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Ebola issue takes center stage in final Iowa Senate debate

Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democratic candidate, scored points from having just attended a Washington congressional hearing on Ebola, one expert says. Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst criticized the administration for being 'reactive rather than proactive.'

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Senate candidates Bruce Braley (D) and Joni Ernst (R) wave to the audience following their debate in Sioux City, Iowa, Thursday.

Jim Lee/The Sioux City Journal/AP

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Reflecting anxiety over Ebola in the United States, an early question put to Iowa’s US Senate candidates in Thursday’s final debate was from a voter, asking how the federal government could protect him and his family. 

In this case, it was to the advantage of Rep. Bruce Braley – the Democrat in this toss-up race – that he was a “Washington insider,” the charge so often thrown at him by his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst. 

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Representative Braley had just that afternoon flown back from Washington, where he said he “asked tough questions” of government officials at a congressional hearing on Ebola. He also said he “pressed” them to accelerate help for an Ames, Iowa, company that’s developing an Ebola vaccine. The company is called NewLink Genetics, and at the congressional hearing, an official from the Department of Health and Human Services said NewLink's proposal "looks very favorable."

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When voters feel threatened, whether it’s by Ebola or the Islamic State, they tend to think Republicans will do a better job of protecting them, says Christopher Larimer, associate professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

But “Braley could talk about handling the issue first hand,” Professor Larimer says. “He was able to deflect any gain Ernst might have had on the issue.” 

State Senator Ernst, who touts her experience as a farm girl and a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, often criticizes Braley for missing hearings by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on which he sits. But in this debate, which was more conversational and less caustic because of its “dining-room table” format, Braley was able to show himself on the job in Washington for Iowans.

“It was important for me to be at that hearing,” he said.

Ernst’s first response was to express empathy for the families affected by the disease.

“As a mother, to see families that are experiencing this, this is devastating.” She then criticized the administration – and Braley – for being “very reactive, rather than proactive,” and complained that it had taken so long to call a hearing on an issue that has been brewing for months.

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Braley reminded her that it is Republicans who determined the timing of the hearing (since it is in control of the House, the GOP sets committee agendas and schedules).

On the substance of the issue, Braley said the US needs to do “whatever is necessary” to protect Americans, including changing hospital protocols and considering a travel ban – a position that put him at odds with other Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which held the hearing.

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said yesterday a travel ban from West Africa is not under consideration and that it could make things worse by forcing travelers to “go underground” and avoid screening. They could head to other countries from West African, and then still get to the US by obscuring their travel history.

At the congressional hearing, Thomas Frieden, who heads the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, argued against the ban on the same grounds. He added, "Many people coming to the US from West Africa are American citizens; people travel, and people will be coming in."

Ernst, too, said she supported a temporary travel ban. She wanted additional screening for passengers, continued aid to nations dealing with Ebola, and support for research to fight the disease.

Braley responded that funds for foreign aid and medical research had been cut due to last year’s government shutdown, which he said Ernst had supported.