Joni Ernst surges into the lead in Iowa Senate race as GOP 2016 hopefuls come to town

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
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Republican senatorial candidate State Sen. Joni Ernst, speaks during the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition fall fundraiser on Saturday, Sept. 27, 2014, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Justin Hayworth)

DES MOINES, Iowa — On a night when Republicans got a dose of very good news in the election battle that could decide who controls the U.S. Senate, three potential Republican presidential candidates flocked here to speak to more than 1,000 conservative Christians at an annual dinner.

Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, the GOP candidate for U.S. Senate in what has been one of the tightest contests in the country, made a surprise appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition dinner, just minutes after the Des Moines Register released its first poll on the race, showing Ernst ahead of Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, 44 percent to 38 percent.

“I’ll tell you what. We are going to win this seat back this November!” Ernst said to the cheering crowd of Christian conservative voters.

Ernst and Braley are locked in a battle to replace retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who is coming to the end of his fifth term in office. Republicans may gain control of the Senate if they can take the Iowa seat as part of their effort to pick up six seats. Ernst’s campaign had seen positive polling numbers for its candidate in the past week, and the Register poll validated its sense that she has gained an edge over Braley, even after withstanding a barrage of negative TV ads for several weeks.

Ernst and Braley will debate for the first time Sunday night, and the Register poll only increased the stakes for the already crucial face-off.

Looking on from the audience as Ernst spoke inside a building at the state fairgrounds were Republicans U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. Cruz and Jindal had been scheduled to speak at the dinner, but Ryan came from a fundraiser he was headlining across town with Ernst.

Ryan had planned on flying in and out of the state without a public appearance. It would have fit a pattern: The 2012 vice presidential nominee has talked about a potential 2016 run, and was making his third trip to Iowa since 2012. But he has done less to build an organization than have others, and has shown genuine reservations about undergoing the brutal primary process. Cruz and Jindal, meanwhile, show all the signs of plowing full speed ahead toward launching presidential candidacies at some point after the November midterm elections.

Ryan’s decision to come to the dinner, however, did a little bit to keep him in the 2016 conversation. In addition, it allowed Jindal and Cruz to appear alongside Ernst, instead of just appearing in the state for political events only tangentially related to the midterm elections. Many Iowans in both parties resent when national politicians and the press focus on the presidential election during the heat of the local contests in the midterms.

The audience response to Ryan was tepid. Veteran conservative organizer Ralph Reed gave a friendly but not overly enthusiastic introduction to Ryan, and the biggest cheer for the Wisconsinite came when he announced the results of the Register poll. Ryan spoke for just a few moments about his philosophical differences with the Obama administration, denouncing the president for growing government to the point where it is “off the rails.”

It was Jindal’s fourth trip to Iowa since 2012. The Rhodes scholar son of immigrants from India is overlooked in the 2016 conversation much of the time, and many Republican insiders feel he lacks the stature and presence they think is required of a presidential candidate. But Jindal’s advisers believe he can gain ground with activists and grass-roots voters through retail politicking, and that he can surprise those who now underestimate him.

Jindal gave a lengthy, 38-minute speech, wearing a lapel microphone and walking around the stage in the same way that Cruz has made a habit of doing. He mixed personal stories with criticisms of the Obama administration, and reserved some of his sharpest remarks for outgoing Attorney General Eric Holder, whom he clashed with over Louisiana’s school voucher program.

“How sweet it is to hear that Eric Holder is about to be out of a job,” Jindal said. “I would just ask that our next attorney general actually read the Constitution of the United States before he becomes the attorney general.”

Cruz, the conservative firebrand, was making his seventh trip to the Hawkeye State since 2012. He has demonstrated over and over again in the past year that he has captured the imagination of the Christian conservative grass roots, and on Saturday night he received the loudest, most enthusiastic ovation, even though the audience had been listening to speeches for two and a half hours by that point.

Cruz, like Jindal, gave a nearly identical speech to the one he delivered Friday at a similar gathering in Washington. He talked at length about the plight of Christians imprisoned or killed for their faith around the world, and criticized President Obama for not pressing foreign governments about the issue of religious liberty.

“We need a president who stands up and says, let them free,” Cruz said. He also dinged the administration for conducting talks with the government in Tehran, charging that at the United Nations meetings in New York they were “swilling chardonnay with the Iranian government.”

And Cruz drew laughter when he joked that Hillary Clinton had been arrested trying to jump the fence outside the White House.

Earlier in the day, a surprise entrant into the early 2016 conversation flew into town for an appearance. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina, who made an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate in California in 2010, spoke to a group of about 200 Republicans in West Des Moines.

Fiorina has in the past two months launched a political action group, Unlocking Potential, that is putting paid staff in six battleground states during the midterm elections, including Iowa. An official with the group said UP has 24 paid staff in Iowa alone. And Fiorina made comments this past week indicating that she is considering a run for president herself in 2016, as a Republican. Before coming to Iowa Saturday, she had traveled recently to early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina.

Even if it is a ploy to gain a platform for a particular message, Fiorina’s move is notable because she clearly intends to try to become a national conservative voice. She made clear her concern that Republicans are losing women voters because of what Democrats have labeled a “war on women” by the GOP. And Fiorina has declared her intent to be a loud public combatant with the Democratic perspective on women’s issues, and to help conservative women push back against the Democratic narrative.

In making her case, Fiorina sought to model how she believes Republican women and men should talk about women’s issues, particularly abortion. She demonstrated an approach that fuses conciliatory rhetoric toward women voters with a confrontational, offensive-minded defiance toward professional Democratic politicians.

“I personally am a proud pro-life woman, but I understand and respect that not everybody agrees with me. And women actually are prepared to disagree on that subject as long as the disagreement is respectful,” she said. “There’s a lot of common ground among men and women, even on the powder-keg emotional issue of abortion.”

Fiorina cited polling showing 63 percent of women oppose abortion after five months of pregnancy. She argued that women are not being denied access to birth control but rather to the doctor of their choice, and by the president’s Affordable Care Act. And she accused House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) of comparing the Republican Party to NFL running back Ray Rice, who is serving an indefinite suspension after being caught on videotape punching his then-fiancee in an elevator and knocking her unconscious.

“So now the Democratic Party would like voters to believe that we are the party of wife beaters. Ladies, we cannot take this sitting down,” Fiorina said. “This is an insult to our intelligence. I am sure you will join me when I say, as a proud Republican woman I am mad as hell and I am not going to take it anymore.”

Social conservatives complained after the 2012 election that Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney lost ground among voters because rather than make the case for the pro-life position, he avoided talking about the issue. Fiorina’s emergence this past week into the political conversation is an interesting development, and may provide those on the right with a figure who comes from a business background and is not considered a religious zealot to be a standard-bearer for their point of view.