DES MOINES, Iowa – Joni Ernst is a hugger.
At the Iowa State Fair, the GOP’s nominee to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is hugging people she knows, people she’s meeting for the first time, and people who are excited to see her. On Friday, Ernst stops to hug and chat up someone else while Iowa’s three most senior Republican state officials — Gov. Terry Branstad, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, and Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey — wait for her at a podium 10 feet away.
Ernst’s strong suit as a Senate candidate is that people seem to want to hug her back.
“Joni, we love you, honey! Keep up the good work!” shouts a man as she walks the fair with Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa.
Six months ago, Ernst was a second-tier candidate with little money in a four-way Republican primary. Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley had cleared the field, raised money, and seemed likely to keep the seat in his party’s hands.
Then, Ernst made a splashy ad about castrating hogs and a video emerged of Braley derisively referring to Grassley as just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Suddenly, Ernst was a contender , and Braley was back on his heels, trying to apologize to the state’s beloved senior senator.
Ernst rode that momentum to a resounding primary victory two months later, and since then, the race has been counted among the most competitive of the cycle . Ernst could well be Iowa's first female senator if the Hawkeye State voters prefer her farm girl charm over Braley's record in Congress .
It's why walking the fair with Braley and Ernst is like experiencing night and day.
A day before Ernst gave her own speech, Braley recited his record at the Des Moines Register Political Soap Box, the fair’s premiere candidate venue. He talked about fighting for the Renewable Fuel Standard, working to pass a farm bill, promoting a wind energy tax credit and described himself as someone “with a proven record of working with Republicans to solve tough problems and help Iowans.”
Speaking to a small group on the muddy fairgrounds, Braley referred to his "opponent," (never mentioning her by name), as “extreme” and said she supports the “tea party agenda.”
The next day, Ernst took a different approach when she got her turn at the soap box.
“What I’d like to do today is not a campaign political speech,” she began. “I am going to take my time on this soap box to talk about something that I feel is very, very important. And so today what I’m going to talk about is those brave men and women who serve in our United States Armed Forces.”
Ernst, who would be the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate, spent the rest of her speech talking about her own deployment, and a soldier she knew who died while deployed. She received huge cheers from a much larger crowd on the bright, sunny day.
“I like her a lot,” Jerriann McLaughlin told CQ Roll Call after meeting Ernst, adding she was considering changing her party registration from Democrat to independent. “She’s kind of changing my mind on that stuff because I really like everything she represents. I think she’s a down-home person, and I think she’s gonna be good for Iowa.”
Braley has made it easy for Republicans to portray him as out of touch. First, he made derogatory comments about Grassley being a farmer, then his neighbor said the congressman threatened to lodge a formal complaint over her chickens coming onto his vacation property.
“I think it’s made a considerable impact,” Grassley told a couple of reporters in front of a black and pink pig, who poked its snout through the bars to snuffle once at his pant leg. “I have to tell you that I think that it’s probably not so much the lawyer part, but what sounded like the anti-farmer. Even though it wasn’t intended to be anti-farmer it was taken that way.”
But Ernst has had several slip-ups too: During the primary, she suggested impeaching the president should still be on the table, something she has since tried to walk back from. She also made comments that seemed to suggest she was against the Renewable Fuel Standard.
On Thursday, Braley pummeled her on the topic, and the next day Ernst was on the defensive, holding a press conference with Branstad, Reynolds, and Northey, where the four repeatedly said she supported the Renewable Fuel Standard.
On Friday, Ernst dodged a question on whether she would support Mitch McConnell as majority leader if Republicans took control of the Senate, saying she was “not there yet.” It is a question many conservatives see as a measure of ideological purity — and her answer marked one of the few moments when she sounded like a rehearsed politician.
Braley brings up her impeachment comments and suggestions of opposition to the Renewable Fuel Standard when calling her "extreme."
“But don’t you notice he’s the only one pushing that?” Ernst asked reporters Friday afternoon. “It really is very much a distraction because I’ve been a successful state senator. I work well with all types of people."
“What he doesn’t like, I think, is the fact that I am a strong, independent, female leader,” Ernst said.
During his day at the fair, Braley moved rapidly, weaving around one-person saunas and elliptical machines in the William C. Knapp Varied Industry Building and stopping briefly at booths. He shook a few hands along the way. He spoke the longest with fair attendees under 12 years of age — not a coveted Election Day demographic. As he walked, he talked quietly with his mother, who spent the morning at the fair with him.
A dozen volunteers dressed in purple “Braley for U.S. Senate” shirts formed a barrier around the candidate to try to thwart two hecklers – dressed as a chicken and a pig — plus a couple GOP campaign staffers and a tracker. Supporters held up Braley signs and umbrellas to block the unfriendly signs, creating a buffer zone which kept reporters, photographers, and voters at a distance.
Ernst also had a group of protesters and two hecklers, both dressed as stalks of corn, following her around on Friday.
Braley's large group was unwieldy, and at one point in the swine barn, they were forced to separate to let a fat, pink and black pig waddle past with its own handler.
En route to the pork tent , after Braley shed his entourage, he was friendly and talkative with reporters. He did not stop to talk to any fairgoers on the way.
It was perhaps a wise decision. These are Ernst’s people. The fair crowd skews more rural and Republican, and by Saturday morning Ernst had about a 60 percent to 40 percent lead on Braley in WHO-TV’s “Cast Your Kernel” contest.
More scientific polls put the race at a tie. Republicans and Democrats are pouring resources into the race, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on the air for Braley late last month, and NextGen Climate, the environmental advocacy group connected to Democrat Tom Steyer, attacking Ernst for her position on the renewable fuel standard. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has reserved $1.9 million in airtime for Ernst's campaign this fall.
At the pork producer’s tent, where both candidates spent an hour flipping tenderloins and burgers on a large outdoor grill, the men working the grills Friday said they’re hoping for Ernst because “she’s one of us."
Not everyone is so convinced.
“We’d like to have some female candidates. We certainly know there are strong women out there, we would just like to see them run in Iowa and they haven’t yet,” said one fairgoer, Amanda Honnold, after casting her kernel for Braley.
“It doesn’t matter whether she can castrate hogs,” said her friend, who declined to give her name. “What matters is can she do something.”
The race is rated Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
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