saying his childhood on the family farm has given him a “profound appreciation for what farmers do for the world.”

The campaign also released a memo that includes quotes from a half-dozen farmers backing Braley, touting his work on the farm bill and to protect the renewable energy standard, a priority for the state’s agricultural economy.

Braley has been leading his GOP opponents in most polls, and Democrats have been confident the crowded Republican field would give him an edge in the race.

Democrats also argue that if Jacobs wins the primary election, his background as a Wall Street executive and energy utility CEO in Texas gives them plenty of opportunities to show Braley is more of the people’s candidate.

“This race will be about the clear choice between Bruce Braley, who supports policies that help Iowa farmers, expands Iowa’s agricultural economy, and strengthens the middle class, and Goldman Sachs executive Mark Jacobs and the GOP field, who support policies that are bad for Iowa farmers and good for big oil billionaires,” Braley spokesman Jeff Giertz said.

Jacobs, a self-funder, has been outspending his opponents and has held a lead in the few public polls of the GOP primary. But Republicans seem to be rallying around Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R); former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) endorsed her on Wednesday, joining former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in backing her.

Ernst’s background as a farmer and former Army Ranger make it tough for Braley to attack her on personal issues if she can overcome her fundraising struggles to win the primary.

“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” she said in her first ad, released on Tuesday.

The eye-catching ad drew national attention — and some ridicule from late-night hosts — but could play well in Iowa’s GOP primary.

This isn’t Braley’s first gaffe of the campaign. Last fall, during the government shutdown, he complained on a radio show about its impact on the House gym, leading to GOP guffaws.

Braley’s campaign admits his comments about Grassley’s farming background won’t help but argues the fundamentals of the race haven’t changed.

“It is certainly an issue that need to be addressed. Congressman Braley addressed it yesterday,” senior Braley adviser Jeff Link said. “I think he handled it in a smart way and handled it quickly.”

Braley’s allies admit the comment wasn’t helpful but they say he’ll be able to push past the incident by focusing on his deep roots in Iowa’s farming communities.

“They’re going to have to battle back,” said Judge, who’s also a farmer and a former Iowa secretary of agriculture. “It will be an issue, and I don’t think Bruce would tell you any differently. It’s going to have to be something he fights back on. But they have the time to do so, and I think they will.”