DES MOINES, Iowa—Walking past livestock barns and fried-food stands at the Iowa State Fair, Iowa's Democratic Senate nominee, Bruce Braley, happily recounted his favorite memories of state fairs past, recalling the concerts he's been to spanning decades, and mentioning that his favorite fair food is a "hot beef sundae" (mashed potatoes, beef, gravy, with a cherry tomato on top).
The only problem: He was telling those stories to two D.C. reporters, not to potential Iowa voters. During that walk, after a formal Q&A with those reporters and on his way to flip pork burgers at the pork producers' tent, Braley chatted with reporters and a small handful of staffers. He shook hands and met voters around the fair earlier that day, but even then a large entourage of staffers and volunteers kept many fair-goers at a distance and made it tough for him to log any real one-on-one time with them.
It was a telling symptom of what's bedeviling Braley's campaign. Once considered a leading Democratic recruit, Braley has feverishly been fending off a perception that he's elitist and out of touch with regular Iowa voters.
His comments to a closed-door Texas fundraiser of trial lawyers earlier this year managed to insult both Iowa's farmers and GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the state's most beloved politicians. Those comments energized Iowa Republicans around GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst's candidacy and fed the fire for their argument that Braley doesn't connect with Iowans—and caused national Democrats to worry privately that Braley's habit of misspeaking will cost them the Iowa seat, and potentially the Senate, in November.
In short, the ambitious lawyer-turned congressman has become the Democratic version of Mitt Romney and with the election approaching, he's working overtime to combat the image before it's the only thing that defines him.
But with less than three months left until Election Day, how will he do it? Asked by National Journal about the GOP-fueled narrative, Braley said it was at odds with his middle-class upbringing. "Tell them who I am. Tell them my life story," he said, speaking outside the Swine Barn at the state fair. "Tell them about working multiple jobs while I was going to law school and going to Iowa State to help pay my way through college. Talk about what it was like when my father had a severe accident when I was 2 years old and was laid up for about a year and he was the sole breadwinner in our family."
The state fair, an annual staple of Iowa cultural and political life, seemed like the perfect place to get in one-on-one time with voters and share that personal story—but Braley spent little time interacting with fairgoers. He spoke at The Des Moines Register soapbox on a rainy Thursday morning, then walked through the fair and flipped pork burgers at the all-important pork producers' tent. During most of that time, he had such a large entourage of purple Braley-shirt-wearing staffers and volunteers around him it was tough to find the candidate.
The staffers served as a buffer between Braley and the handful of GOP trackers and hecklers who trailed him—one man dressed as a chicken, another as a pig—but ultimately ended up keeping away regular people as well. It seemed to annoy fairgoers more than endear him to them.
"Gimme a break," one man said as he tried to pass by Braley and the group in the Varied Industries Building.
Braley spent the majority of his time walking and talking with his mother, who attended the fair with him that morning. He did stop to shake hands and meet people in a Future Farmers of America tent and in the Swine Barn—but seemed more often to connect with young kids than chat up their parents.
"Those rabbits are pretty cool, aren't they?" he said, bending down to talk to two boys in front of a cage of rabbits. "I bet they're pretty soft."
By contrast, Ernst, who attended the fair the following day, seemed to relish her one-on-one time with voters. Walking through the fair with GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley, she stopped seemingly every few feet to say hi to—and often hug—fairgoers and potential supporters.
"Look at the statements he has made," Ernst told reporters of Braley. "He set the stage himself. I don't need to elaborate much on how out of touch he is, he has done that for Iowa."
There are changes afoot within Braley's campaign, which shook up its roster of consultants earlier this summer: His team dropped admaker AKPD in favor of Saul Shorr and dropped pollster Diane Feldman for Geoff Garin. (The campaign noted that this was a postprimary switch, saying it was about gearing up for the general election and not about fixing any perceived shortcomings.)
The candidate's most recent ad, released this week, struck a more personal and emotional note than his previous ones. It featured a man talking about the murder of his daughter, Holley Lynn James, and Braley's efforts to successfully pass a bill named for his daughter that fought sexual assault and domestic violence in the military.
"When Holley was murdered, what I was more afraid of than anything is that the world would go on and it would be as though Holley never existed," he said. "Bruce Braley helped keep that memory alive, and it adds more permanence to Holley."
Still, Republicans are gleeful in referencing to the "farmer" comments, with state and national politicians using it as a running joke even at events far away from the Senate race. The comment has gotten into the bloodstream of Iowa politics and seems unlikely to leave.
At a Boone County GOP picnic, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania referred to the "elite idea that if you don't have nice towels in the nice gym" —he didn't mention Braley by name, but it was clear to whom he was referring. (Braley once said that during the government shutdown, the House gym didn't have towel service and members of Congress were "doing our own laundry down there.")
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky also referenced Braley in a speech at the GOP Victory office in Urbandale: "If I were running for the U.S. Senate in Iowa, I would think it's probably a bad strategy to trash Chuck Grassley and farmers in one sentence," he said. "In fact, as a physician, it's not hard to convince me I'd rather have a farmer than a lawyer any day."
Braley's hope is that he and Democratic outside groups can convince voters that Ernst is extreme, and far outside the mainstream of Iowa—a message his team has begun pushing and says will be potent.
Ernst has faced her own campaign problems. During the GOP primary, she suggested that impeaching the president should be an option, a comment she and her campaign have since walked that back. Ernst also suggested she was opposed to the Renewable Fuel Standard—a huge gaffe in a state like Iowa—and then held a press conference at the fair to profess her support for the subsidy. Braley's campaign has already run a recent ad hitting Ernst over the minimum wage.
Speaking at the soapbox, Braley decried Ernst—whom he mentioned only as "my opponent"—for backing a "tea-party agenda" that "drives people apart."
The following day, Ernst told reporters that the the "too extreme" attacks are "a lot of camouflage."
"Don't you notice [Braley's] the only one pushing that? It really is very much a distraction," she said. "I work very well with all types of people. I don't see where they're coming up with the extreme."