In Iowa’s Senate campaign, one candidate has been prone to making outrageous and controversial remarks that have garnered copious amounts of national press. The other one is the gaffe-prone candidate.
Republican Senate nominee Joni Ernst had managed to sail by despite a litany of comments that sound like they come from bedtime stories that Huffington Post readers use to scare their children. Ernst has endorsed nullification of federal laws, warned of the United Nations evicting Iowa farmers from their land, called President Obama “a dictator,” and claimed that the “cap and trade law,” which never passed, is the federal regulation most undermining job creation. These all got national attention and made national headlines. However, they had absolutely no effect on the Iowa electorate.
In contrast, Democratic nominee Bruce Braley has suffered huge, overwhelming political damage from a comment surreptitiously recorded at a January fundraiser where he expressed horror that if the GOP took control of the Senate that the Judiciary Committee would be led by Chuck Grassley, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law.” The statement could be construed at poking fun of either farmers or Grassley, both of which enjoy near universal popularity in the Hawkeye State. The result put Braley on the defense and combined with a couple of other stories, like a dispute with a neighbor over stray chickens, turned Braley into shorthand for political dysfunction this cycle. As a result, a candidate once expected to cruise to victory has been consistently trailing by a small margin in recent polls.
However, Ernst may have finally committed her own devastating gaffe this week. Her problem wasn’t what she said but that she didn’t say anything at all.
Ernst had long been scheduled to meet Thursday with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, the biggest and most influential paper in Iowa. The meeting would have included the paper’s publisher, its editor, editorial board as well as various columnists and reporters—all of whom would have been able to ask questions of Ernst. It would all be recorded and live-streamed on the Internet as well. But then, Wednesday night, her campaign suddenly said the candidate would not be able to attend and that the meeting was canceled.
The result came as a shock. One source familiar with The Des Moines Register’s editorial process told The Daily Beast that this type of cancellation was unprecedented. In doing so, Gretchen Hamel, a spokesperson for the Ernst campaign, said that the paper was biased. “Recent editorials in The Des Moines Register make their position in this race perfectly clear, and it’s one that many voters across our state seem to disagree with,” said Hamel in a statement. Hamel added the campaign was still “trying to schedule” meetings with other editorial boards as well.
Outside observers though found it mystifying that Ernst shunned the Register’s editorial board. While the Republican had been the subject of several negative editorials in recent weeks, knowledgeable Democratic operatives were convinced that she was still likely to get the Register’s endorsement. Further, Iowa Democrats have often griped about the perception that Ernst gets far more favorable news coverage from the Register than Braley. So why would she skip a meeting?
The best explanation is that her campaign was afraid that she would make another controversial statement. During her one meeting with an editorial board during the general election—the Sioux City Journal’s on Oct. 15—Ernst came out in favor of a constitutional amendment to ban abortion. Further, when she met with the Register’s editorial board before her primary (in which the panel eventually endorsed her), Ernst insisted that Iraq actually had weapons of mass destruction in 2003. But these statements, along with the host of other potential gaffes she’s committed throughout the campaign, didn’t hurt Ernst.
The problem with her canceling on the Register editorial board is that, unlike an offhand comment about impeachment, it’s totally off-message for Ernst. The Republican has run as the “Iowa nice candidate.” Even her most extreme remarks have been delivered with a smile as she radiates the warmth of a friendly small-town neighbor. Canceling on a commitment with short notice is not Iowa nice, particularly in a state that values its political traditions.
Ernst’s cancellation made news across the state. Any controversial statement that she might have made in an editorial board meeting would have been on the front page of Talking Points Memo. Instead, she made the front page of the Quad-City Times.
She may have avoided saying something outrageous, but sometimes the gaffe isn’t the controversial thing you say but the controversial thing you don’t say.