GOP unites behind Ernst in Iowa

Republicans from across the political spectrum are betting the farm that a farm girl can put Iowa’s Senate seat in play.

The oft-warring establishment and Tea Party wings of the party are on the same side ahead of Tuesday’s primary election, rallying behind Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst (R).

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And it’s that near-unanimous chorus by Republicans from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney that could boost the Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel over a trio of primary opponents to win the GOP nod for retiring Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D-Iowa) seat. With clever campaign ads and endorsements, Ernst is in the driver’s seat and could pull the 35 percent of the vote needed to win the nomination outright and avoid a party convention.

Recent polls show she’s closing in on that mark with a comfortable lead over big-spending businessman Mark Jacobs, former conservative radio host Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker. The winner will face Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) this fall in what could be a pivotal race for Senate control.

“There’s no question Joni is cresting. I think she’s on pace to get to 39 or 40 percent,” said Jeff Boeyink, a former senior adviser to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) and an Ernst supporter. “The full spectrum of endorsements she’s received is something we haven’t see here for quite some time.”
 
‘Farmer from Iowa’
 
Just two months ago, Ernst was the underdog against Jacobs, and Braley looked to have the clear edge in the general election. But her first ad — and a major gaffe from Braley — turned the race on its head.

Braley was caught on video at a fundraiser with Texas trial lawyers deriding Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as a “farmer from Iowa” who was less qualified than him to be on the Senate Judiciary Committee. The recording set off a furor that forced Braley to apologize and run ads to shore up his standing with farmers and other blue-collar workers.

It was serendipitous timing for Ernst, who launched her first TV spot the next day about growing up “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” promising to “make ’em squeal” if she gets to Washington. While the ad was mocked by late-night TV hosts, it played well with Iowa conservatives and helped her steal the spotlight, just as national Republicans started paying attention to the race.

“Sometimes it’s all about lucky timing, and certainly Joni benefitted from that,” Boeyink said.

The great GOP uniter?
 
The endorsements for Ernst soon followed. Palin quickly dropped in to endorse her, joining Romney, who’s since campaigned for her. The Senate Conservatives Fund and Chamber of Commerce, antagonists in most races, have united behind Ernst and are both running ads on her behalf.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who shares a top consultant with Ernst, has also endorsed her, and his leadership PAC launched ads touting her background. Branstad has also been strongly supporting her behind the scenes. He encouraged her to run in the first place and has been talking her up to donors for months.

All that support has vaulted Ernst ahead in the primary. She’s drawn between 30 percent and 35 percent in recent polls, with Jacobs at around 20 percent, and Clovis has been hovering in the low teens. Some Republicans are predicting Clovis, who has the backing of Citizens United, former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), and influential locals, including Des Moines radio host Steve Deace and social conservative kingmaker Bob Vander Plaats, could even finish ahead of Jacobs.

Jacobs’s lackluster campaign has also helped. His wealth and business savvy — buoyed by millions of dollars he spent dominating the airwaves  — seemed to make him an ideal candidate early on. But he’s struggled to push past questions about comments on climate change legislation and donations to Democrats.

Another costly mistake was fumbling his first attack against Ernst, highlighting votes she missed in the state Legislature by saying the Guard member had gone “AWOL.” Jacobs still has plenty of money to spend, though, and could use the final week to hammer Ernst.

If Ernst falls short of 35 percent, she’d face a tougher path to the nomination at a state party convention in late June, but not from Jacobs.

Clovis has been organizing for months for a convention battle, and in recent years, Iowa’s party conventions have been dominated by hard-line conservative activists.

Ernst’s secret weapon could be that this year, though, Branstad and his allies engineered a coup in party leadership and dominated at the local events that chose the convention delegates. Many Branstad allies, and likely pro-Ernst supporters, would be at the convention, and the crowd could be easier to woo than it would have been in past years.
 
Not all smooth plowing on the road ahead
 
Republicans are drooling over a biographical comparison between Ernst, a farmer and Iraq War veteran, and Braley, a trial lawyer and congressman.

But while Ernst has leapt forward in the primary as Braley has faced unflattering headlines, polls still show him ahead in the general election.

“Certainly, he has had his rough patches. I’m glad if it was going to happen, that it happened early,” said former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D).

Democrats believe the strategy that rocketed Ernst to her primary lead is what could doom her this fall.

“Sarah Palin comes up a little short, and I think Joni Ernst comes up a little short, too, in the same manner, in a lack of knowledge and good understanding of the issues,” Judge said. “She’ll be outgunned, outspent; that’s just the way it’s going to be.”

Braley’s campaign plans to paint her as a conservative ideologue, attacking her for supporting a personhood amendment in the Legislature and her calls to eliminate the Department of Education and institute a “fair tax.”

“Republicans should be terrified at the prospect of an unknown, Sarah Palin-endorsed Steve King devotee winning the GOP nomination,” Braley adviser Jeff Link said in a recent memo.

Some Iowa Republicans privately admit her positions could be tricky, though they’re more worried about whether she’s ready for the national stage with the cash and organization needed to run a major Senate race.

“It’s an uphill climb. Even with the gaffes, don’t underestimate Braley,” said Boeyink, Branstad’s adviser. “Joni has grown a ton in this race, and there’s more to do because of the level of scrutiny and the outside money is only going to increase. You think you’re prepared for the spotlight, but until it hits you, you don’t understand it.”

Ernst’s campaign says she’ll be prepared, though they admit she’ll be playing catch-up if she wins the primary. Braley had more than $2.3 million in the bank, while Ernst had $350,000 through May 14.

But her fundraising has picked up in the last few months: She raised $410,000 in the last six weeks, more than any quarter before that.

“We’ve got a real good candidate, and the contrasts between her and Bruce Braley are going to matter more than the amount spent,” Ernst spokesman Derek Flowers said. “We’ll be able to ramp up quickly once we have a nominee.”

Meanwhile, Braley has already felt the heat of a national spotlight. The “farmer from Iowa” gaffe put him on defense, and Democrats hope he’s learned his lesson and won’t make any other unforced errors.

“He’s a smart guy who’s prone to not being smart about some of the ways he’s approached campaigning,” one national Democrat said. “I think this was a valuable learning experience, and if he comes out having learned his lessons, this probably needed to happen.

“Once he takes his foot out of his mouth, I think people will still believe he will be a better senator,” the strategist added.

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