The race for the U.S. Senate in Iowa may come down to how voters feel about a chicken crossing into the wrong yard.
Or whether Iowa hogs make a candidate especially qualified to deal with Washington pork.
This too-close-to-call Senate race, one of a handful that will determine whether the Republicans win control of the Senate, is a very personal battle between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, and Republican Joni Ernst, a state senator and Iraq War veteran.
They tend to offer party-line views on major issues, meaning turnout and swing voters are likely to decide the outcome. That means the race will be decided on intangibles, who voters sense is most empathetic to their economic struggles or who can help the government keep them safe.
So far, enthusiasm for either candidate is lacking, raising questions about who might turn out. People say they don’t know either candidate that well and are likely to vote ideology if they vote at all.
“I don’t know much about Braley,” said Harley Kidd, who owns a custom car shop in Perry. “But I do know Democrats are more tolerant.”
Larry Schmitt, a retiree from Churdan, countered: “I’m a real conservative, and what I know is Ernst is a lot more conservative than Braley is.”
Braley, 56, presents himself as a middle-class champion who has mastered Washington’s intricate ways. But his campaign is grappling with two big hits. The first came when he criticized beloved Sen. Charles Grassley, who could become Senate Judiciary Committee chairman if Republicans win a Senate majority.
“You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Braley said at a fundraiser. Braley later apologized.
His next headache involved chickens. Braley and his wife, Carolyn, were angry that a neighbor’s chickens were wandering into the yard of their vacation home. Braley’s wife complained to the neighborhood association.
American Crossroads, a group backed by George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove, cut an ad showing an animated figure of Braley chasing a chicken across a field. “A true Iowan would have just talked to his neighbors,” the ad says. Braley has said he handled the matter appropriately.
Braley stresses his middle-class roots. “He’s delivered newspapers, baled hay, detasseled corn, worked at a grain elevator and driven dump trucks,” his biography says. “To help pay his way through college and law school, Bruce worked as a restaurant server and in highway maintenance, among other jobs.”
Braley became an attorney, representing workers challenging their firms’ safety standards and people who lost jobs or pensions.
He’s been a loyal Democrat. A Congressional Quarterly voting study shows that in his first seven years in Congress, he voted with the party at least 90 percent of the time each year. His support of Obama initiatives has fluctuated, from a high of 97 percent in 2009 to a low of 69 percent last year.
Braley has had some bipartisan success, notably a tax break he pushed along with Republicans to help companies hire unemployed workers. He also got the endorsement of the influential Iowa Corn Growers Political Action Committee, which endorses candidates from both parties.
Ernst, 44, boasts she grew up “walking beans and feeding hogs,” going to church every week and wearing clothes her mother made. She’s a state senator who soared politically by promoting a down-to-earth image.
She won June’s Republican primary with surprising ease, promoting herself as a mother, soldier and experienced lawmaker, and running a much-lauded ad where she compared her skill castrating hogs to cutting government pork.
A lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, she was a company commander of a unit running convoys through Kuwait and southern Iraq.
She’s trying to reinforce her images in a new ad. Sitting at a kitchen table, Ernst looks straight at the camera and explains how she wants better schools, jobs and health care.
Republicans say they haven’t seen enough of this “Iowa nice” side of Ernst. “She’s overcautiously handled,” said John Thompson, an Iowa Republican activist. “The message she’s not selling is about her human characteristics.” Her backers say that because she has only been the nominee since June, she has had to spend a lot of time fundraising and will be out more in public soon.
Voters are frustrated _ they want to see more of the candidates and hear more about issues. The economy is doing better, but people remain fearful it could stumble at any time.
“I think in some ways people have given up thinking it will get a lot better. They think a bad economy is now the norm,” said Ken Crow, a Winterset Republican activist.
People want some assurance their senator won’t become too much a creature of Washington. Iowans see a city where lawmakers do little during the infrequent times they’re even in town. Michael Thompson, an Iowa State University student and Army veteran, recalled his trouble dealing with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“Think about what politicians are supposed to do,” he said. “The VA is full of botched policies.”
Voters want to judge for themselves whether Braley’s acumen is more valuable than Ernst’s fresh approach. But instead of the personal campaigning they’ve come to expect, people so far have seen the race largely through the prism of attack ads.
The rules of Iowa politics are changing. For more than 30 years, Iowans kept electing Sens. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, and Charles Grassley, a Republican, who rarely see eye to eye on issues. But they share the same styles: Down home, friendly, familiar with every two-block town in the state’s 99 counties.
Harkin is retiring, and this race has a different feel from those of days past.
“A lot of shots are getting called outside the state, and it’s difficult for the candidates to control the campaign,” said Dave Nagel, co-director of the Des Moines West Side Chamber of Commerce.
The campaigns insist they’ll be doing more retail politicking. They’ll need to convince voters like Mike Wedemeyer. An independent from Marshalltown, he’s annoyed with people who criticize President Barack Obama’s efforts to curb terrorism.
“Republicans have done whatever they can to make his position impossible. But he’s the commander in chief. Enough already,” he said.
Wedemeyer can’t embrace Braley, though. “Democrats seem to have nothing new to say,” he said. “On the other hand, Republicans aren’t sending out the right messages, either.”
This is Iowa. He wants to know the candidates better.