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DAVENPORT, Iowa — "MOTHER. SOLDIER. INDEPENDENT LEADER," the words on the bus said, in a dark blue font over a picture of a light blue sky.
No political race is complete without a bus tour these days, and so in the closing weeks of the fall campaign, Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst hopped onto an RV that had been plastered with an enormous photo of her on the side. The picture of Ernst, flashing a megawatt smile and perfect teeth, was overlaid on an undulating American flag next to the image of a rolling pastoral scene.
Less conspicuously, down near the right rear tire, was a small picture of a pig's face, its ears stuck up and out like angel wings, in a subtle reference to a TV ad that Ernst ran in March during Iowa's five-candidate Republican senatorial primary. Standing in a barn, Ernst had looked straight at the camera in that spot and declared with a wide smile, "I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm."
It was a spit-your-coffee-out moment — and helped launch Ernst onto the national stage. When "Tonight Show" host Jimmy Fallon played the ad for his audience, he stopped the video short and said with a deadpan face, "I don't know what she's running for, but just give her the job."
Ernst's fundraising and poll numbers jumped through the roof after the ad went viral, and after winning her primary she said in a promotional video, "People now know who I am."
But beyond trumpeting the fact that she grew up on a farm, is a mom and served in the military, Ernst's campaign never did much after the primary to build out an agenda or a vision for how she would serve in the Senate. And so Democrats began to fill in the details. All summer, they accused her of being a right-wing zealot — a heartland version of Sarah Palin.
Ernst said it was unfair. "They are trying to paint me as somebody that I'm not," she told me at the end of a full day of campaigning here in Iowa's third-largest city, which rests on the banks of the Mississippi River across from Moline, Ill. Ernst said Democrats were "using parts of conversations" to depict her as an extremist. She didn't say it with exasperation or irritation. Rather, she spoke in the controlled tone of a school administrator reassuring a student about his ability to learn algebra.
Democrats accuse her of being a right-wing zealot — a heartland version of Sarah Palin. But Ernst's visceral appeal to voters and gritty conservative charm won her the primary and a clear shot at winning the election.
The contest between Ernst and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley is one of the closest Senate races in the country. And whether Iowans believe her claim that she is a middle-of-the-road conservative who likes to solve problems — rather than a tea party candidate who wants to impeach President Barack Obama and abolish the Department of Education and the IRS — will decide the race and possibly determine whether the Democrats retain control of the Senate or lose it to the Republicans.
The composition of images on the side of Ernst's bus illustrates how she is trying to position herself: a lot of Iowa nice up front, with a little bit of rural toughness if you look a little closer. But in a way, it also suggests her dilemma.
Ernst's visceral appeal to voters and gritty conservative charm helped her take the primary and gave her a clear shot at winning the election. But those same qualities have also led to unscripted comments that have allowed Braley to portray her as ideologically extreme. She had to spend the summer trying to tone herself down without losing all her vibrancy and folksy appeal. And even as she works to soften her sharper edges, she has repeatedly had to fend off criticism for things she's said in the past during unguarded moments. Just this week an audio recording surfaced in which she derided those who get by on the government dole.
Braley, for his part, lacks Ernst's charisma and ability to connect with voters. But he's experienced — having spent seven years in Congress — and has emphasized his commitment to education and women's rights. In addition, he has the backing of a formidable Democratic ground operation. As David Axelrod, a veteran Democratic consultant who helped steer both of Obama's presidential campaigns, puts it, "It's really organization versus momentum and charisma."
I interviewed Ernst in the shadow of a 15-foot-high plastic elephant after she made a speech here to about 100 supporters. She was in full general-election mode, taking every opportunity to portray herself as a uniter with common-sense values that appeal to voters from all backgrounds. She argued that because of her history in county government, her political orientation is toward consensus building rather than partisan warfare.
But to make her case, she has to rely on a relatively thin political résumé. Less than four years ago, Ernst was a county official in southwestern Iowa. As Montgomery County auditor, she kept records of revenue collected by the county, and it was her job to attend every Board of Supervisors meeting, where she acted as secretary, taking the official notes.
Her lack of political experience shows up on the stump. Ernst, 44, is not a polished speaker, though she is a poised, disciplined communicator. And she made a series of comments during the primary that the Braley campaign and outside Democratic groups are using against her in TV ads. One Iowa Republican, a strong supporter of hers, said in September that Ernst's inexperience was one reason she made ill-advised remarks about impeaching Obama and privatizing Social Security.
"Going from Montgomery County auditor to U.S. Senate nominee in less than four years is like going from Class A ball to standing on the mound in Yankee Stadium in one season. You're going to hang a few curveballs that get knocked out of the park along the way," the Ernst supporter said, asking to remain nameless in order to honestly assess the campaign without offending allies.
Iowans "don't necessarily like [Braley] that much, but I think they think he could do the job," he said. "With Joni they don't know her as well. What they see I think they want to like. But I don't think they've been convinced yet that she can do the job. It's that simple."
But Ernst's outsider status has also helped her. More than ever, voters are allergic to anyone who seems like an insider, whether that's in the backrooms of the state Capitol in Des Moines or in the halls of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. It's no accident that Ernst has barely mentioned her time in the state Senate.
Ernst's campaign biography also skips over an entire decade between her college years and her deployment to the Iraq war with the Iowa National Guard as a company commander. During the '90s, she moved around a lot and juggled multiple roles: military wife, mother to one daughter and stepmother to two more, Army reservist, and working professional at a series of jobs in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Ernst and her husband, Gail, a retired Army Ranger, moved back to Iowa around 2001, where she took a job as Montgomery County emergency coordinator. In 2003 she was deployed to Kuwait. She returned to Iowa in 2004 and remains in the guard, where she's a lieutenant colonel with command of the largest guard unit in the state.
Ernst said she was recruited to run for Montgomery County auditor while still deployed to Kuwait because the Republican auditor at the time, Connie Magneson, "was very divisive."
"So they needed … someone that would bring people together to find solutions," Ernst said. She defeated Magneson by a huge margin, 3,713 votes to 1,701, in 2004 and, by her own account, united the warring clans inside the county government.
"That's all it took … just showing a little respect to everybody, and they shared that respect back," she told me.
Ernst traveled to five towns the day I was with her, and at each stop she was joined by
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who began his first term when Ernst was 13 years old. The 67-year-old governor served four terms from 1983 to 1999, then came back to defeat Democrat Chet Culver in 2010 and is now coasting to re-election. He'll become the longest-serving governor of any state in U.S. history if he wins. By comparison, Ernst's inexperience stands out. (Ernst also campaigned with Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, who is being groomed within the Iowa Republican Party to succeed Branstad. Iowa has never elected a woman to the governor's mansion or to Congress, so an Ernst win could make Reynolds' ascension easier.)
As Ernst addressed an audience in Muscatine, inside the lobby of a company that specializes in corn milling and pet-food production, she spoke mostly in sweeping generalizations rather than specifics. "Compare and contrast, which way would you rather go, lower taxes, higher taxes?" she said.
And she drew on her real-world experience — commanding a company of 159 National Guard soldiers who ran convoys from Kuwait into southern Iraq — to attack Braley as being insufficiently concerned with foreign policy and veterans' issues.
"This is an area where I am a credible candidate when it comes to foreign policy," she said. "I have served in Iraq. I have had my boots on the ground in Iraq." Braley, she said, is "not someone who has stood up for our men and women that serve in uniform."
She didn't explain what she meant by that, but TV ads have spelled it out for voters. In 2011 and 2012, Braley missed 75 percent of committee hearings in the House Veterans Affairs Committee, of which he is a member.
"I will always stand by our veterans and our United States troops," Ernst said to enthusiastic applause.
