The Elbert Files: Iowa's ugly senate campaign
Friday, July 25, 2014 6:00 AM
Summer is the silly season in politics, so here are some silly observations.
Observation No. 1: Democrat Bruce Braley is on track to win the prize for dumbest campaign move of 2014.
At the beginning of the year, Braley was a near shoo-in to replace retiring fellow Democrat Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate. With Braley’s name recognition and fundraising skills, there wasn’t a big-name Republican willing to challenge him.
But then Braley stuck his foot in his mouth and chewed off his leg when he was captured on cellphone video at a fundraiser with Texas lawyers in front of a table full of liquor bottles, trash-talking Republican Sen. Charles Grassley and, by implication, Iowa farmers.
Now, Republicans are constantly replaying that cheesy cellphone video in TV ads, and they will continue to do so right up to Election Day.
Observation No. 2: The Senate race between Braley and Republican Joni Ernst has become a race to the bottom, with each candidate claiming that the other does not represent “Iowa values.”
Of course, neither side ever says what Iowa values are, and the only conclusion TV viewers can draw is that Iowa values mean distorting everything your opponent says.
Observation No. 3: With a couple of exceptions, both Ernst and Braley have failed to tell voters what they want to accomplish. The exceptions are that Braley wants to raise the minimum wage and Ernst wants to undo much of what President Obama has done.
That’s great for whoever wins, because if there are no campaign promises, the winner can do pretty much what she or he wants after the election.
But it’s a terrible way to run a democracy.
Observation No. 4: It’s appropriate that Braley and Ernst are engaged in a gutter campaign to replace Harkin, who was a master of the nasty campaign.
The first time Harkin ran for the U.S. Senate was a particularly nasty campaign against Republican incumbent Roger Jepsen in 1984. For that race, Register cartoonist Brian Duffy drew a Halloween cartoon showing both Harkin and Jepsen dressed as skunks. Duffy reprised various versions of that cartoon for just about every Harkin race that followed.
The lesson that a generation of politicians took away from those Harkin races was that whichever candidate got nasty first and worst won. It’s too early to tell who will win this year.
Republicans were the first to get nasty with the cellphone video of Braley saying a GOP win would make Grassley, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” chair the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But Democrats are now bent on showing they are at least as good at throwing opponents into the gutter.
Observation No. 5: Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who has in the past been every bit as good as Harkin at trashing opponents, has been unusually positive in most of his TV commercials this year.
That’s probably because Branstad has such huge leads in both the polls and campaign fundraising over Democrat Jack Hatch.
Observation No. 6: Branstad’s huge advantage in money has resulted in at least one noteworthy bit of nastiness.
Right before Hatch named his running mate, Monica Vernon, Branstad’s campaign acquired the Internet domain name “HatchVernon.com” and has been using it to trash the Democrats.
By now, there have been enough news stories about the website to make it clear to most voters that it’s just a dirty trick, along the lines of some of the goofy, but legal, stunts that President Nixon’s re-election team pulled when they had a similar lead over George McGovern in 1972.
Still, it reflects poorly on Branstad’s leadership.
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