DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — As time runs short in the competitive Iowa Senate race, Democrats are trying to tarnish the centerpiece of Republican Joni Ernst's successful Senate campaign — her appealing image as a down-to-earth farm girl.
In recent weeks, Democrats have promoted stories about a dispute Ernst's husband had with a house painter, construction contracts awarded to her father when she was Montgomery County auditor and local political conflicts during her time in county office.
Opponents say they are just raising questions about Ernst, a state lawmaker and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, who is running against Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley in one of the nation's closest Senate races. But Ernst supporters say the attacks won't change opinions about the candidate.
"I've known her for years and she really is as she presents in her ads," said Gwen Ecklund, chair of the Crawford County Republicans.
Recent polls have shown a close race, with conflicting numbers on who is pulling ahead with all-important independent voters. With just weeks to go, the candidates and outside groups are spending millions on television advertising and bringing in big-name surrogates to boost enthusiasm, with former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney campaigning for Ernst earlier this week and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren — a huge draw for populist Democrats— appearing Sunday with Braley. The outcome of the election could help determine whether Republicans gain the six seats needed to win control of the Senate.
Negative campaigning is not new to the race, but the intensity has increased. On the GOP side, Republicans have tried to tie Braley, 56, to the unpopular president and have questioned Braley's background as a trial lawyer and voting record in Washington. GOP groups have repeatedly highlighted a video of Braley at a private event referring to Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law." Ernst, 44, has also cited a report that Braley got into a dispute with a neighbor at his vacation community about her chickens.
Attacks on Ernst — who was relatively unknown until her successful primary campaign this year — have picked up in recent weeks. While Braley's campaign focuses on policy issues, such as Ernst's opposition to abortion rights, Democratic groups are aggressively pushing stories about Ernst's background as a state lawmaker and county official years ago.
"Iowans deserve to hear more about her background and her record," said Iowa Democratic Party spokeswoman Christina Freundlich.
Democratic groups are publicly seeking an investigation into contracts awarded to a construction company owned by Ernst's father when she was Montgomery County auditor, from 2005 to 2011. They argue that conflict of interest rules may have been violated.
Assistant Montgomery County Attorney Mark Swanson said the contracts were awarded in an open public bidding process, with the lowest bidder winning, and noted that Ernst did not have a vote in the process. He said the complaints have "no merit."
Earlier this week, Democrats drew attention to a story in The Daily Beast that raised questions about whether people who opposed Ernst's candidacy as County Auditor were the target of retaliation in 2005. The story said at least one person opposed to Ernst was later voted off a county veterans' commission. In late September, Democrats highlighted a legal clash between Ernst's husband and a house painter, first reported by Buzzfeed, which happened in 2002, over an unfinished job.
Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Reynolds declined to discuss details of the individual stories, but said Democrats were "grasping at straws."
"There are a lot of false and misleading attacks out there. Joni's message about the Iowa way versus the Washington way is breaking through and is continuing to break through," Reynolds said.
Braley spokesman Jeff Giertz said he thought the reports had merit, saying they "raise important questions about Sen. Ernst's background."
Montgomery County GOP chairwoman Margaret Stoldorf said the criticisms were not major issues in the area. Stoldorf said Ernst was well-liked in her hometown of Red Oak.
"Predominantly, yes she's well liked and well thought off. Obviously, you're always going to find some naysayers. She'll carry the county and she'll do it easily," Stoldorf said.