Democrats have pointed out that Ernst herself missed 40 percent of the votes in the Iowa state Senate in 2014, along with many committee meetings.
As she wrapped up her remarks, it sounded as if she was running out of things to say. This happens all the time in politics, but some are better than others at masking it. "Next I would like to talk to you about a tour that we have going on," she said, and went on at some length about the fact that she was doing a 99-county bus tour, standard fare for statewide candidates. Then she pointed out through the full-glass walls of the atrium to the parking lot. Everyone in the audience turned around.
"Now if you look outside, we've got a great bus out there," Ernst said. "The little pig from my primary is located on the bus."
It was the only time all day she mentioned the pig.
Braley, a 56-year-old trial lawyer who bears a vague resemblance to the comedian Will Ferrell, can't compete with Ernst in a personality contest. He knows it, the Republicans know it, and Braley's consultant, Iowa operative Jeff Link, knows it.
"They want to make it a race for class president," Link told me, betraying a hint of exasperation.
The Ernst campaign's emphasis on its candidate's perceived sincerity, folksy authenticity and decency is effective because it seems to ring true with voters. When the Des Moines Register released a poll at the end of September showing Ernst up 6 points on Braley, it frightened Democrats. (The Register's most recent poll showed Ernst up just 1.)
The pressure is clearly on the Democratic Party's vaunted ground-game machine to deliver. The Dems do have an edge in targeting voters and turning them out, but this makes a difference only if the race is within a certain margin.
Mostly, Braley's message strategy has been to methodically try to link Ernst to extremist positions, issue by issue. Democrats say she wants to privatize Social Security, get rid of the minimum wage, abolish an array of government agencies and impeach Obama. For each of these claims, the Democrats are using her own words against her.
Mostly, Braley's message strategy has been to methodically try to link Ernst to extremist positions, issue by issue.
Ernst has gone to great lengths to beat back some of these claims, especially on Social Security. She has stressed that private plans for Social Security are just one option among many, and that she is not talking about changing anything for current beneficiaries. She has emphasized that the program does need reform to remain solvent over the long term.
"At least I'm talking about options. I'm talking about finding a solution," she told me. But in the same breath she stressed that she would not raise the retirement age for Social Security beneficiaries, which many reformers of both political parties have agreed should happen.
Even as Ernst has aggressively pushed back against Braley's narrative, she has avoided the pitfall that conventional politicians typically fall into: flip-flopping. She has not backed off from primary-season calls to shut down the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS and the Department of Education. Still, her defense of these positions has sometimes been shaky. When a college student asked her during the first debate what would happen to Pell Grants and student loans, Ernst said those functions could be moved to the Department of Treasury, and said that 94 percent of the Education Department's employees have been "deemed nonessential." Politifact deemed her claim about nonessential employees "misleading" and "mostly false."
Meanwhile, Ernst thinks that states, not the federal government, should set the minimum wage. Currently states can increase the minimum wage but can't set it below the national standard.
And she has expressed interest in replacing income taxes with a consumption tax in the past, specifically mentioning a proposal from a group called Fair Tax that campaigns ceaselessly in Iowa to set the federal sales tax at 23 percent. But when Braley implied in a debate that Ernst had endorsed the Fair Tax, she replied, accurately, that she has not "endorsed any tax plan."
As for the EPA, Ernst gives a nod to some government oversight of business — "of course we need common-sense regulation" — but has floundered when pressed for details. Her attempts to answer how environmental regulations would work in the absence of the EPA were "cringe-worthy," according to Craig Robinson, who writes one of the most influential conservative blogs in the state.
But Ernst's most incendiary statement, which raised questions about her temperament, came in January when she said Obama was "overstepping his bounds" with his use of executive orders and "has become a dictator." She went on to say that the president "should face those repercussions, whether that's removal from office, um, whether that's impeachment."
The comments did not become an issue until early July, when they were reported by Yahoo News. Ernst quickly backtracked from the remark. "I have not seen any evidence that the president should be impeached," she said. Internally, the impeachment flap forced her campaign to shake up its staff.
