Ernst vs. Braley: Iowa Senate Race Tightens in New Nail Biter
Policy + Politics

Ernst vs. Braley: Iowa Senate Race Tightens in New Nail Biter

In picking a successor to retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa voters must choose between a feisty Iraq War veteran and Republican state legislator who boasts that she learned something about cutting government pork by castrating pigs on her family farm – and an articulate liberal Democratic lawmaker who occasionally shoots himself in the foot.

For a while, it looked as if Joni Ernst might run away with the election – boosting the GOP in its drive to regain Senate control after nearly a decade in the minority. She may still pull it off. But Iowans may be having second thoughts about putting two conservative Republicans in the Senate – Ernst and veteran Sen. Chuck Grassley.

With just three weeks to go, a recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll shows the race in a virtual dead heat, with Ernst leading Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley by just 47 percent to 46 percent.

Related: Senate Race 2014: Dems Have 30 Days to Turn It Around and Prove the Polls Wrong  

Ernst was ahead by six percentage points two weeks ago, but Braley began to catch up after a recent debate punctuated by heated exchanges on abortion, climate change and environmental regulations – as well as biting attacks and rejoinders that sent a buzz through the state.

Braley tried to portray Ernst as a Tea Party radical conservative, in step with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who would have “voted to shut down the federal government” and who thinks the impeachment of President Obama should be on the table. Ernst calmly replied, “Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came on your property,” recalling a legal feud between Braley and his wife and a neighbor.

“How do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?” she added.

Braley has been hurt by some flubs and missteps. He fired his pollster and media consultant last June to try to regain momentum after Ernst emerged from a hard-fought GOP primary. At one point, he complained about no towel service in the House gym during last year’s government shutdown.

He was also caught on tape disparaging Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama repeatedly mispronounced the Democrat’s last name as “Bailey” instead of “Braley” during a rally.

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It’s impossible to gauge precisely how close the race may be. A new Rassmussen Reports poll has Ernst with a three-point lead. The Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll, conducted October 3 to 8, lists three likely explanations for why the race is now so tight:

  • The Democrats mounted an impressive early voting drive on behalf of Braley, a four-term House member from Waterloo, and it’s beginning to pay dividends.
  • A majority of likely Iowa voters “appreciate having a U.S. senator from each political party.” Harkin, 74, has battled for liberal caucuses in the Senate for three decades, and many voters are inclined to replace him with another liberal  Democrat.
  • While Ernst radiates conservative political star power, her stands on critical issues may be out of step with many Iowa voters. A majority of likely voters agree with Braley over Ernst on six of 10 key issues.


Joni Ernst, 43, grew up on an Iowa farm and earned a bachelor of science at Iowa State University and a master’s in public administration from Columbus College. In 1989, she completed an agricultural college exchange on a family farm in Ukraine.

Ernst spent 21 years in the Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard, including 14 months in Kuwait in 2003 and 2004 as a company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She says the experience prepared her for just about any challenge in public life. She parlayed a stint as Montgomery County, Iowa, auditor to election to the Iowa State Senate in 2011.

Ernst embraces “Iowa values,” meaning self-reliance and limits on federal intervention in local and state matters – especially in education: “The states know best what needs to be taught in their school systems and what and how children should be educated and what works in those particular states.” She wants to scale back or totally eliminate the Department of Education, and she believes in redirecting many federal agency roles to state and local government.

Related: Why the GOP Can’t Count on a Midterm Wave Election

Bruce L. Braley, 56, a native of Brooklyn, Iowa, grew up in a family that struggled financially for years after his father, a farmer, died from injuries from a fall in a grain elevator. Braley graduated from Iowa State University and earned his law degree from the University of Iowa. He helped put himself through school by tending bar and won his first term in the House in 2006.

He has staunchly backed Democratic Party leaders, especially on social issues. He joined with liberals in 2011 in calling for a transaction tax on stock and bond trades, according to the Almanac of Political Politics. During the 2009 health care reform debate, he rebuked Grassley for using “scare tactics” about end-of-life counseling in the House version of Obamacare. He is a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and served as vice chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Ernst, a critic of big government, wants to cut the Department of Education, the IRS and the Environmental Protection Agency to save money. She’s an ardent foe of abortion. She opposes gun control and says “law-abiding citizens” should be able to “freely carry” weapons except in public buildings and school.

She opposes an increase in the federal minimum wage, supports repealing the Affordable Care Act and favors an overhaul of Social Security that would “transition” younger Americans into “individual plans” or individual savings accounts.    

Related: The 5 Key Issues Most 2014 Candidates Have Ignored

She questions whether industry and humans contribute to global warming, hedges on whether she supported President Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq last August, and opposes immigration reforms until the borders are secured.

Braley’s stands are virtually the opposite of Ernst’s – which helps explain why he did so well in the latest Iowa Poll. He favors keeping Social Security as it is, raising the federal minimum wage, and keeping abortions legal. He would press for tougher reforms of the financial industry, favor measures to combat global warming and agree that manmade pollution has contributed to climate change.

He supports the ACA, favors tougher gun control laws – which  earned him an “F” from the National Rifle Association – and opposes the Keystone XL pipeline. On immigration, Braley says the government should secure the borders and enforce existing law but not grant “amnesty” to undocumented workers.

Braley raised nearly three times as much as Ernst through June 30, $7.1 million to $2.5 million, and he outspent her, $4.4 million to $1.4 million, according to Open Secrets. However, that spending is just the tip of the iceberg and much more has been poured into the race since then. The candidates and outside groups have spent a total of $13.8 million on 30,000 television ads, according to The Des Moines Register. “That breaks down to $7.21 for each of the state’s 1.9 million registered voters,” according to a joint analysis of public records by The Register and seven other Iowa newspapers.

Related: Obama Remains a Big Drag on Democrats’ Prospects

According to a breakdown: A total of $7.8 million was spent on 14,499 spots in six Iowa TV markets for Braley and his supporters, and $5.9 million was spent on 16,113 commercials for Ernst and her supporters.


Dr. Douglas Butzier, a Libertarian Party candidate, was killed in the crash of a small airplane near Dubuque Regional Airport in Iowa late Monday. The political novice had two percent support in a recent survey. It’s possible that whatever conservative support he was receiving will gravitate to Ernst – which could help her in the very tight contest.

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