DES MOINES, Iowa – On the plane ride here, I read in National Review that state senator Joni Ernst was “running to the left” of her opponent, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) on Social Security.
Later, flipping on my television at the hotel, I learned that she wants very badly to privatize the program, thanks to the wall-to-wall attack ads from environmental groups that have seized on the topic as a handy cudgel.
I was also told, by Mother Jones, that Ernst has uttered a series of “controversial,” “extreme” statements that put her to the right of Louie Gohmert.
You can imagine my surprise when her stump speech at a series of stops along I-80 was cheerful, largely non-ideological and above all, safe.
Ernst criticized her opponent’s record on the Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist group on the narrowest of grounds – that he hadn’t been more forthcoming in public about his position. Ernst, in contrast, said the U.S. must defeat ISIS and stand with the troops.
“I have a very strong position on this,” she said in front of one of the state’s largest ethanol-producing plants, the sun glaring overhead.
“We absolutely have to defeat ISIS. But I’d like to point out that I have an opponent that sits in Congress. He has sat in Congress for 8 years. And yet we haven’t heard a word from Congressman Braley until just a few weeks ago about this threat in the middle east. I’m still not exactly sure where he stands on ISIS. So believe me, I am a credible, a credible candidate when it comes to foreign policy. And I will always stand with our men and women that have served in uniform.”
But Ernst’s real passion, as far as the speech, was her “Iowa knows best” 99 county tour of the state. (“Thank you! 99 counties! 99 counties! Just like the governor and the lieutenant governor and Sen. Chuck Grassley,” she said exuberantly).
In a brief interview in Davenport, Ernst took a pass on a right-wing softball – was President Obama’s plan to grant executive amnesty to millions of illegal aliens unconstitutional?
“You know, that’s … no, I don’t have,” she said as her spokeswoman interjected to note that “we’ve made a previous statement” on the topic. “But, I think, again, we’re going back to – he’s making the issue political. It’s a political football and they want us to fight over this issue when we should be coming together to talk about the solution,” she added.
(Two hours earlier, the Republican National Committee chairman, Reince Priebus, had used the word “illegal” three times when the topic came up in an interview).
Ernst was the only candidate of the cycle who managed to thread the needle of the GOP’s internal factions, endorsed by Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, Senate Conservatives Fund and the Chamber of Commerce.
Now she’s ahead 6 points in the most recent Des Moines Register poll and very close to pulling off what a year ago would have been considered a huge political upset against the experienced Braley.
It may not be quite the upset once thought, if simply because Braley has turned out to be a dud of a candidate, kind of the axiomatic opposite of Ernst.
In their debate Sunday night, Braley went hard after Ernst, but generally looked mean and angry doing so.
When Ernst swung back, it was with boldness, a big smile and gravitas to spare, underscoring that her calculated blandness on the trail was at least on purpose.
“Congressman, you threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property. You’re talking about bipartisanship. How do we expect as Iowans to believe that you will work across the aisle when you can’t walk across your yard?” she said.
Braley was left stuttering that it was “just not true” that he threatened to sue his next-door neighbor, Pauline Hampton, who had just last week announced that after decades of pulling the lever for Democrats, she’d be voting for Ernst. Ignoring for a second the contemporaneous documents showing that Braley did, in fact, suggest he would sue over four of Hampton’s chickens that crossed into his yard, the more notable part of his response was his countenance, which was visibly shaken even for minutes into the next questions. Perhaps he was realizing – my feud with the neighbor may well cost me a United States Senate seat!
Earlier in the debate, Ernst had offered a politically innovative answer on immigration that illustrates why the best read on Ernst is that she is a grade A political talent.
Braley, improbably seizing on the Senate “Gang of Eight” bill to go on the attack despite an ongoing border crisis that has prompted even its Republican sponsors to demand that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid not bring up the bill this Congress, pressed Ernst on her position on the bill.
“I do support bringing a lot of these illegal immigrants – there’s 11.5 million of them – I believe in bringing them forward,” Ernst said, coming mighty close to the wrath of the right before finishing her thought: “but not granting them amnesty,” which she defined as the Gang of Eight bill.
Braley fought valiantly to argue the Senate bill was not amnesty, but without much success escaping the clever political box Ernst had created around him. In “bringing them forward,” Ernst appealed to moderates. In defining the Gang of Eight bill as “amnesty,” she may have kept immigration hawks calm.
Back in Davenport, I ask Ernst about the different accounts of her record on Social Security – that she’s alternatively liberal or a Koch Brothers’ mole.
“The real Joni Ernst is a leader in this issue,” she says, hitting on a (very) frequent theme in her rhetoric.
At one of the stops, I ask an Iowa state House candidate, Patrick Payton, how he would describe Ernst to someone who didn’t know her.
“Very nice lady. Very competent. Very personal, and a great campaigner,” he says.
Now that’s definitely true.