Wow: Joni Ernst suddenly opens a 6-point lead in Iowa

Teacups are rattling in the hands of Democrat consultants across the land, as another closely-watched neck-and-neck race suddenly turns into a big lead for the Republican candidate… and it’s the race to fill the seat left behind by left-wing dinosaur Tom Harkin, no less.  The Des Moines Register calls it the latest twist in an “amazing race”:

The ground under Bruce Braley has shifted.

The Democratic U.S. Senate candidate is 6 points behind his GOP rival, Joni Ernst, according to The Des Moines Register’s new Iowa Poll of likely voters.

Ernst leads 44 percent to 38 percent in a race that has for months been considered deadlocked. She leads nearly 4-1 with rural voters, and is up double digits with independents.

“Very interesting, and good news not just for Ernst but also for the GOP’s chances of taking the U.S. Senate,” said national political prognosticator Larry Sabato of “Sabato’s Crystal Ball.”

Just seven months ago, political analysts considered Braley almost a shoo-in for a seat held for 30 years by liberal Democrat Tom Harkin.

And just yesterday, as George Will noted at the Washington Post, the RealClearPolitics average had Ernest ahead by a statistically insignificant 0.2 points.  Will found it troubling that Ernst wasn’t further in the lead, because she’s a likable candidate, while Braley is a train wreck who symbolizes everything voters hate about Washington this cycle, from the V.A. scandal to ObamaCare:

The Ernst of the primary season talked about the Harley in her driveway, the pistol in her purse and the possibility of impeaching the president. Today her less exotic persona talks about the feeble economy, the perils of Obamacare and Braley’s record, including his pride in having given in the House the culminating argument for Obamacare, which he still thinks is splendid.

Then there is his interesting path to his current position on the Keystone XL pipeline, which he favored before he opposed it. In 2012 he voted for construction and for removing the requirement that the president approve construction. He now opposes Keystone, which makes his position conveniently congruent with that of Tom Steyer, the billionaire who is dispersing millions of dollars to support candidates who share his opposition to Keystone. Steyer’s NextGen Climate super PAC has spent $2.6 million attacking Ernst. Politics is an inherently transactional business, but Braley’s fretting about money in politics — he is operatically indignant about the Koch brothers — is notably selective. So far, Ernst’s campaign and independent groups advocating on her behalf have spent about $2 million less on ads than Braley’s campaign and supporting groups have spent.

Braley is also quite the gaffe machine, with the Des Moines Register suggesting that a big one he dumped early in the campaign is still hurting him:

Some of the vulnerabilities for Braley, a lawyer and eight-year congressman: He isn’t winning in his home district, in northeast Iowa. Two-thirds of likely voters think it’s a problem that he missed a large percentage of Veterans Affairs Committee meetings in the U.S. House. Fifty-nine percent think his role in crafting the Affordable Care Act, often called Obamacare, is a problem.

And he’s suffering badly with rural voters. Only 15 percent support him compared with 58 percent for Ernst. One potential reason: Two-thirds of likely voters who live in the country are bothered by a remark he made about Republican U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley that’s been perceived as besmirching farmers.

“I think he has an attitude about the voters and life in general which was indicated by what he said about Chuck Grassley,” said Democrat Dianna Fuhrmeister, a poll respondent who grows garden vegetables for a living in rural Iowa City. “He thinks he knows better than us.”

Braley’s remark, made at a private fundraiser in Texas last winter, seemingly disparaged Iowa’s popular 33-year senator for being a farmer, not a lawyer. Braley apologized to Grassley after the caught-on-tape remark was released in March. But that gaffe and others prompted the national political news outlet Politico last week to slot Braley’s campaign as No. 1 on its list of “the worst campaigns of 2014.”

He’s behind in his home district?  Ouch.

The usual caveats about polling apply here: it’s only one poll, and as the Des Moines Register is careful to note, there’s still enough time for the tide to turn again in this volatile race.  (But not much time, and unless Ernst self-destructs, it’s hard to see much happening in the next few weeks that would be a game-changer for Braley, or most other Democrats for that matter, which is why news of a 6-point breakout in Iowa will cover many a forehead with sweat.)  

Let’s suppose this is a real breakout that other polls back up, and Ernst suddenly developed a six-point lead over the past couple of weeks.  One reason might be heightened concerns about national security and the not-war against the non-Islamic Islamic State; Republicans generally benefit from that issue, and Ernst is a veteran.  George Will mentions that Republican governor Terry Branstad is doing extremely well in his re-election bid, so his coattails are probably helping Ernst.  

And maybe this race is further evidence of the theory I mentioned a few days ago: the tidal pull of President Obama’s hideous approval numbers created an approval ceiling Democrats can’t get beyond, but they were able to beat Republican numbers down with a massive negative ad blitz (you know, the kind they scream to high heaven about when it’s directed at them) and temporarily equalize some races in late summer.  Now that fall has arrived, however, the effects of the blitz are wearing off, and undecideds are breaking for the Republicans.  It will be very interesting to see if Ernst’s lead holds up through the next round of polls, and if more undecided movement occurs in some other tight races.


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