Sometimes a gaffe is not a gaffe.
Iowa GOP Senate hopeful Joni Ernst’s remarks in a debate Thursday that the last week’s shootings in Santa Barbara were “an unfortunate accident” got national attention. After all, unfortunate accident sounds like more like a description of a fender bender than of the horrific killing of six people, which included the deliberate targeting of women.
But while national outlets jumped on the comment, ranging from Business Insider to Huffington Post to Buzzfeed, it’s not likely to do Ernst any long term harm and may even help her in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
Aside from the obvious that Ernst, who called the killings “a tragedy” earlier in her remarks, finds the shootings as terrible as any other sane person---something reinforced in a statement by her campaign----her slip up came in the context of a question about gun control in light of the shooting. Before her slip up, Ernst said “I have been endorsed by the NRA in this race and again just because of a horrible, horrible tragedy, I don’t believe we should be infringing upon people’s Second Amendment rights.” She also pointedly noted that some of the Santa Barbara victims were stabbed, not shot. The “unfortunate accident” comment then followed after a debate moderator asked about whether an Ernst ad that featured her shooting targets a gun range was appropriate in light of the shooting.
Needless to say, while Democrats were already jumping on the remarks---in an email to the Des Moines Register, prominent Iowa Democratic consultant Jeff Link harrumphed "She described Santa Barbara as an accident. This was a rampage against women with knives and guns." In a press release, Iowa Democratic Party Chair Scott Brennan slammed Ernst saying her “fierce partisanship and opposition to any gun control is indicative of how indebted she is to the special interests that are out-of-step with Iowa.” But it’s hard to see how “opposition to any gun control” is really negative in a Republican primary. In fact, Ernst, who is in a close race with businessman Mark Jacobs and facing tough competition for conservative votes from economics professor Sam Clovis and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, can only benefit from these attacks among the Republican faithful.
Further, even if Ernst advances to face off against the presumptive Democratic nominee Rep. Bruce Braley in the general election, gun control is not a winning issue for Democrats in Iowa (and any attempt to tie Ernst to Elliot Rodger would be politically insane). The state has relatively lax gun laws and Democratic hopefuls as well as Republicans have staged photo opportunities of themselves shooting in the state. Instead, it’s a gaffe that plays better with liberal bloggers than moderate swing voters. While it may fire up MSNBC viewers and Daily Kos commenters, soccer moms in Marion, Iowa and Des Moines Register subscribers won’t care.
Instead, the real harm that Ernst did to herself in the debate was taking conservative positions on issues that won’t play well with Iowa voters like saying she would have opposed the Farm Bill and attacking the Clean Water Act. These statements are far more likely to be in negative ads in the fall, they just won’t drive Internet traffic in the meantime.