Rural votes stymie Dem in Iowa race
© Francis Riviera

The millions Rep. Bruce BraleyBruce Lowell BraleyThe Memo: Trump attacks on Harris risk backfiring 2020 caucuses pose biggest challenge yet for Iowa's top pollster OPINION | Tax reform, not Trump-McConnell feuds, will make 2018 a win for GOP MORE (D-Iowa) and his allies have spent to tear apart state Sen. Joni Ernst (R) have yet to push him ahead or repair his image with rural voters. 

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Now, with five weeks to go until Election Day, some state Democrats are worried their offensive won’t be enough to save the key Senate battleground after a trio of recent polls found Ernst ahead. 

“When you’re backing a campaign, you don’t like to see numbers come out like that,” said Bruce Rohwer, a former president of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. 

But Rohwer, a Braley backer who’s been involved in the campaign, noted “there’s a month, and in politics a month can be an eternity. I’m not going to write the congressman off by any means whatsoever.” 

One poll this weekend conducted for The Des Moines Register by highly regarded pollster Ann Selzer found Ernst with a 6-point edge, particularly among rural voters. 

Braley still seems to be smarting from a gaffe last spring in which he called Sen. Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleyYellen deputy Adeyemo on track for quick confirmation Durbin: Garland likely to get confirmation vote next week Garland says he has not discussed Hunter Biden case with president MORE (R-Iowa) a “farmer from Iowa,” seemingly insulting both Grassley and the state’s influential agriculture community. 

The Democratic congressman seemed cognizant in Sunday night’s debate that he’s still hurting with rural voters. He pointedly highlighted his late father’s work in a grain elevator and said Grassley would be the first person he’d call for advice, leading to laughs from Ernst. 

But he also found himself on defense for part of the evening over his absences from Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, which two-thirds of voters in the Register poll said were a problem. 

A huge outside spending advantage for Braley’s side helped push him back into contention after trailing Ernst early last summer. But Republicans have had the edge on the air in recent weeks — and they’ve used it to help Ernst retake the lead as Braley’s struggles with rural voters and men continue more than six months later.

That strategy is starting to pay off for Republicans, according to recent polling. A recent Quinnipiac University survey also had Ernst up 6 points. An automated poll from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling coming out Tuesday has Ernst up 44 percent to 42 percent, while other recent public and private polls have found a coin-flip race. 

“Iowans are tired of Congressman Braley’s antics,” said Republican Party of Iowa spokesman Jahan Wilcox. “He sided with the EPA against farmers and then lied about it, he mocked Senator Grassley for being a farmer who never went to law school and he skipped 75 percent of the hearings held by the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. To put it in plain English, Iowans just don’t trust Bruce Braley.”

To edge ahead, Braley’s campaign is focused on turning out the Democrats in the state and persuading suburban female independents that he’s the right candidate for them.

“Women and independents are ultimately going to determine the winner of this election,” said Braley adviser Jeff Link. “We are firm believers that right now in Iowa every day is Election Day and we’re acting accordingly.”

Though Braley’s campaign and its allies have questioned in the past whether Ernst supports the Renewable Fuel Standard and touted the Corn Growers Association endorsement, they’re now focusing more on Ernst’s support of a state personhood amendment that some experts say could ban forms of contraception — and her comments in the Sunday debate that that would have happened “only if legislation would be passed.”

“She’s equating voting for a constitutional amendment to sending out a press release. That’s preposterous,” Link said.

Rather than focusing on Braley’s deficit with men, his campaign is touting his edge with women. 

“What we’re seeing is there is a double-digit gender gap and I think it is precisely because of not only Joni Ernst’s extreme positions but because Bruce Braley has been an outspoken and constant advocate on behalf of women,” Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards said on a Monday afternoon conference call for Braley.

“As Joni has stated, she has and will always protect women’s access to birth control,” Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said in response to the personhood attacks. 

Republicans are banking on agriculture issues over social issues this campaign cycle. The GOP has gleefully continued to hammer Braley for his comments— there have been roughly a dozen different ads focused on them since the spring. But Braley’s campaign believes the attacks don’t have anywhere else to go.

While Ernst has had an edge on the air in recent weeks, Braley is getting some help starting Tuesday. The Sierra Club is launching a new ad tying Ernst to the conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch and attacking her for leaving the door open to Social Security privatization and calling to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency.

Some Braley supporters acknowledge he’s not doing great with farmers. But they point out that’s not their base, and argue Democrats’ superior ground game in the state will help them prevail in a tight race.

“Rural Iowa has always tended to be Republican and we know that,” said former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge (D), a farmer who also served as the state’s Agriculture secretary. “This race is not over. Congressman Braley is still very much in it and I believe the final results will be in his favor — not by much, certainly, but I think he’s still a viable candidate that has a real chance of winning.”

Peter Sullivan contributed.