Ernst understands she can't appear as a reflexively anti-Obama partisan. She went out of her way in Muscatine to stand in solidarity with Obama on his decision to launch airstrikes in Syria against the Islamic State.
"Believe me, I support the president when it comes to bringing people together to initiate strikes. I support that. I want him to be successful in that," Ernst said, but she also included a criticism of Obama's past rhetoric toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. "When it comes to foreign policy, when we draw lines in the sand we need to stand firm."
In recent weeks, Braley and the Democrats have focused their fire on Ernst's position on abortion. During the primary, Ernst supported a personhood amendment to the state constitution, and she expressed an openness to criminal penalties for doctors if such an amendment passed. She has continued to support personhood, but in the last debate she made a concession to Iowans who might consider her too extreme on abortion, acknowledging that she might be open to exceptions if the life of the mother was at risk. It seemed to be a recognition that her favorability among women is much lower than it is among men.
Ernst may be the political newcomer who hurt herself with a series of ill-advised comments. But Braley is also still reeling from remarks of his own caught on tape earlier this year. Rather than exposing potential ideological intensity, Braley's words revealed a tone-deafness that came across as contempt for a large swath of Iowa voters.
In January, Braley stood before a crowd of fellow tort attorneys in Corpus Christi, Texas, and seemingly demeaned Iowa farmers. If the GOP wins the Senate, he said, the state's senior senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, would be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Having just touted the fact that he had been "literally fighting tort reform for 30 years," Braley pointed out to the roomful of lawyers that if he lost to Grassley, "you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair."
When Republicans found video of his remarks and released it in late March, they couldn't believe their good fortune. "I believe my initial reaction would be unprintable on a family website," said Tim Miller, executive director of America Rising, the opposition research group that distributed the video. "But following that I went immediately searching for someone to show it to so I could confirm that it was real and as bad as I thought it was."
The national press moved on from Braley's gaffe, but to spend even a few hours driving through the cornfields of Iowa is to understand the powerful central role that farming plays in the state's identity. Iowans are quieter but no less fierce about their regional pride than Mississippians or New Yorkers.
"Iowans, most of us kind of consider ourselves farmers," said state Treasurer Michael Fitzgerald, a Democrat. "That was just an incredibly stupid statement he made, and I'm sure he's regretted it every day. I think he'd be winning by 5 or 6 points without that."
Braley's comments were the result of overconfidence and arrogance, and he apologized quickly when they became public. Ernst's troublesome remarks were often the result of inexperience. But the commonality is that both said things that came from being steeped in a particular culture and milieu. Braley, in search of financial support from a small interest group that he happens to come from, alienated a large number of Iowa voters. Ernst, coming from a political culture in southwestern Iowa where many conservatives have zoomed past the gravity of impeachment talk and consider it noncontroversial, nonetheless is of a distinctively Iowan subculture.
And as Ernst has gained in the polls, she has also appeared more confident. In the final debate she was positive and disciplined. She could not be moved off her laser focus on the TV camera in front of her. Even when she addressed Braley or the moderators, who sat on either side of her, she kept talking into the camera. And while Braley looked as if he could barely conceal his disdain for Ernst, she came off as a true happy warrior.
The supporter who told me in September that Ernst had not convinced voters she was up to the job of being a senator now says he is much surer about her performance.
Ernst has often outsourced political attacks on Braley to other people and to outside groups. On the day I followed her, she did not mention Braley's farmer comments. That would have detracted from the cheery message she delivered at stop after stop. Instead, she stood by, smiling broadly, as Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kauffman ripped into Braley in Muscatine, spitting equal parts outrage and sarcasm through his impressive Groucho Marx mustache.
Ernst has risked becoming less herself by sticking to a script. But she seems to have frustrated Braley. With efficiency and discipline worthy of her military training, she has held the line, trusted the plan and played her part. If the race holds true to its current form, it might just work.