The Iowa Senate Race Just Got Interesting

The Iowa Senate Race Just Got Interesting
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In a campaign primary season where the eyes of Democrats are vigilantly trained on Tea Party challengers across the country to see which one will be the first to self-immolate with a "Todd Akin moment," the award for the first major gaffe goes to one of the Democrats' own.

In Iowa, Bruce Braley is running to replace progressive champion Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring after five terms.  Braley has been representing the state’s 1st Congressional District since 2007, but he is also a lawyer who, before running for Congress, served as president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association. It was this connection to his former life that got him in trouble on Tuesday.

Addressing a closed-door fundraiser in Texas, Braley wooed a group of fellow trial attorneys by citing his legal background, and in the process took a rather condescending shot at Iowa’s sitting Republican senator:

To put this in stark contrast, if you help me win this race, you may have someone with your background, your experience, your voice, someone’s who’s been literally fighting tort reform for 30 years in a visible and public way on the Senate Judiciary Committee, or you might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

A couple of obvious points Braley apparently forgot from Politics 101: First, it’s generally not a good idea to disparage the background and livelihood of a significant portion of your state’s constituents. Second, there is no such thing as a “closed-door” or “private” fundraiser anymore. Candidates must assume the camera is always on—because it usually is.

Sometimes it’s done surreptitiously, as was the case with Mitt Romney’s notorious “47 percent” remark. On other occasions an intrepid journalist manages to infiltrate the campaign’s barriers, which was the case in 2008 when then-Sen. Barack Obama held forth on “bitter” rural Americans who “cling to guns or religion … as a way to explain their frustrations.” At this point it’s not clear which category Braley’s YouTube moment falls into.

Braley attempted to perform triage with a swift apology in which he lauded his family’s farming background—apparently they didn’t all go to law school—as well as his professed love of the farming way of life in general. But some damage has been done.

Not too long ago, the Iowa Senate race was considered beyond the reach of the GOP. Braley has no primary opposition, while Republicans are facing a wide-open primary with no marquee candidate.

And, since Obama came on the scene, Iowa has been trending Democratic. Obama’s success in there in 2008—he won by 9.5 percentage points—was less problematic for Republicans than his recapturing the state in 2012. Many conservatives felt Iowa was ripe for the taking, and the Romney campaign responded by pouring millions into it only to lose to Obama by six points. The result left Republicans wondering on Election Night whether Iowa had turned more Democratic “blue” than they’d previously thought.

But Obama’s second-term struggles, and the resulting decline in his approval rating, have brought a number of races back into play for Republicans, possibly including Iowa. Although the latest poll of the race, taken by Quinnipiac at the beginning of March, shows Braley maintaining healthy leads over all four potential GOP challengers, he is only at 40 percent support, and one-in-four voters remain undecided.

There’s an interesting twist to the story, too. Braley’s gaffe may well benefit GOP challenger Joni Ernst who, coincidentally, this week released her first television ad, which touts her farming background. In the spot, which Charles Cooke of National Review quipped has “the greatest opening line in the history of campaign commercials,” Ernst declares, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.” (The line also impressed Sarah Palin, who endorsed Ernst on Wednesday.)

All the normal caveats apply, of course. Election Day is still a long way off, and Republicans won’t even have a nominee until the June 3 primary. But keep an eye out for the next round of polls in this race to see how much Braley may suffer for his gaffe. There are a number of interesting Senate races this year and, at least for the time being, Iowa just made its way up the list.

Tom Bevan is the Co-Founder & Publisher of RealClearPolitics and the co-author of Election 2012: A Time for Choosing. Email: tom@realclearpolitics.com, Twitter: @TomBevanRCP

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