Why Democrats Should Get Worried About the Iowa Senate Race

Joni Ernst's come-from-behind win for the GOP nomination means Bruce Braley's path will be steeper.
Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Iowa once looked like one of the great GOP disappointments of 2014. Top-tier recruits such as Representative Tom Latham and Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds passed on the open-seat race and left Republicans with a handful of unknowns fighting a messy primary. Democrats, meanwhile, gave four-term Representative Bruce Braley a free year to prepare for the general election.

But then Braley insulted the state's most important constituency, the Republican Party discovered Joni Ernst, and suddenly a race rarely mentioned as a midterm battleground has become a legitimate pickup opportunity for the GOP. Republicans received another break Tuesday, when Ernst, a state senator from Iowa's rural western half, won the GOP's nomination outright. With 18 percent of the vote in, Ernst had captured just over 53 percent support. Not only did she avoid a run-off by crossing the 35 percent support threshold, her margin of victory is something few would have imagined possible just a month ago.

Ernst has yet to prove she can withstand the scrutiny of a marquee Senate race—some Republicans privately worry she won't—and Democrats remain confident they hold the advantage in a seat the retiring Senator Tom Harkin has held since 1984. Even the most optimistic of GOP strategists wouldn't rank Iowa as one of Senate Republicans' top targets this year.

But it has joined a collection of second-tier opportunities, a list that includes fellow purple-state battlegrounds Colorado, New Hampshire, and Michigan—each put into play by viable candidates and a favorable political climate for the GOP. And, like them, the Hawkeye State could eventually become an irreplaceable part of the party's plan to take the Senate should it stumble elsewhere.

If Republicans do go on to win in Iowa, they'll trace their victory back to the final week of March. It was then that a video leaked of Braley talking to a group of Democratic donors, urging them to prevent Republicans from retaking the Senate and letting fellow Iowa lawmaker Chuck Grassley take the gavel of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

"You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as next chair of Senate Judiciary Committee," he said. "Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee."

The comment went down as one of the worst gaffes of the still-young midterm season, and Braley apologized within hours.

But to Republicans, it provided the frame for Ernst's entire candidacy: a small-time Iowa farmer (and veteran) taking on a condescending liberal more at home on either coast. (It also explains why most, if not all, Republican operatives preferred that Ernst win the party's nomination over the millionaire Mark Jacobs, who could self-fund but would struggle to depict himself as a blue-collar champion.) That's a potentially potent argument in a state that's not just farm-heavy, but also one in which blue-collar white voters made up 56 percent of the electorate in 2010. 

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Alex Roarty is a politics writer for National Journal.

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