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Senate elections 101: Iowa split between two very different candidates

Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley seemed a shoo-in for the open Senate seat in Iowa. Then along came Joni Ernst. Now Iowans have a tough choice.

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Senate candidates Democrat Bruce Braley (l.) and Republican Joni Ernst respond to questions during a debate in Sioux City, Iowa, earlier this month.

Jim Lee/The Sioux City Journal/AP

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The Monitor's "Senate elections 101" series looks at the specific issues that will be driving voters in each of the 10 tossup races.

It wasn’t supposed to be this close in Iowa. The Senate seat being vacated by folksy liberal Tom Harkin, an Iowa senator for nearly 30 years, was just waiting for Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman. That was the conventional wisdom, anyway.

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But then along came Republican Joni Ernst, an Iowa state senator who is a charismatic, Harley-riding, straight-shooter – literally. A lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, she has boots-on-the-ground leadership experience in Iraq.

Recommended:Who wins Senate in Election 2014? 3 reasons it could be mystery for weeks.

A race was born.

When Iowans head to the polls on Nov. 4, many will be thinking about Social Security or reproductive issues. But the issue that might be foremost on many minds will be the candidates themselves.  

If there’s one thing you may have heard about Ms. Ernst, she’s the one who, in an ad that went viral, says she grew up on a farm castrating hogs. Smiling, she promises to put that same skill to work on Washington pork.

That ad helped propel Ms. Ernst to the front of a crowded GOP primary pack in June. Representative Braley, a former trial lawyer who can appear bland as a campaigner, suddenly found himself up against a blockbuster biography.

And he made a bunch of campaign mistakes, according to analysts. Right away, he attacked Ernst in ads without reintroducing himself to voters. He got caught up in a flap about chickens with his neighbor. A comment about Iowa’s other senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, being merely a farmer did not play well in Iowa. He apologized, but trails Ernst badly among rural voters.

Ernst rolled over Braley in her energetic campaigns and ads. She made him part of the Washington problem, part of the failed Obama set – weak on foreign policy, big on spending, big on regulation like “Obamacare.” In September, a poll by the Des Moines Register had her up by 6 points.

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But now they are statistically tied. Braley has patiently and aggressively fought back on issues. Likely voters favor him on six issues, compared with four for Ernst, according to an October Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics poll.

A big one is Social Security. Iowa is an aging state, and Braley contrasts his position – he wants to keep Social Security as it is – with Ernst’s dalliance with private accounts. Sixty-five percent of likely voters back him on that one.

He has also strongly criticized Ernst on women’s reproductive rights. He warns that a “personhood” amendment to the Iowa constitution – which she cosponsored – would outlaw all abortions, forbid in vitro fertilization, and ban some birth control. Again, most Iowans are with him on this one, with 56 percent wanting to keep abortion legal.

Watch the gender gap. Ernst has tremendous support among male voters; Braley has more women behind him than men. He’s working hard to get out the vote among women, to reach over to independents, and put early voting ballots into the hands of people who would not normally vote in a midterm.

The issues may be on Braley’s side, says Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. But if Braley can't get out the vote, it will be the president who does him in, Mr. Larimer writes in an e-mail: 

“This race is coming down to Braley being pulled down by presidential politics and the Ernst campaign capitalizing on negativity toward the president." 

Please read our other entries in this series: