Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) is seeking the center as he runs for Iowa’s open Senate seat.
“Our job is to work together, solve tough problems,” Braley said. “The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives I believe share that [view] but we get locked into these positions that make it very difficult to maintain a conversation about how we can solve our differences.
“I try to do that one member at a time by trying to develop strong relationships with Democrats and Republicans so that I can talk to my colleagues.”
Braley said a burgeoning friendship with Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), a centrist Republican, began during a trip last year to Iwo Jima, with the discovery of some personal common ground: Rigell’s father, who was on the trip, fought there during World War II, alongside Braley’s father.
The two congressmen had lunch last week to discuss “ways to reduce partisanship in Congress,” he said.
Braley has argued bipartisan relationship-building is why he supports keeping the House gym open during the government shutdown. Defending that stance has given him some headaches, however.
In a Wednesday interview, Braley mocked a letter by some other congressmen calling for the gym to close until the government can reopen.
"They must not have been down to the gym lately," Braley said on the Bill Press Show when asked about the push.
"There's hardly anybody working down there. There's no towel service, we're doing our own laundry down there. And we pay a fee to belong to the House gym. So this is no different than if you're working for an employer that offers a wellness program. You pay a fee to belong, that's what we do there."
The comment drew fire from his Republican opponents and national GOP groups.
Braley said the attacks were “a distraction from the real important issue” of working out a compromise on the government shutdown and debt limit.
“If shutting down the House gym were necessary to get the government open and running, I would say 'do it in a heartbeat, John Boehner.' The problem is we're talking about towels in the House gym rather than 800,000 furloughed employees that want to come back to work,” he said.
“My comment began with a justification about why that gym is important — it's one of the rare places Democrats and Republicans come together and get to know each other and build personal relationships. I regret that we're talking about towels in the House gym rather than what we need to do to bring people together, end the government shutdown and put people back to work.”
Braley is, for now, the front-runner in Iowa’s Senate race. A number of top potential GOP recruits took a pass on running in the swing state, leaving a crowded field of second-tier challengers.
The GOP remains hopeful that it can make the race competitive, which would give the party a much better chance of winning the six seats its need to take control of the Senate.
Democrats have united around Braley, a lifelong Iowan and former trial lawyer, as their nominee to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Part of that unity is due to Harkins’ strong support for Braley as his replacement.
Braley, who first got involved in politics volunteering on Harkin’s first reelection campaign in 1978, described the long-time senator as “my good friend, my mentor and my hero,” and said Harkin’s encouragement that he run and his later endorsement amount to “one of the highest honors” of his political career.
“I'm working really, really hard so that when Tom walks out of the Senate for the last time, someone who shares his values, shares his love for the state of Iowa, never forgot where he came from, is walking in to take his seat,” he said.
Braley stressed that he was far from complacent:
“It's going to be a tough race no matter who my opponent is. It's going to be in a battleground state. Whoever has the majority in the Senate in 2014, this seat in Iowa is going to be absolutely critical to them,” he said. “Whoever the candidate is that wins the Republican primary in Iowa, they will be a formidable opponent.”
He also played up his blue-collar roots as a way to connect to voters.
“I got my first job when I was in third grade delivering newspapers and I've held just about every kind of job you can imagine, so when I talk about the impact that a shutdown has on 830,000 furloughed employees that's not an abstract thing to me.
"It comes from the standpoint of someone who's been a truck driver, a construction worker, a janitor, a waiter, a bartender, a dishwasher, who's had an insurance license and who understands how important having a job is to taking care of your family and being able to live the American Dream,” he said.
“I want to be able to communicate that to the people of Iowa because I think they want someone who has shared their life experience and understands these problems to be the one helping make decisions for them in the United States Senate.”