DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — The race for Iowa's open Senate seat could be dubbed the Resume vs. the Personality.
In a contest that could determine which party controls the Senate next year, Democrat Bruce Braley is focusing mostly on his policy positions, and his recent television ads have featured others talking about the four-term congressman's record. Braley doesn't appear in the ads himself. By contrast, his Republican opponent Joni Ernst's campaign is all about her story as a down-home farm girl and military veteran.
In a midterm election year, when voters are fed up with Congress and the president, her strategy may prove effective.
A poll of likely Iowa voters released Wednesday by Quinnipiac University showed Ernst leading with 50 percent, to Braley's 44 percent. The poll of 1,167 likely voters — which had a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points — was the first to show Ernst with such a lead. It was also Quinnipiac's first survey of likely voters, a group that can be more GOP-leaning than registered voters. Other recent polling has shown the two closely locked.
Republican strategists say they are counting heavily on Ernst's likeability.
"I think the biggest contrast in the race is a true Iowan versus a Washington lawyer," said Republican pollster Greg Strimple. "When you have a strong personality based candidate like Joni Ernst, you want to maximize her personality."
Iowa is one of the year's most competitive Senate races and given the state's closely divided electorate, a tight race was always likely. Republicans must gain six seats to win the Senate majority. The seat is open because longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring, and Republicans want to flip it in the Nov. 4 election.
As the election approaches, Ernst's campaign is trying to soften her image. In the primary campaign, competing for Republican voters, "she came across as really tough," said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Center for Women in Politics at Iowa State University. Now, for a broader electorate, "She's painting herself as someone who cares about Iowa."
Millions of dollars have poured into the race with heavy advertising spending by the candidates and outside groups.
Ernst, 44, an Iraq War veteran and officer in the Iowa National Guard from Red Oak, appears in many of her ads to talk warmly about her "Iowa values." The recent ads are a contrast to the brash hog-castrating, gun-toting image she portrayed in her primary campaign advertisements, which propelled her to victory in the five-way primary election.
Braley, 56, a former courtroom lawyer from Waterloo, emphasizes his work in Congress or criticizes Ernst for her conservative positions, questioning her support for programs like Social Security and Medicare. One ad attacks Ernst for co-sponsoring legislation in the Iowa Senate promoting a constitutional guarantee for an "inalienable right to life" at any stage of development.
"She is trying to make this a race for class president, because she is wrong on the issues," said Braley adviser Jeff Link, who said Braley had appeared in several ads talking earlier in the year and will do so again. He also argued that Braley is getting to know Iowans through a variety of means, not just television ads.
At a recent event with senior citizens, Ernst repeatedly told attendees she wanted to look for "solutions" to maintain the Social Security program. Asked if Ernst was being deliberately vague on issues like Social Security," Ernst spokesman Gretchen Hamel said Ernst wants to "have an honest conversation about taking problems head on like we do here Iowa."
With about seven weeks left in the campaign, the candidates must still face each other in three debates.