Chief among Braley's missteps this year, and appearing most frequently in GOP ads, are his now-infamous comments from a fundraiser in which he described GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school."
Polls find the race is now a toss-up: The most recent, from NBC/Marist, found Braley and Ernst tied at 43 percent each. Other recent public polling has given a slight edge to either Braley or Ernst — a far cry from the consistent high-single-digit leads Braley was commanding earlier this year.
"This race did a 180 when [Braley] stubbed his toe on that 'farmer' comment," said former Des Moines Register political reporter David Yepsen. "He may have mortally wounded himself with that, because he wasn't well-known to a lot of people."
And while Braley still has considerably more money in the bank than Ernst — he has $2.7 million on hand, compared with $1.1 million for Ernst — the GOP candidate outraised Braley slightly in the second quarter, proving she can successfully raise big sums.
All three top political prognosticators — The Cook Political Report, The Rothenberg Political Report and Larry Sabato's "Crystal Ball" — have shifted the race toward Republicans in recent weeks and now rate it as a pure toss-up.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee put $500,000 behind an ad hitting Ernst last week, a sign national Democrats have become increasingly concerned about the race.
Several stories since the "farmer" comment have helped reinforce, at least in national circles, Braley's unfortunate penchant for putting his foot in his mouth: At a parade earlier this month, Braley appeared to answer a voter's cheer of "We're farmers!" with "So am I!" (The campaign said Braley thought the voter had said "We're for farmers," which is why he agreed.)
Republicans also seized on a story about Braley and his wife complaining to the local homeowners association about a neighbor's chickens running free, a story that helps fit into the GOP portrayal of Braley as an elitist trial lawyer. Another report this week found he had missed the majority of Veterans Affairs Department oversight hearings in 2011 and 2012.
"The last thing you want to be is somebody who 'went Washington,' and those stumbles sort of opened the door" to criticism like that, said one Democrat familiar with the campaign. "That's a caricature that the Braley campaign does not want to stick."
The campaign worked to combat the image early, running an ad earlier this spring highlighting Braley's ties to the state and working-class past. The pro-Democratic group Senate Majority PAC, too, came out with an ad this spring featuring farmers defending Braley and his Iowa roots.
Democrats in the state say the "farmer" remark and the perception of Braley it feeds haven't yet had time to sink in with voters — nor have views about Ernst, whom Democrats will use considerable resources to portray as too extreme for the state.