Senate Midterm Shift: Iowa Surges for the GOP
Policy + Politics

Senate Midterm Shift: Iowa Surges for the GOP

The narrative of the Senate midterm campaign is being scrambled yet again – this time in Iowa – all but assuring that the Nov. 4 election will be a nail-biter difficult for analysts to predict with any precision. 

First, veteran Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) appeared headed for reelection after surviving a tough GOP primary challenge in August. Now he may go down in defeat after a Democratic challenger dropped off the ballot and ceded his support to wealthy businessman Greg Orman, who is running as an independent.

Related: Kansas Court Decision: GOP Senate Race No Longer a Slam Dunk

In another notable turnabout, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) began her reelection campaign facing almost certain elimination. That was largely due to her support for the Affordable Care Act and close ties to President Obama’s policies. 

Yet she managed to bounce back against GOP challenger Thom Tillis in the polls, with leads averaging three percentage points. And a new CNN-ORC International Survey indicates Tillis may be falling behind Hagan even more because of a libertarian candidate who is siphoning off GOP votes.  

Then, on Sunday, a new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll showed Republican Joni Ernst surging ahead of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, 44 percent to 38 percent, in a Senate race that for months appeared deadlocked.

Ernst, a conservative Iowa state senator and a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, had two big things working against her when she entered a five-way GOP primary this spring in a bid to succeed Harkin. 

Related: Voters Go Hog Wild for Joni Ernst in Iowa

First, Iowa has never elected a woman to a statewide office before. Second, with her brash talk about guns and learning how to cut government spending by having grown up castrating pigs on a farm – Ernst seemed a crude and unlikely replacement for the liberal and genteel Harkin.

But as conservative columnist George Will noted this weekend, Republican primary voters lapped up Ernst’s talk “about the Harley in her driveway, the pistol in her purse and the possibility of impeaching the president.”

More recently, she moderated some of her stands and rhetoric to appeal to a broader general election audience. “Today, her less exotic persona talks about the feeble economy and Braley’s record,” including his outspoken support for Obamacare’s passage in the House, Will wrote.

Braley, 56, a lawyer and four-term House member, seemed to be a shoo-in to replace Harkin seven months ago. Yet the race tightened gradually, as the Democrat was dragged down by Obama’s meager 38-percent approval rating in the state. And Braley has been an inept campaigner and the subject of embarrassing stories – including the one about him and his wife threatening legal action against a neighbor who allowed chickens to invade their yard.

Related: N.H. Senate Race May Turn on Obama’s Handling of ISIS

The political ground has “shifted” for Braley, according to The Des Moines Register, and if he hopes to win he will have to overcome Ernst’s new six-point lead with little more than a month to go before the election.

Among Braley’s many problems, according to The Register: He is trailing Ernst in his home district in northeast Iowa, always a bad sign for an incumbent. Two-thirds of likely voters “think it’s a problem” that he missed most of a Veterans Affairs Committee meeting. Fifty-nine percent disapprove of his work in helping to pass Obamacare in the House. And only15 percent of rural voters support him compared with 58 percent who are backing Ernst. 

Ernst’s 4-to-1 advantage over Braley among rural voters largely stems from a controversy over a disparaging comment he made last winter about Iowa’s popular Republican senator, Chuck Grassley, during a fundraiser in Texas. Braley reportedly was caught on tape mocking Grassley for being a farmer instead of a lawyer, like Braley. Later Braley apologized to Grassley, but it still didn’t go down well with voters in Iowa’s sizeable rural areas. 

Related: A New Tidal Wave of Money Could Decide Senate Races

There could always be another twist in this saga before Nov. 4.  For one thing, there’s a big gender gap in this race, with female voters more inclined than male voters to support Braley. Moreover, 12 percent of likely voters remain undecided and could tip the race in the Democrat’s favor. 

Still, if Ernst manages to hang on against the gaffe-prone Braley that could be the tipping point for Republicans in picking up the six net seats they will need to regain control of the Senate. . 

 Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: