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Campaigns Ramp Up in Iowa’s Tight U.S. Senate Race

Clay Masters

Republicans have their eye on a handful of seats they need to pick up to take control of the U.S. Senate this November. One is longtime Democratic Senator Tom Harkin, who’s retiring later this year. The open seat pits Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley against Republican State Senator Joni Ernst. Polls show the race neck and neck as the candidates have just more than two months left to campaign.

Historically, the party that’s in the White House fairs poorly in midterm elections.

“That doesn’t mean that any one Democrat will do more poorly,” said University of Northern Iowa Political Science Professor Donna Hoffman. “It does mean that the Democrats have to be very careful about their senate races because they do want to keep control of the Senate.”

IPR's Clay Masters gets analysis on the race from UNI's Political Science Professor Donna Hoffman.

One of Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley’s first stops to Iowa after the August congressional recess was a small specialty meat plant in Norwalk with the man he hopes to replace, Sen. Harkin. The company’s owner pays a starting wage of $10.10/hour. That’s how much Senator Tom Harkin set the rate in a failed bill he introduced in 2013.Braley says the minimum wage is not something people aspire to.

“The minimum wage is not something people aspire to,” Braley said to local TV cameras after touring La Quercia. “It’s a foot in the door; it gives them a chance to earn money to pay for further education or to get their life together to move onto the job they are really destined to have in their lives.”

Braley’s campaign is banking on a recent Des Moines Register poll that shows 65 percent of Iowans believe the minimum wage should be increased. Ernst has said several times she does not support a federal minimum wage but believes individual states should set it.

“If you want to send somebody to Washington like me with a proven record of working with Republicans to solve tough problems, you need to get out the word to vote for Bruce Braley,” Braley told a crowd at the Des Moines Register Soapbox on the opening rainy day of the Iowa State Fair.

Democrats have called Ernst a fringe candidate and are trying to draw big distinctions between the two.

Oh for heaven’s sakes, I’m not extreme. I can tell you that,” Ernst said to reporters following her first stop back on the campaign trail after annual duty with the Iowa National Guard in late July.

Credit John Pemble / IPR
At the Iowa State Fair, Republican candidate for an Iowa US Senate seat Joni Ernst speaks to a crowd at the Des Moines Register’s political soapbox.

Hear Republican Candidate for U.S. Senate Joni Ernst's entire Des Moines Register Soapbox Speech at the State Fair.

Ernst is a Lt. Colonel with the Guard. Her character and background was on display for the “Vets for Joni” event at the Machine Shed in Urbandale. Surrounded by gigantic cinnamon rolls and a packed room, people watch a video highlighting Ernst’s service in the guard that’s now an ad making the rounds on Iowa TV stations.

“Leading convoys into Baghdad, I focused on one thing… complete our mission and bring every one of my soldiers home,” Ernst said in the ad. “And that’s what I did.”

Right now, veteran’s issues are what this race has come down to. Republicans are questioning Braley’s attendance of House Veterans Affairs Committees.  When it was Ernst’s turn at the Des Moines Register Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair, she did not bring up her opponent; she kept it about the vets.

“I can tell you that our greatest treasure are these young men and women that have stood up for our United States. The great values we have. The ideals we have and our freedoms,” Ernst said to the crowd on the second day of the Iowa State Fair. “I am asking you to join me in celebrating this important treasure of Iowa. Thank a veteran today.”

Credit Clay Masters / IPR
Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley speaks to a crowd at the Des Moines Register Soapbox on the opening morning of the 2014 Iowa State Fair. Braley is running as the Democratic nominee to replace retiring Senator Tom Harkin.

Hear Democratic Candidate for U.S. Senate Bruce Braley's entire speech on the Des Moines Register's Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair.

Just this week, Braley released his second ad playing up what he’s done for veterans. While Democrats continue to paint Ernst extreme, Republicans maintain Braley is out-of-touch. Both candidates still need to become better known with voters, according to UNI’s Donna Hoffman.

“Both of them have to be talking to Iowa voters,” Hoffman said. “Braley has represented various counties in northern and the northeastern part of the state and Joni Ernst is a state senator. So, neither of them is known across the entire state as well as they want to be.”

Candidate Rick Stewart is running as an Independent.

Iowa voters will just have to keep watching the campaigns take on new themes as they make up their minds in a race that could determine which way the U.S. Senate leans.