In unexpected twist, Iowa's Joni Ernst could save GOP's Senate dream

In a race that was once a dead heat, Republican Joni Ernst has pulled ahead of Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley, even as Democrats in states like North Carolina prove less vulnerable than strategists once thought.

Charlie Litchfield/The Des Moines Register/AP
Joni Ernst, Republican candidate for US Senate, shown at a debate Sunday at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, may prove key to the GOP taking the Senate. Ms. Ernst is unexpectedly leading in the polls over Rep. Bruce Braley.

Democratic Senate incumbents have proven surprisingly resilient ahead of November’s midterms. But even if vulnerable Democrats manage to hang onto their seats in other states, Iowa may be the Achilles’ heel in the party’s quest to keep the chamber blue. 

In a race that was once a dead heat, Republican Joni Ernst has pulled ahead of Democrat Rep. Bruce Braley in recent polls. Saturday’s Des Moines Register poll showed Ms. Ernst capturing 44 percent of the vote to Representative Braley’s 38 percent. Another poll from two weeks ago gave Ernst  a similar lead, with others showing the race to be a tie.

“Braley as a candidate was expected to be strong: a sitting congressman running against a fairly unknown person,” says Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “But Braley lost that edge through a number of mistakes.” 

As Braley has underperformed, other Democrats have outperformed expectations. Sen. Kay Hagan (D) of North Carolina has consistently fended off her Republican opponent Thom Tillis in the polls. The New York Times calls her advantage “some of the best news for Democrats in this battle for Senate control.” And while Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich has slipped behind his Republican challenger in the latest polling, the race is tight – and Senator Begich’s numbers are especially strong, given that 65 percent of Alaskans disapprove of the Democratic president.

It could be the money keeping Democrats afloat. Incumbents tend to have more of it, and Democrats have strong fundraising advantages in key states. Earlier this month, GOP strategist Karl Rove fretted that Senate Democrats’ advertising and fundraising edge could spoil Republicans' shot at winning the chamber. 

“Republican candidates and groups must step up if they are to substantially reduce that gap,” Mr. Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal. 

But even if some of the Democrats once thought to be vulnerable squeak back into office, a candidate like Ernst could help the GOP take the Senate.

Ernst’s rise in the polls was something of a surprise. Before the GOP primary, Braley was thought to be the heir apparent of retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Top GOP candidates passed up the chance to run against Braley. But relatively unknown Ernst emerged from the primary a robust challenger with an Iowa-friendly profile: a mother who served in Iraq and was raised on a farm.

Meanwhile, gaffes have plagued Braley. In March, Braley was caught calling popular Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” His campaign has tried to bolster his agriculture credentials – but a press release promoting his farm acumen misspelled basic terms like “detasseling” and “baling,” and a picture of a farm posted to his Facebook page turned out to be in England, not Iowa

“When you’re trying to shore up your farming cred, you can't make those mistakes,” Mr. Hagle says. “The combination of those things allowed the race to close up.” 

Ernst has transformed the race into a hand-wringer for Democrats. Her strengths have made it possible that the GOP’s map to a Senate majority could run through Iowa – a state that twice voted for Obama. Still, 12 percent of likely voters remain undecided in the most recent poll, and Election Day is more than a month away.

In the first debate of the race, Braley and Ernst sparred Sunday over the usual smorgasbord of issues: Obamacare, immigration, and abortion. Braley tried to cast Ernst as a tea party extremist, out of touch with Iowa. 

"This election is about a clear choice between moving Iowa forward or following a radical tea party agenda that's going to take us backwards," Braley said during the debate.

Braley also criticized Ernst for getting support from the Koch brothers – industrialist billionaires whom Democrats have tried to vilify for their outsize spending on behalf of conservative candidates.

In one of the debate’s more rousing rejoinders, Ernst pushed back: “Congressman Braley, you’re not running against these other people,” she said. “You’re running against me.”

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