On Sunday, Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst square off for their first debate in the Iowa Senate race. Given that this tight contest is looking increasingly pivotal to Senate control, the debates could help influence the fall outcome.
So here’s something to watch out for. Republicans — and not a few political reporters — will be searching for any moment they can find that helps them spin out their chosen narrative: Supercilious trial lawyer talks down to farm girl. That language — “farm girl” — is how Ernst describes herself in one ad.
The hunt will be on to give Braley the Al Gore treatment. Remember the Republican (and media) reaction to Al Gore’s supposedly supercilious sighing in the 2000 debates with down-to-earth Dubya? One assumes Braley will be aware of this, and will try to avoid making this task easier.
At the debate, and in the post-debate spin, Republicans will also be looking to hit Braley as Washington Bruce, in contrast to Iowa Joni. Key to this is the allegation — made in a pair of GOP ads — that Braley skipped a lot of Congressional votes and committee hearings. The charge is that Braley “loves Washington” but “doesn’t show up for Iowa.”
But the Braley campaign is rolling out a new charge of its own: That as a state Senator, Ernst missed 42 percent of committee hearings this year. The Braley campaign is putting out a list of what it says are the missed hearings; and they do not include any hearings Ernst missed because of National Guard duty. (A partial list of the hearings can be found here.)
This comes after the Braley campaign launched an ad claiming Ernst missed 36 percent of state senate votes, and arguing Braley has a 95 percent voting record.
In the debates — and in the arguments that follow — Braley and his campaign will likely argue that it’s hypocritical for the Ernst camp to make attacks on his committee attendance central to the race, given her own record. An Ernst spokesperson didn’t immediately return an email for comment; I’ll update if I hear back.
The broader story here is that the debates will intensify the battle between the two sides over the framing of this race. Dems and the Braley campaign want the contest to turn on the contrast between their stances on issues, in particular Ernst’s opposition to a federal minimum wage, and her previous declarations that the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency should be shut down. They also want the race to turn on Ernst’s history of outsized statements. Republicans want the race to be more of a personality contest. Hence Ernst’s ads emphasizing her biography, and the nonstop GOP hyping of video of Braley supposedly insulting farmers and of his dispute with a neighbor over chickens.
The attacks on Braley’s missed votes appear designed to shift the race away from Ernst’s positions on the issues and on to this more GOP-friendly turf, by painting Braley as enamored of Washington and out of touch with Iowa. And no matter what Braley does at the debates — you’d think he’d be prepared for this — Republicans will be looking for any fodder they can find to advance their chosen tale: Smug Washington trial lawyer disdains Iowa farm girl.
In other words, Republicans will be scattering around a lot of chicken feed once again. Given the press’ eagerness to lavish significance on the Braley chicken story, even though it was mostly spun up by GOP operatives, you can imagine there just may be some in the media who are willing to gobble it right up.