Shifting momentum in Iowa?: Why the tide may be turning against Tea Partier Joni Ernst

Plus: a House race shcoker, Grimes' "obfuscating" campaign, and a new effort to stop a Colorado Tea Partier

By Luke Brinker

Published October 13, 2014 1:00PM (EDT)

Two weeks ago, Democrats rushed to their medicine cabinets in search of Tums after yet another Senate poll delivered them an acute case of heartburn. The Des Moines Register had just released a survey showing Republican Joni Ernst opening a 44 to 38 percent lead over Democrat Bruce Braley in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. The contest to succeed Harkin had been tight all summer, and even if the Register’s poll didn’t mesh with others showing a much closer race, it reminded Democrats that a seat they had once been widely expected to hold was in real jeopardy.

Fast forward two weeks, and the outlook for Democrats in the Senate battleground isn’t nearly as dire. Over the weekend, the Register released yet another poll, and it showed that Ernst’s lead had plummeted to a statistically insignificant one point, 47 to 46 percent, bringing Ernst’s average lead in RealClearPolitics’ database of recent polls to just 0.8 percent. Perhaps emboldened by the result, Braley came out swinging in a Saturday night debate against Ernst. Calling Ernst out for far-right positions she took in the GOP primary, Braley also highlighted Ernst’s ties to the Koch brothers’ political network. At a Koch donor summit earlier this year, Ernst credited the network with “really start[ing] my trajectory.”

Such statements – along with Ernst’s opposition to raising the minimum wage and her flirtations with privatizing Social Security – belie her carefully cultivated image as a down-home, hog-castrating, middle class Iowa farm girl. Ernst has sought to run a personality-based campaign, assailing Braley over a dispute he had with a neighbor concerning chickens and castigating the Democrat for his inartful questioning of Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley’s qualifications to chair the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That strategy may not be sustainable, particularly as Iowans consider the prospect of a six-year Senate term for Ernst and give closer scrutiny to her views. The revelation a little over a week ago that Ernst has backed arresting federal officials for implementing Obamacare, Democrats' hammering of Ernst over her support of extreme "personhood" legislation, and conflict-of-interest questions surrounding county contracts awarded to Ernst’s father while she was a county official have sown further doubts about the Tea Partier.

Heading into the final three weeks of the race, Ernst will likely continue to try to divert attention from her hardline conservative views; the latest Des Moines Register poll finds that on a majority of issues, Iowans prefer Braley’s positions to hers. With the candidates set to face off in their final debate on Thursday night, all eyes will be on Braley to see if he can successfully make the race a referendum on the candidates’ agendas. If he can, there’s ample reason to believe he may yet pull off a win.

In other midterms news:

  • Add Rep. Lynn Jenkins to the list of Kansas Republican incumbents who could go down to stunning defeats this year. Politico reports that House Republicans are scrambling to save Jenkins' political career after internal polling showed that the House Republican Conference Vice Chair is clinging to a single-digit lead over Democratic challenger Margie Wakefield. There's mounting fear among Republicans that Jenkins could get washed out in a tide of anti-incumbent, anti-Republican sentiment along with unpopular Gov. Sam Brownback and Sen. Pat Roberts. Jenkins knows all too well how a congresswoman could confound all expectations and lose her seat; in 2008, polls showed freshman Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda with a comfortable lead in the district, but Jenkins shocked observers when she defeated Boyda by five points.
  • Is Kentucky Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes "running the worst Senate campaign of the year"? Jason Zengerle says so in a blistering piece for the New Republic. A cringe-worthy interview last week in which the challenger to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to say if she supported President Obama in 2012 is emblematic, Zengerle writes, of a campaign that "has been waged in a defensive crouch—evading and obfuscating at every turn." Obsessed with "not making mistakes" and "demonizing" McConnell, Grimes has failed to "make an affirmative case" for herself, Zengerle asserts. The two candidates are set to face off in their only debate of the cycle tonight.
  • A progressive coalition is taking to the airwaves in opposition to Colorado GOP Senate nominee Cory Gardner, the Huffington Post reports. Seeking to shore up Latino support for Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the NextGen Climate Action Committee super PAC has paired with People for the American Way to produce an ad attacking Gardner's anti-climate science views. Gardner held three different positions on climate change last week, but he has consistently opposed action to curb it. Polls show a neck-and-neck race between Gardner and Udall. The incumbent boasts a wide lead among Latino voters, whom he'll need to turn out in large numbers to help fend off Gardner.

Luke Brinker

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