A combination of factors helped Joni Ernst secure the Iowa Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. Senate in Tuesday’s voting, most notably the timing and content of her campaign commercials.
Rival candidate Mark Jacobs urged Iowa Republicans to reject the “sizzle” of the Ernst ads. One featured Ernst on a motorcycle, then with her gun at a shooting range. Another featured a reference to castrating pigs. Ernst backer Mitt Romney described it this way during a campaign rally last Friday in Cedar Rapids: “She didn’t just sit home and needlepoint, as you know, she was actually doing some work on the farm — squealing work on the farm.”
Bruce Nesmith, a Coe College political science professor, says for a candidate like Ernst with “narrow” name recognition when the race started, the “aggressive humor” about castration tapped into the anger among conservative voters.
“They speak well to where Republicans are right now,” Nesmith says. “Certainly two generations ago something like that would have just been beyond the pale, probably might not have been aired with the kind of barnyard humor that it offered.”
In addition, Ernst benefitted from hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending from outside groups and Nesmith says the national prominence of this race will bring even more money — and pressure on Ernst — to perform in the General Election.
“The US Senate, writ large, is very close and Republicans have a good shot at getting the majority this time,” Nesmith says. “They had a good shot the last two times and they missed it, so they know they have to win a certain number of seats and they have to not screw it up.”
The latest voter registration data confirms Iowa’s on-going status as a “purple” state where neither party dominated. There about 600,000 Republicans, 600,000 Democrats and 700,000 independent or “no party” voters in Iowa.
“It’s probably still Braley’s race to lose, but the farmer comment probably did indicate that he can screw up and may do so again,” Nesmith says. “I don’t think it’s a super important comment and I don’t think that in November we’re going to say: ‘Gosh, if it hadn’t been for that farmer comment Braley would be a senator now,’ but I do think it’s a kind of sign that maybe has given some small bit of emotional uplift to people on the right.”
Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford says the video of Braley suggesting Republican Chuck Grassley wasn’t qualified to lead the Senate Judiciary Committee because Grassley was “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” helped spark interest in the Republican Primary race.
“When Braley had his moment of fame with that, for him, unfortunate video, that was Christmas morning at Republican headquarters with a lot of presents to open,” Goldford says.
Loras College professor Christopher Budzisz says that Braley video “absolutely” was a turning point in the GOP Primary race.
“There was a bit of a deflation, I think, within the Republican Party that they didn’t get a higher profile candidate, but then this race has become high profile,” Budzisz says, “not only within the state, but also part of the national conversation about the potential Republican take-over of the United States Senate.”
Iowa State University political science professor Dianne Bystrom studies campaign advertising and she says the Ernst campaign ads have been “provocative” and “well-produced.” High-profile endorsements played a role in the GOP primary race, too, with Ernst getting backing from not only Romney, but former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Ernst also benefitted from appearing alongside her Republican rivals in three dozen forums in which the GOP slate focused their fire on Braley rather than on one another.