Senate races

The eight biggest campaign gaffes

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In politics, it’s often the things that were never supposed to be said that are the most memorable. 

Already in 2014, a Democratic Senate candidate belittled a GOP senator as “a farmer from Iowa.” A Kansas senator says he comes home “every time I get an opponent.” 

{mosads}Gaffes like these can distract from the campaign’s message as well as fuel opponents’s attacks. Especially with the near omnipresence of opposition research trackers, they are reminders that candidates need to watch what they say at all times, even if remarks are supposed to be private. 

Here are the eight biggest slip-ups from the race for control of the Senate so far this year.   


Insulting farmers in an Iowa race 

Farming is rather important to Iowa, so it was quite a gaffe, when Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) was caught on camera disparaging the state’s Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa.” Braley later apologized, but the damage had begun for his campaign in what operatives on both sides have admitted was a game-changing moment. 

“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,” Braley was caught on video telling a group of trial lawyers in Texas in January. “Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

Braley’s lead has evaporated in the race against state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) in what was once thought to be a contest that favored Democrats.


Only coming home when you have an opponent

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) came under fire when The New York Times reported that he does not have his own home in Kansas. So, it did not help his efforts to fend off primary challenger Milton Wolf, when Roberts slipped and told local radio station KCMO in July: “Every time I get an opponent — I mean, every time I get a chance, I’m home.”

After prevailing in the primary, Republicans are now worried Roberts could have a fight on his hands in the general election from a surging independent candidate. If Democrats can withdraw their candidate, it could significantly shuffle the GOP’s Senate math.


Military “sense of entitlement”

Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) served two combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it drew some criticism when his opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), said military service gave Cotton a “sense of entitlement.”

“There’s a lot of people in the Senate that didn’t serve in the military,” Pryor told NBC News in February. “Obviously in the Senate, we have all types of different people, all kinds of different folks that have come from all types of different backgrounds — and I think that’s part of that sense of entitlement that he gives off is that, almost like, I served my country, let me into the Senate. But that’s not how it works in Arkansas.”

Pryor also thanked Cotton for his service, and his campaign later said he was “grateful” for Cotton’s time in the military.  


Forgetting what state you’re running in

Scott Brown used to be a senator from Massachusetts. Now he’s running for Senate in New Hampshire — and that has led to some confusion.

Speaking to reporters in Londonderry, N.H., in December, before he officially announced his Senate bid, Brown stopped himself when he accidentally named his old state. “What I’ve heard from the Republicans up here is they’re thankful that I’ve been around for a year, helping them raise money, helping them raise awareness as to the issues that are affecting not only people here in Massachusett — uh, in New Hampshire, but also in Massachusetts, obviously,” Brown said.


Saying an anti-missile system protects against tunnels 

Israel’s Iron Dome system shoots down incoming rockets, but Kentucky Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes seemed to think it guarded against tunnels.

“Obviously, Israel is one of our strongest allies in the Middle East, and she has the right to defend herself,” Grimes said at a rally in July. “But the loss of life, especially the innocent civilians in Gaza, is a tragedy. The Iron Dome has been a big reason why Israel has been able to withstand the terrorists that have tried to tunnel their way in.”

Republicans pounced, and Grimes later clarified in a statement: “The Iron Dome is an integral part of Israel’s defense system, which allows them to defend themselves against missiles and focus their efforts on eradicating the terrorists who try to tunnel their way in.”


The House Majority Leader lost his primary. Some haven’t heard.

It was big news when House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) lost his primary to a Tea Party challenger, Dave Brat, in June. The word “stunning” was thrown around a lot.

At the time, Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) was at the time locked in a fierce primary battle runoff with his own Tea Party challenger, Chris McDaniel. Far from being concerned about an omen for his campaign, though, Cochran appeared to not have even heard of the shake-up in the political world.

Asked by Fox News if “what happened in Virginia” concerned him, Cochran said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. What happened in Virginia?”

“I haven’t really followed that campaign very closely at all,” Cochran later added.

The Cochran campaign later said the senator did know about the loss, and that he had already addressed it in earlier appearances.


Saying your opponent for senator is “soon-to-be” a senator

It is probably a good campaign strategy not to refer to your opponent as if he had already won. Yet that is what the Democratic candidate in South Dakota, Rick Weiland, did. 

At a public forum last month, Weiland referred to his opponent, Republican Gov. Mike Rounds, as “senator.” He realized he had made a mistake, so he stopped himself and changed that to “soon-to-be.” Then he stopped again and hit the final title “soon-to-want-to-be senator Mike Rounds.”

“Sorry about that, Mike,” he concluded.

The mistake was likely foretelling — Rounds is expected to easily beat Weiland for the seat of retiring Sen. Tim Johnson (D). 


Implying the “traditional population” is white people

North Carolina Senate candidate Thom Tillis, challenging vulnerable Sen. Kay Hagan (D), once referred to the “traditional population” of the state as separate from the “African-American population” and the “Hispanic population.”

“The traditional population of North Carolina and the United States is more or less stable,” Tillis said. “It’s not growing. The African-American population is roughly growing, but the Hispanic population and the other immigrant populations are growing in significant numbers. We’ve got to resonate with those future voters.” 

The remarks came in a 2012 interview with Carolina Business Review, but they surfaced in June when the liberal Talking Points Memo found them.  

” ‘Traditional’ North Carolinians refers to North Carolinians who have been here for a few generations,” Tillis campaign Communications Director Daniel Keylin told TPM by way of explanation. “A lot of the state’s recent population growth is from people who move from other states to live, work, and settle down in North Carolina. Thom Tillis for example.”

National Republicans have pointed to several instances of Democrats using the phrase “nontraditional voters.” 

Tags 2014 Senate elections Bruce Braley Chuck Grassley

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