Iowa key to Senate majority?
© Scott Wong

WILLIAMSBURG, Iowa — The battle for control of the United States Senate could rest with voters scattered across the sparse, small towns of Iowa.  

Republican hopeful Joni Ernst and Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe ignored question: What does the future Republican Party look like? Graham to roll out extension of Obama immigration program Trump and Cuba: A murky future MORE (R-Fla.) must know that as they hop off her campaign bus and burst through the door of the only coffee shop in this speck of a town between Des Moines and Davenport.

About 50 supporters greet them with a standing ovation. There are handshakes, hugs and photographs; it’s the third of four stops Rubio is making with her on this day.

“This race is not about me; this race is about all of you,” Ernst, a 44-year-old state senator who is running against Democratic Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce BraleyTrump: Ernst wanted 'more seasoning' before entertaining VP offer Criminal sentencing bill tests McConnell-Grassley relationship Trump's VP list shrinks MORE for an open Senate seat, tells her supporters at Java Lounge coffee shop.

“And we are at a crossroads now here in the United States. And we have to make a choice about whether we will stay on the path that Washington, D.C., has set, that President Obama has set, Congressman Braley and Nancy Pelosi have set,” she adds. “Or are we going to get on a path of prosperity and opportunity, strong national defense ... that is the Iowa way, that is the Iowa path.”

Republicans are poised to pick up three open seats on Tuesday: in West Virginia, South Dakota and Montana. They’ll need three more to seize the majority, and those could come from a handful of races that are going down to the wire, including Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, North Carolina — and right here in Iowa.

A poll out this week showed Ernst, an Iraq War veteran who serves in the Iowa Army National Guard, leading Braley, a four-term congressman and attorney, 49 percent to 45 percent. But other surveys have shown the race is a dead heat.

There are signs everywhere that Iowa is a critical front in the bigger battle for control of the Senate. Iowans have been carpet-bombed by more than $60 million worth of political TV and radio ads from outside groups; only North Carolina and Colorado have seen more outside spending in what’s become the most expensive midterm election cycle ever, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Political operatives from D.C. have been quietly working on the ground for the past month in the state, including Alex and Caitlin Conant, the recently married communications specialists for Rubio and Sen. Rob PortmanRob PortmanGOP debates going big on tax reform Who is Tim Ryan? A closer look at Pelosi’s challenger Battle for the Senate: Top of ticket dominates MORE (R-Ohio), and Eli Zupnick, a top aide to Washington Sen. Patty MurrayPatty MurrayOvernight Finance: Trump takes victory lap at Carrier plant | House passes 'too big to fail' revamp | Trump econ team takes shape Senate Dems: Force Cabinet nominees to release tax returns Dems press Trump to keep Obama overtime rule MORE, the No. 4 Democrat in leadership.

Big-name surrogates from both parties — including a parade of possible 2016 presidential hopefuls — have been barnstorming the state with the candidates in a bid to fire up their bases. Former President Bill ClintonBill ClintonFor Trump, foreign policy should begin and end with China Harvard spat between Clinton, Trump camps proves Dems can't accept Trump's improving Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet MORE arrives Saturday to help Braley make his closing arguments at his annual “Bruce, Blues & BBQ” bash in his hometown of Waterloo.

“I know that next Tuesday, if you elect Joni Ernst to the United States Senate, we will get to fire Harry ReidHarry ReidDemocrats local party problem Trump flirts with Dems for Cabinet Lawmakers eye early exit from Washington MORE [D-Nev.] as majority leader,” Rubio, who’s eyeing a 2016 White House run, says in Williamsburg to raucous cheers. As he exits the coffee shop and heads to the bus emblazoned with a huge image of Ernst’s face and the words, “Mother. Soldier. Independent Leader,” Rubio again invokes Reid and lays out what’s at stake. 

“The first vote the next senator from Iowa will take will be on choosing a majority leader of the Senate,” Rubio tells The Hill, “and the one we have now is not doing a very good job for our country.”

Democrats, too, understand a lot is riding on the outcome of the Iowa contest.

Like Ernst, Braley has had help from some big names in politics in recent weeks. First lady Michelle ObamaMichelle ObamaWhite House: Obama has 'no plans' for media career after leaving office Obamas light their final White House Christmas tree Tom Ford declined to dress Melania Trump 'years ago' MORE has been out to Iowa twice this month for him, though she repeatedly called him “Bruce Bailey” during her first visit. And former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonGreen Party drops recount case in Pennsylvania Haim Saban calls Ellison an 'anti-Semite' Farage willing to help Trump 'formally' or 'informally' MORE and Vice President Biden rallied with him earlier this week in Cedar Rapids and the Quad Cities.

Clinton generated headlines during her Cedar Rapids stop when she swiped at Ernst for skipping out on meetings with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register and other local newspapers, something the 2008 presidential candidate suggested was “disqualifying” for a candidate, particularly in the home of the first-in-the-nation caucuses. The Ernst campaign responded that she is more focused upon spending the last days of the race with real voters rather than with newspaper editors.

“You test your candidates. You actually force them to be the best they can be. I understand that,” Clinton tells 400 supporters at a Cedar Rapids union hall. “They have to be willing to answer the tough questions, which is something that Bruce has been willing to do, and his opponent has not.”

Braley, however, is reluctant to discuss the race as having national importance; Obama and Reid are unpopular in Iowa, and doing so puts Democrats at a disadvantage. Instead, his stump speeches focus on bread-and-butter issues: raising the minimum wage, keeping student loan interest rates low, and giving tax incentives to companies that keep jobs in America. 

At a campaign stop in Urbandale, just outside Des Moines, a man tells Braley: “We’re pullin’ for you. We got to keep the Senate in Democrats’ hands.”

“Absolutely,” Braley responds before quickly pivoting to the topic of voter enthusiasm. 

Asked later by The Hill whether he believes control of the Senate could hinge on his race, Braley, sporting a checkered shirt, jeans and sneakers, again steers the focus back to Iowa.

“In a cycle like this, every race is important,” Braley explains. “But obviously for me and the people of Iowa, this is what it’s all about: connecting with Iowa voters, talking about the issues they’re concerned about, and making sure they understand as Iowa’s next senator, an economy that works for all of Iowans is going to be my top priority.”