DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Retiring Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's final steak fry fundraiser may provide some much-needed sizzle for Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat locked in a close race to replace the liberal lawmaker.
Thousands of party faithful will gather Sunday at the hot-air balloon grounds outside Indianola, south of Des Moines, for Harkin's 37th and final steak fry before his retirement from a four-decade career in Congress. The event will serve as an emotional commemoration of his decades as a "prairie populist," capped with tributes from Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton.
While the former secretary of state's potential presidential aspirations are likely to capture headlines in this early-voting state, the event is also expected to rally activists for Braley, a four-term congressman who is running against Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst in one of the year's most competitive Senate races.
Republicans must gain six seats to win the Senate majority. Harkin has held his for five Senate terms, and Republicans are hoping to flip it in the Nov. 4 election.
With six weeks to go, Harkin — a Midwest populist who counts the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act as his signature legislative achievement — wants part of his legacy to be a Democratic successor.
"Iowans like a balance," said Harkin, noting that he and Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley have served the state together for decades. "We probably don't vote the same on big national issues, but when it comes to Iowa we work together. I think Iowans like that."
Harkin called Braley a strong Democratic candidate. He said Ernst had run a good primary campaign, but he questioned how she would serve in Washington.
"She says she's going to go to Washington and make them squeal," Harkin said. "That's not how you get things done."
In a statement, Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said, "Iowans want a U.S. senator who will bring Iowa solutions and values to Washington and Joni is that candidate."
A CNN poll released Friday showed the race too close to call. Braley had 49 percent of likely voters to Ernst's 48 percent. That poll of 608 likely voters had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.
Iowa Democrats hope Sunday's event, which is expected to draw about 5,000 people, will provide an emotional and financial boost to Braley. The money raised will be split between Harkin's political action committee and the Iowa Democratic Party, both of which can aid Braley. The party will use the event to propel its early vote effort, and the Clintons will try to rev up the crowd.
"We are going to catapult out of that place. We are going to be shot out of that place like a cannon," said former Iowa Democratic Party chair Sue Dvorsky.
The race has attracted millions in spending on both sides by the candidates, party committees and outside groups.
Braley, 56, is a former courtroom lawyer from Waterloo who has won four consecutive House terms. But he has faced tough opposition from Ernst, 44, an Iraq War veteran and officer in the Iowa National Guard from Red Oak who has promoted her farm upbringing and role in the Guard.
Given the state's closely divided electorate, a tight race was always likely.