DES MOINES—Republicans look at GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst's biography and see the makings of a star. She's a woman and a mother. She's a combat veteran and a motorcycle-riding Iowa farm girl.
Democrats see something else in Ernst, though: a veritable greatest-hits list of attackable statements and policy positions that they can use to make many Iowans' first impression of the Republican a bad one.
Ernst's compelling personal biography, including her down-home Iowa farm upbringing and National Guard service, is her path to victory in November—particularly as Republicans work to portray Rep. Bruce Braley, her Democratic opponent, as an out-of-touch elitist. But in order to fight a battle over personality, Ernst will need to find a way to combat a slew of controversial statements and positions that Democrats are highlighting in the news and already paying to put in TV ads.
Just this week, for example, Ernst justified her opposition to raising the minimum wage because the current rate is "great starter wage for many high school students"—even though most minimum wage workers are adults. Braley's campaign had already been attacking Ernst for saying she wanted to get rid of the federal minimum wage.
Meanwhile, Democrats have stocked away some controversial statements Ernst made during her primary—like suggesting impeachment should be an option for President Obama, or her comments about states being able to "nullify" federal laws—since the general election began. Some Republicans worry that enough of these comments could sink Ernst's campaign.
"All of the footage that they shot of her in the primary is problematic," said Craig Robinson, the editor of the Iowa Republican and the state GOP's former political director. "We've seen repeated times where she's walked back a position that she held in the primary—that's problematic for politicians to have to do that."
There's no doubt that Ernst, who catapulted from relative obscurity in the Iowa state Senate to battleground U.S. Senate nominee in mere months, has quickly built up a personal brand in the Hawkeye State—beginning with the now-famous ad in which she talked about growing up "castrating hogs on an Iowa farm." That ad, along with another which showed her riding a Harley and shooting a gun—"once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's gonna unload," it said—helped her defeat the far better-funded businessman Mark Jacobs for the GOP nomination with impressive 56 percent of the GOP primary vote.
"Biography matters because we don't elect policy positions, we elect people," said Ernst strategist David Kochel. "I think in politics, people and policy both factor into what drives the decisions of Iowans."
A trip to the Iowa State Fair with Ernst earlier this month found a candidate who seems to relish one-on-one interactions with voters, bolstering her reputation as a down-to-earth Iowa farm girl. She spent hours shaking hands, taking photos, and even hugging many fair-goers.
When she spoke at the Des Moines Register soapbox that day, one of the top draws for political candidates, Ernst didn't mention Braley or the campaign once. She opted instead to speak about a young Iowa man who was killed while serving in Afghanistan, eschewing the opportunity to make a "campaign political speech," she said.
Actions like those go a long way with Iowa voters, for whom authenticity and one-on-one contact are key.
"At the end of the day you want to make sure you like the person you're voting for," Robinson said. "People don't love [GOP Sen.] Chuck Grassley and [GOP Gov.] Terry Branstad because of an issue, they love those two because they feel like they know them."
Ernst's personal story is everywhere in her campaign: almost all of her post-primary TV ads have focused on her childhood in Red Oak, Iowa, or on her service in the Iowa Army National Guard. The National Republican Senatorial Committee released a 7-minute video earlier this week looking at Ernst's Iowa roots and background, another sign the GOP sees this message as potent.
Still, Democrats say if the race is about substantive issues, they'll win here. From the minimum wage to Social Security to women's health issues, party strategists say, Ernst holds positions that are "too extreme" and outside the state's mainstream. The minimum wage was the subject of Braley's first big general-election ad against Ernst, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is out with an ad tying Ernst to Sarah Palin and "tea party" politicians.
National Democrats also contest the idea that Ernst's biography is enough to put her in Iowa voters' good graces, saying their internal polling shows ads from Braley and his allies are making a dent and have raised Ernst's unfavorables above Braley's this summer.
"Their campaign knows that if the race is focused on the issue contrasts, they're at a disadvantage," said Braley communications director Jeff Giertz. "Ernst and her campaign have embraced some real out-there, tea party ideas in order to win the primary, and those ideas just do not resonate with middle-of-the-road Iowa voters."
In an interview at the Iowa State Fair, Ernst said it's "a lot of camouflage" to talk about her as extreme, and said her top issues will be "the issues that are important for Iowa voters": namely jobs and the economy, education, and government spending.
"It really is very much a distraction because I've been a successful state senator. I work very well with all types of people. I don't see where they're coming up with the extreme," she said. "I am a person with Iowa values, I work very hard, I connect with people, I care about people, I think that's what our voters want to see."
Ernst's campaign notes that she's bucked her party in the state senate on multiple occasions: she urged the passage of the Stolen Valor Act, which made it illegal to lie about receiving military medals, back in 2011. Just last week, drawing on her own experiences with sexual assault in the military, Ernst said her first act in the Senate would be to overhaul how the military handles those cases.
Ultimately, both candidates have their flaws and have misspoken this year—it's just a question of which one voters are more willing to forgive for them, said GOP strategist Nick Ryan, who heads the American Future Fund.
"Both of these candidates have shown an ability to say inartful things—but which one are you more likely to forgive for saying inartful?" he asked. "Thus far people have been much more forgiving of Ernst. "¦ [Braley's comments] seem to stick to him a lot more than they stick to her."
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