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Iowa Senate candidate likens his female opponent to a chick

In Iowa Senate race, Republican candidate Joni Ernst made a name for herself by memorably featuring hogs in one of her ads, adding that she grew up castrating hogs as a farm girl.  She would likewise cut pork should she make it to Washington.  Makes sense.

Bruce Braley, the Democratic Senate candidate must have thought, well, if farm animals worked so well for Ernst, then he’d try it, too.  Maybe not such a great idea.

In the above ad, Braley likens Ernst to a chick: “We’ve all heard the one about pigs squealing but when Joni Ernst had the chance to do something in Iowa, we didn’t hear a peep. In the state Senate, Ernst never sponsored a bill to cut pork. Never wrote one measure to slash spending.”

Sure, we get the idea.  Ernst, according to the 30 second ad, talks tough about pigs and such, but, Braley argues, she didn’t actually do anything.  As an ad, it actually works: there’s an easy hook, and a memorable little chick providing visual and aural punctuation as well. And any time an ad can break through the usual clutter of campaign commercials, then it does its job.  But is this ad also sexist? Would it work as well, or do a different kind of work, if Ernst weren’t a woman?

Ernst has put her gender front and center in this campaign. In her second ad she rides a Harley, goes to a shooting range and the male narrator says she carries “more than lipstick in her purse.” It’s a very effective, and gendered ad, which would not work as well if Ernst were a male candidate:


Republicans say Braley’s ad is sexist:


And National Republican Senatorial Committee press secretary Brook Hougesen wrote in a statement: “Let’s not forget that national Democrats have made claims of misogyny and unfair attacks against women the centerpiece of their electoral strategy. Does anyone doubt that if a male Republican candidate ran an ad comparing a female Democratic candidate to a chick, reporters’ inboxes would be filled with outraged press releases demanding that the ad be condemned and taken down? Of course not.”

It’s not clear that this ad would actually be that different if Ernst were a man.  But, it is hard to imagine that gender played no role in the way Braley’s campaign decided to frame the ad. The Braley campaign has opened itself up to scrutiny and charges of sexism.  Surely, they knew some negative press would come of a campaign ad that likens a female Senate candidate to a chick.

The ad also shows the potential pitfalls that male candidates and their campaigns can fall into when they run against women — from Obama’s “likeable enough” comment about Hillary Clinton in a 2008 debate, to a GOP official’s description of Democratic Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes as an “empty dress.”  There is also this to consider–even if the ad has sexist undertones, does that actually make it more effective and memorable, because it causes a sir and helps break through the campaign clutter?  Probably so.

The campaign says it stands by the ad.

“Their assertion is ridiculous. The issue here is that Senator Ernst is saying one thing in her slick TV ads, yet her record shows something else entirely,” said Sarah Benzing, Braley’s campaign manager. “Their focus on anything other than her record reinforces just how nonexistent her record truly is.”



Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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