Ernst An Extremist? Don’t Interfere With My “Narrative!”

So after the last time Joni Ernst leapt out to a big lead in Ann Selzer’s Iowa Poll, there was some belated if hardly universal attention paid to her rich record of extremist positions and comments (in part because Bruce Braley was bringing them up in candidate debates). Now in the final Iowa Poll, she’s back up by 7 percent. True, a Quinnipiac survey released at about the same time shows the race tied, but Selzer’s poll is considered the Gold Standard in Iowa and even nationally. So what gives? Here’s what Selzer says:

Although a small plurality of likely voters thinks Braley has more depth on the issues, they like Ernst better than Braley on several character descriptions. They think she better reflects Iowa values, she cares more about people like them, and she’s more of a regular, down-to-earth person.

And that’s not surprising, since it’s what voters have been told about Ernst repeatedly, not just in her ads but in the often fawning media coverage. Indeed, the more it became apparent that behind the “toothy grin” and the anodyne general election message Ernst was another Sharron Angle, the more fiercely the MSM stuck to its Joni-the-mother-farmer-soldier descriptions. Norm Ornstein provided a compelling if depressing explanation of the phenomenon over the weekend at The Atlantic:

Joni Ernst is an Iowan, born and bred, an Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran, and the Republican nominee for the Senate in Iowa. She has also flirted seriously with wacky conspiracy theories, especially Agenda 21, which takes off from an innocuous, voluntary UN resolution and turns it into a sinister plot which, as the John Birch Society says, “seeks for the government to curtail your freedom to travel as you please, own a gas-powered car, live in suburbs or rural areas, and raise a family. Furthermore, it would eliminate your private property rights through eminent domain.” And she has made comments about Americans totally dependent on government that make Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” observations look almost populist by comparison….

The most common press narrative for elections this year is to contrast them with the 2010 and 2012 campaigns. Back then, the GOP “establishment” lost control of its nominating process, ended up with a group of extreme Senate candidates who said wacky things—Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock, Sharron Angle—and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in races that should have been slam dunks. Now the opposite has happened: The establishment has fought back and won, vanquishing the Tea Party and picking top-flight candidates who are disciplined and mainstream, dramatically unlike Akin and Angle.

It is a great narrative, a wonderful organizing theme. But any evidence that contradicts or clouds the narrative devalues it, which is perhaps why evidence to the contrary tends to be downplayed or ignored. Meantime, stories that show personal gaffes or bonehead moves by the opponents of these new, attractive mainstream candidates, fit that narrative and are highlighted.

The other day, The Washington Post carried a front-page profile of Joni Ernst by feature reporter Monica Hesse. The piece was particularly striking—a long, warm, almost reverential portrait of a woman candidate charming Iowans by doing it “the Iowa way”—no doubt, an accurate portrayal by a veteran journalist. Hesse did suggest, in passing, that Ernst has taken some controversial positions in the past, such as supporting “personhood,” but emphasized that she has walked them back. Not mentioned in the piece was Ernst’s flirtation with one of the craziest conspiracy theories, or her comments on dependency—or her suggestion that she would use the gun she packs if the government ever infringed on her rights.

A Nexis search shows that the Post has had four references to Ernst and Agenda 21—all by Greg Sargent on his blog from the left, The Plum Line, and none on the news pages of the paper. But there have been dozens of references to Braley’s spat over the neighbor’s chickens, including a front-page story. The New York Times had zero references to Ernst and Agenda 21, but seven, including in a Gail Collins column, to Braley and chickens.

Well, I guess I should feel vindicated since I started complaining many months ago about the “Republican Establishment Defeats the Tea Party” meme obliterating the actual evidence of what was happening in the primaries. But it’s frustrating nonetheless. And if Republicans do win control of the Senate, we’ll undoubtedly be treated to a raft of stories about the newly grown-up GOP preparing to govern responsibly. The MSM, which can’t be bothered to take extremism seriously unless (a) it hits them right in the face, or (b) it’s overtly wrapped in religion, will be surprised all over again the next time conservatives exhibit their true colors.

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.