Iowa was never supposed to be a Senate battleground for Democrats.
Following two cycles where it was GOP missteps and subpar candidates who cost them winnable races, the tables have turned and it’s now Democrats who are scrambling to right Rep. Bruce Braley’s flagging campaign before it’s too late.
“If the Democrats lose Iowa, of course it becomes much harder to keep the majority,” said one national Democratic strategist. “The race could very much go either way. We feel like the worst is behind us and it's moving back towards Bruce Braley. But we know we don't have this wrapped up.”
Braley’s biggest gaffe took place months ago, when video surfaced of the former trial lawyer criticizing Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as a “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
But Braley’s problems haven’t stopped there. A neighbor has claimed he threatened to sue because her chickens kept wandering in his yard, and Republicans have been hammering him for missing Veterans Affairs Committee hearings. In-state observers say he’s stiff and awkward at times on the campaign trail, while Ernst is better at retail politicking.
David Yepsen, a thirty-year veteran of the Des Moines Register who now directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said Braley’s “farmer” gaffe “really redefined the race” and was “one of the biggest political stumbles I've ever seen.”
“In one swoop, he made a mistake that changes the direction of the race,” said Yepsen. “This was going to be a race that Democrats initially thought would be pretty easy to hold onto and it's turned into a far different game.”
Holding the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is critical, since Democrats can only afford to lose five seats if they hope to retain control of the upper chamber. Montana, West Virginia and South Dakota are all likely to flip to the GOP, getting the GOP halfway to a majority. Red-state Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and Mark Begich (D-Alaska) have been top targets for more than a year, but are running strong races.
But now Braley’s missteps have vaulted him higher on the vulnerable list, frustrating D.C. Democrats who thought he’d win comfortably.
Braley’s team has come out hard on veterans issues in recent weeks, running two ads touting his work helping veterans get military pay and pushing to end sexual assault in the military. The ads seem aimed at shoring up his standing with veterans and help bolster his image with voters against Ernst, who serves in the Iowa National Guard.
While he looks to boost his own image, Democrats have been hard at work undercutting Ernst’s in the swing state.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Senate Majority PAC, and the liberal environmental group NextGen Climate have all been on the air in recent weeks seeking to paint Ernst as a conservative hard-liner beholden to special-interest groups. Iowa has been one of the only states where Democrats have been spending more on television in recent weeks, a sign of how worried they are about the race.
The DSCC’s ad ties her to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who campaigned for Ernst in the primary. Others hit her for waffling on the renewable fuel standard, a key issue for some Iowa farmers, and her opposition to a federal minimum wage.
Braley’s campaign argues that his mistakes are well-known to voters at this point, but that they’re just getting to know his opponent.
"In Iowa, what's out of touch is Joni Ernst's Tea Party views on the minimum wage, Social Security, Medicare, impeachment and the government shutdown. That's what is going to matter to Iowans come November,” Braley spokesman Sam Lau said.
Braley’s allies admit he’s made unforced errors, but think the race is beginning to turn in his direction as voters learn more about Ernst.
“People simply didn't know who she was besides being a woman and a fresh face with catchy TV ads who grew up on a farm, and not looking at her beliefs, her views, her record, which are pretty extreme,” former Iowa Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D) told The Hill. “I'm not going to deny there have been some rough spots in this campaign… but I really believe he'll be okay, I really do.”
Ernst’s campaign has retaliated, attacking Braley as an “elitist” and saying the Democratic attacks were coming from a place of fear.
“Bruce Braley has been losing ground every week because each day Iowans learn something new about his elitist Washington values,” said Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel. “Bruce Braley and his liberal allies arrogantly thought this race would be a coronation. Now they are desperate and filling the airways with false attacks and smears against Joni Ernst. They aren’t even trying to get people to vote for Braley anymore. Their goal is to smear Joni so much that Iowans will vote against her. It’s sad, and it won’t work, but that’s their strategy.”
National Democrats argue the attacks against Ernst are working and the race has stabilized, for now.
But many admit they were hoping they would never have to worry about Iowa in the first place, and know if the Senate flips, it may be due to Braley’s subpar performance.
“Losing this would make the path much more difficult. I think he's in a good place, but he needs to stop tripping over himself,” said another national Democratic strategist.