At the candidates’ first debate, Ernst was asked to name an example of the onerous federal regulations she decries. “Cap and trade would be one example,” she said. “Not only is it an increased tax to Iowans, but it would also cost Iowans an additional thousand dollars in utility costs every year.” Braley responded by noting that cap and trade couldn’t be hurting the economy because it never became law. “Did the stories say she didn’t know cap and trade was law? No,” Link says. “But all the stories all said she was confident, she smiled, she seemed friendly. So that’s a challenge.”
Ernst has been campaigning in a mad sprint, trying to cover all 99 Iowa counties before Election Day. (She had eight stops the day I followed her.) At the same time, she has turned elusive with the media, turning down interviews with newspaper editorial boards perceived as hostile to her campaign, including the state’s largest, the Register, which endorsed her in the primary. The interview I was promised with her was cut off after just two questions. Following up on another reporter’s question, I tried to clarify her position on abortion—she said she wanted to “promote a culture of life,” but that “there is a law in existence right now.” Did that mean she wouldn’t seek to change Roe v. Wade, I asked? “I am going to encourage lots of people to support life. That’s who I am,” she said. “But has it changed over the past 40 years? No, it has not.”
I asked her about Braley’s depiction of her as an extremist, and she chuckled fondly. “He would like to think that I am that type of person,” she said. “But I do bring people together. We all need to work together .... He’s just trying to push people away from my candidacy when I’m the Iowan that cares about people and making sure they have better opportunities.” Then her spokeswoman cut her off and rushed her back to her waiting campaign bus, which features a giant photo of her smiling face and, down below, a little picture of a pig.
* * *
Braley doesn’t have a campaign bus. He arrives at Flapjacks Family Restaurant in Maquoketa in a black SUV instead, heading to the basement for a meeting with a dozen local Democratic activists.
The activists seem worried. Bob Osterhaus, a former state representative who owns a local pharmacy, says he hears a lot of talk about Obama. “I’d like to suggest you be more forceful,” he tells Braley. “I have been very forceful!” Braley insists. Another activist remembers the worst days of 2010, when Braley held a health-care town hall and was booed when he tried to respond to a young woman who accused him of not having read the Affordable Care Act. For Democrats, it feels like the bad times are here again.
“You know what, you don’t have an action shot of you doing stuff on a farm,” says Buck Koos, a county superviser who also owns a feed store. “I’ve got a lot of feed that needs to be unloaded, and you’re wearing jeans.”
“Bag or bulk?” Braley says, grinning. “I’ve delivered a lot of feed in my day!” A lot of people don’t seem to realize that he, Bruce Braley, is also connected to authentic Iowa agricultural life. He talks about this for a while, for emphasis. But the people in this room already know, and it's not clear anyone else is listening.