Joni Ernst Not Taking Any Chances That Actual Issues Might Come Up

So you may recall that IA GOP SEN nominee Joni Ernst abruptly bagged on editorial board meetings with the Des Moines Register (she also declined meetings with the Cedar Rapids Gazette and the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald), citing, variously, scheduling conflicts and godless liberal media bias. The Register unsurprisingly went on to endorse Bruce Braley on Sunday. To Team Ernst, of course, this “proves” the Register was biased against their champion, which ignores the rather inconvenient fact that the paper endorsed her over a large field in the GOP primary.

The Daily Beast‘s Ben Jacobs, who’s been covering this race extensively, has the most plausible explanation of Ernst’s rope-a-dope behavior with the media:

Ernst had long been scheduled to meet Thursday with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, the biggest and most influential paper in Iowa. The meeting would have included the paper’s publisher, its editor, editorial board as well as various columnists and reporters—all of whom would have been able to ask questions of Ernst. It would all be recorded and live-streamed on the Internet as well. But then, Wednesday night, her campaign suddenly said the candidate would not be able to attend and that the meeting was canceled.

The result came as a shock. One source familiar with The Des Moines Register’s editorial process told The Daily Beast that this type of cancellation was unprecedented. In doing so, Gretchen Hamel, a spokesperson for the Ernst campaign, said that the paper was biased. “Recent editorials in The Des Moines Register make their position in this race perfectly clear, and it’s one that many voters across our state seem to disagree with,” said Hamel in a statement. Hamel added the campaign was still “trying to schedule” meetings with other editorial boards as well.

Outside observers though found it mystifying that Ernst shunned the Register’s editorial board. While the Republican had been the subject of several negative editorials in recent weeks, knowledgeable Democratic operatives were convinced that she was still likely to get the Register’s endorsement. Further, Iowa Democrats have often griped about the perception that Ernst gets far more favorable news coverage from the Register than Braley. So why would she skip a meeting?

The best explanation is that her campaign was afraid that she would make another controversial statement. During her one meeting with an editorial board during the general election—the Sioux City Journal’s on Oct. 15—Ernst came out in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Further, when she met with the Register’s editorial board before her primary (in which the panel eventually endorsed her), Ernst insisted that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction in 2003.

Jacobs thinks Ernst is really screwing up here, because avoiding local media (more influential in Iowa than in most states) contradicts her “Iowa nice” persona. He may well be right, but it’s reasonably clear Ernst’s campaign is trying to change the rules in Iowa, making her hyper-conservative ideology a matter of just plain common sense, and the Register‘s bland centrism (it endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential general election) crazy extremist liberalism.

From a more tactical point of view, Greg Sargent is undoubtedly right about Team Ernst’s calculation:

Can Joni Ernst run out the clock before her actual positions catch up with her, and eke out a victory through fundamentals, nostalgia-tinged appeals to conservative rural voters, and a deftly spun tale of clashing personalities that positions her as the true representative of “sturdy Iowa folk virtues“?

We’ll know in eight days.

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.