Why Bruce Braley’s ‘farmer from Iowa’ remark hit a nerve back home

It was a double whammy for Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa).

Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa). (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa). (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

With a single quote made public Tuesday, Braley, a candidate for U.S. Senate, exposed himself to attacks that he was insulting farmers and Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), people no Hawkeye State politician should ever cross.

"If you help me win this race you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone who’s been literally fighting tort reform for thirty years, in a visible or public way, on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Or, 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 Texas fundraiser in January. The conservative group America Rising released video of his comments.

The "next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee" Braley was referencing: Grassley, a long-serving senator who is very well-liked. How popular is he? A recent survey from Democratic automated pollster Public Policy Polling found Grassley to be the most popular statewide politician in Iowa, with a 51 percent approval rating and a 32 percent disapproval rating. Grassley's approval rating was 62 percent in a 2013 Des Moines Register poll.

The second part of Braley's quote that could come back to bite him is the part about Grassley being a farmer, which Republicans are portraying as, well, a slight to farmers.

As The Post's Jaime Fuller pointed out, less than five percent of the Iowa population farms. But the agriculture industry is a bigger part of the state's economic identity and culture than it is in many other states. According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, Iowa was one of the top three states in number of farms, agricultural sales, crops sales and livestock sales.

Braley swiftly said he was sorry: "I apologize to Sen. Grassley and anyone I may have offended." He continued by pointing out that both of his parents grew up on Iowa farms.

But the damage was done. Headlines like "Republicans: Braley disses farmers, Grassley" and "In video, Braley slams Grassley as farmer without a law degree" graced the front pages of leading Iowa newspapers.

The takeaways here? There are three. One is that pols need to be mindful of what they say at all times -- even in private events presumed to be out of sight of the media. Mitt Romney's "47 percent" comment should have made that reality clear.

On a related note, candidates need to be extra careful to avoid talking about popular people or professions in a way that gives opponents even a slight opening to cry foul.

Finally, we're reminded that campaigns are marathons, not sprints. And they can turn on a dime. Braley has been cruising for months while the Republican field for retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's seat has struggled. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed him up double digits over most of this GOP competitors. For the first time, the Democrat has stumbled -- in a very sudden way.

By the same token, the election is not until November, giving Braley ample time to try to put it behind him. Of course, Republicans will do everything they can to make that difficult for him.

Tuesday was not a good day for Braley's Senate campaign. But it was one he could have avoided.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.
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