Joni Versus The Machine

Sometimes media coverage of political campaigns is biased due to partisan favoritism, and sometimes it’s just a matter of defending an endangered campaign “narrative” or set of assumptions about what works (or should work) in politics. I suspect the latter is very actively at play in Shane Goldmacher’s take on the Iowa Senate race at National Journal. The headline really tells you everything you need to know: “Joni Ernst Is the GOP’s Breakout Star. The Democratic Machine Could Still Beat Her.”

Ostensibly the piece is “balanced,” insofar as Goldmacher doesn’t predict Ernst will overcome “the Machine” or vice-versa. But lord-a-mercy, she’s treated like the possible survivor or victim of a mugging:

What the Republicans also have going for them this year is Ernst herself, a folksy state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard who has emerged as one of the breakout stars of 2014. She burst through a crowded Senate GOP primary with an ad touting her farm-girl roots castrating hogs. “Let’s make them squeal!” she said of Washington spenders. The ad drew national attention (627,000 YouTube views and counting) and a deluge of donations.

It hasn’t hurt that Ernst has a toothy grin and would be the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate—”Mother. Soldier. Independent leader.” is plastered on her campaign RV. Or that she is running in the 2016 caucus-kickoff state—Republican presidential contenders have been tripping over themselves to fly into Iowa to help. Ernst hauled in $6 million in the third quarter, the most of any candidate in the country in any quarter this cycle….

The adulation goes on and on, especially in a section of the article titled “The Better Candidate.”

Joni Ernst has emerged as the rare Republican capable of uniting the disparate factions of the Republican Party. She was endorsed both by Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin in a contested primary. And her potential as a fresh female face in a party desperate for more female leaders has added to her allure.

Consider this: Romney, Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, Gov. Rick Perry, former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Paul Ryan, Gov. Bobby Jindal, and Sens. Rob Portman, John Thune, Kelly Ayotte, and John Barasso all have attended or hosted events for Ernst in recent months.

C’mon, Shane, you know better than that. Of course the entire national party and anyone even thinking about running for president is going to race to help the party’s Senate nominee in the First-in-the-Nation-Caucus-State. That would be true no matter who the candidate was.

“She’s become a rock star, certainly among Republicans,” says Oman, her finance director. To put her $6 million third quarter in perspective, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell raised $3.2 million during the same period.

Ernst, 44, has served in the state Senate since 2011, after working a local auditor. But it’s her two decades in the military, and service in Iraq as part of the Iowa National Guard, that she has highlighted on the trail. “My boots were on the ground now held by ISIS,” she retorted to Braley in their last debate.

Ernst has excited not just GOP insiders but Iowa voters. A recent NBC/Marist poll showed a huge enthusiasm gap, with more than 60 percent of Ernst backers saying they were actively supporting her, versus 34 percent who were more opposing Braley. The reverse was true for him. More than 60 percent of his supporters were mostly opposed to her, rather than actively for him.

Cue the ominous music:

But as the race enters the final two-week sprint, it’s clear that Ernst isn’t so much battling Braley. She’s battling the Democratic get-out-the-vote apparatus.

Goldmacher does acknowledge there is a substantive case Democrats have made against Ernst that she has promoted crazy wingnut positions and causes, but he dismisses it as having failed:

Democrats have tried to cut Ernst down with a campaign to cast her as an extremist. They have some politically potent fodder, including video of her speaking about the possibility of privatizing Social Security and her support for “personhood” legislation, which could ban some forms of birth control (Ernst says she is in favor of birth-control access). She’s suggested that states could nullify federal law and raised the specter of impeaching Obama. She also suggested that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, before trying to backtrack.

“Sound bites have consequences,” Braley has repeated over and over during their debates and on the stump, perhaps more hopefully than factually [!]. Months of attacks have taken their toll on her, but she has avoided the “crazy candidate” stigma that has landed on some other Republicans who have faced such withering critiques.

So the only thing that threatens the pre-ordained, much-deserved victory of Our Joni, it seems, is Democratic mastery of the the dark arts of early voter mobilization–though even there, Republicans are given plenty of opportunity to claim they’ve caught up.

Now I freely admit I have my own biases here: it infuriates me to see the label “the better candidate” attached to anyone running for high office who has ever, ever promoted the insane John Birch Society conspiracy theory of Agenda 21, as Ernst has–much less to suggest that her “toothy grin” and her cute but substantively idiotic “hog castration” ads offset her extremist record. And I don’t know that what national media types say about this race really matters much at all. But it’s part of an atmosphere whereby there are “no Todd Akins or Sharron Angles” to get in the way of the presumed outcome of a GOP takeover of the Senate in part because candidates with extremist positions and records are being cut an awful lot of slack by the supposedly neutral media. Joni Ernst pretty much is Sharron Angle with a better bio and a greater willingness to weasel out of her prior statements; she pretty much is Todd Akin with a superior ability to avoid a dangerous line of questioning by changing the subject. It’s alarming to think such superficial talents are enough to turn champions of the mad fringe into “breakout stars.”

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.