Bad Vibes in Iowa

Projections that Democrats will hang onto the Senate in November have generally included an assumption that Bruce Braley will defeat Joni Ernst in Iowa. The CW is that the idiotic “issues” that dominated the early part of the race–Braley’s “insult” to Iowa farmers generally and Chuck Grassley specifically in a Texas fundraising speech a friend (probably now a former friend) put up on You Tube, and the virtually made-up “chicken lawsuit” involving Braley and a neighbor that supposedly dramatized depictions of him as a jerk of a trial lawyer–were fading, with Braley’s paid media highlighting Ernst’s extremism (particularly on the minimum wage) beginning to take a toll.

But over the weekend the highly respected Iowa Poll (conducted by Ann Selzer for the Des Moines Register) came out showing Ernst up by six points among LVs. Think the “insulting the farmer” bit doesn’t matter? The poll showed Ernst winning 4-1 in rural areas, which in Iowa is shocking, and Selzer says the “Grassley gaffe” is heavily on the minds of these voters.

The Iowa Poll is hardly an infallible indicator at this point–as HuffPost Pollster points out, it utilized a small sample, and also showed a high undecided vote–but it’s influential in the state itself, and may affect expectations in a way that benefits Ernst. Indeed, the two candidates conducted their first debate on Sunday, and you get the sense that Ernst was declared the media “winner” simply because she didn’t say anything egregiously stupid (Bloomberg headline: “Braley Fails To Do Damage to Ernst in Iowa Senate Debate”). Actually, she did, by indicating that “cap and trade” was the kind of federal regulation ravaging Iowa businesses (it was, of course, never enacted), and also by pretending her support for a “personhood initiative” was some sort of symbolic religious gesture rather than an extremist position–but at this point, howling at the moon appears required.

If I were Braley I’d probably focus less on monomaniacal minimum wage attack lines (that’s all I heard from his campaign in a recent visit to Iowa) and explain some of The Crazy underlying Ernst’s political career, including “personhood” and her maunderings about Agenda 21, which ought to disqualify her from any high office. But the die is probably cast, and unless Braley can force Ernst from her placid expression of platitudes in the last two debates, his hopes for victory probably depend on the Iowa Democratic Party’s early voting program, which is showing some impressive results so far. To those who are puzzled by Ernst’s success, I would mention two Iowa-specific factors: first, she almost certainly benefits a bit from the desire to finally end Iowa’s embarrassing record of never having elected a woman to Congress; and second, Braley’s “insult” to Grassley undoubtedly hurt him among the remarkably sizable number of Iowa voters who for decades have voted for both Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley. Braley’s hopes for inheriting Harkin’s vote were accordingly limited.

Expect this race to go down to the wire, but if there’s a palpable sense of Democratic pessimism this week, it began, as so many political phenomena do, in Iowa.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.