INDIANOLA, Iowa (AP) — The candidates in one of the closest Senate races in the nation faced off in a testy first debate in Iowa Sunday night, with Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst seeking to distinguish themselves on live television.
Before a crowd of 300 people at Simpson College in Indianola, Braley, a four-term congressman from Waterloo, repeatedly accused Ernst of being too conservative and tried to tie her to the billionaire Koch brothers. Ernst, a state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard from Red Oak, aggressively pushed back, saying Braley was part of a failed Congress and had lost touch with his Iowa roots
"I believe Washington is taking our country in the wrong direction and for the past eight years, Congressman Braley has been there," Ernst, 44, said during her opening remarks.
In his initial statement, Braley, 56, said: "This election is about a clear choice between moving Iowa forward or following a radical Tea Party agenda that's going to take us backwards."
Iowa is one of the year's most competitive Senate races. 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. Millions of dollars have poured into the race, with heavy advertising spending by the candidates and outside groups.
The latest Iowa Poll from the Des Moines Register shows Ernst with support from 44 percent of likely voters, compared to 38 percent for Braley. The survey of 546 likely voters, conducted by Selzer & Co., had a margin of error of 4.2 percentage points. Previous polls have shown the candidates closely matched.
Braley and Ernst clashed on issues such as jobs, health care, environmental policies and abortion, but mainly stuck to established talking points. Both touted their records and sought to tie the other to special interest groups.
During a discussion on national security, Ernst criticized Braley for his absence at House Veterans Affairs committee meetings in 2011 and 2012. Braley said he had reasons for those absences, including attending a military memorial event.
The two disagreed on health care. Braley said President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, has provided health care to Iowa residents that need it. Ernst said the program should be repealed because it has taken "personal health care decisions out of our hands."
Ernst said she wants to simplify tax policies and limit federal regulation to aid job creation. Braley said he supported raising the federal minimum wage and accused Ernst of opposing a wage hike. Ernst said she thought the minimum wage should be set by the states.
Braley said he would protect abortion rights and questioned Ernst's support for state-level legislation that he said would block abortion and restrict access to contraception. Ernst called the legislation "a statement of life" and said she supported contraception for women.
The exchange grew tense during the final minutes after Braley referenced the Koch brothers. Ernst said: "Congressman Braley, you're not running against these other people, you're running against me. I am a mother, I am a soldier and I am an independent leader. You are being funded by Tom Steyer, who is a California billionaire extreme environmentalist."
Braley retorted: "I realize that and President Obama's name is not on the ballot. And I'm not going to owe President Obama anything on Election Day. You're going to owe the Koch brothers everything."
At the end, both candidates agreed on one thing: whoever wins, the first post-Election Day call would be to longtime Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.
The debate was sponsored by The Des Moines Register and KCCI-TV.