In 2014, it appears, the key to winning in a swing state is to avoid talking about issues and emphasize pig castration.
Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst cruised to victory in Iowa over Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley. Ernst, a first term state senator from the state’s rural southwest, ran a personality driven campaign where she avoided detailed discussion of issues and instead emphasized that Braley, a former trial lawyer, was kind of a jerk.
The Braley campaign spent months trying to shift the conversation to policy, particularly trying emphasize those areas where Ernst held controversial views on impeachment, nullification, abortion and a conspiracy theory involving the United Nations -- but it was to no avail. Instead, Ernst, who shot to national prominence in an ad where she talked about castrating pigs as a young girl, kept the race focused solely on personalities. That gave a huge advantage to the sunny Republican prone to hugging supporters.
Ernst’s win marks a major accomplishment for the GOP in Iowa, a purple state that had long been considered to be slowly creeping blue. Republicans had long been intimidated by a strong Democratic turnout effort, which relied on using absentee ballots to turn out marginal voters and propel them to victory.
While Democrats felt confident in their campaign apparatus this year, Republicans finally launched a concerted effort to match them, which made a huge difference. To compare it to cars, the difference between upgrading from a 2012 to a 2014 model is minimal, but to go from a horse and buggy to Model T is a huge update. And that’s just what the state GOP did, transforming the political landscape in the Hawkeye State.
Braley’s loss also marks a major embarrassment for Democrats. The seat was once considered to be relatively safe. Braley had long been the presumptive heir to Sen. Tom Harkin, a progressive icon who made a career dispatching formidable Republican challengers on Election Day.
Instead, Braley’s campaign was handicapped early on from the release of video that involved him dismissing the prospect of Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley as a prospective chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee because he was a farmer from Iowa without a law degree. Republicans painted this as the Democrat insulting farmers. It was likely that he was just insulting Grassley instead.
But considering that Grassley, a five-term incumbent, is almost as popular as the actual profession of agriculture in Iowa, it didn’t really matter what he meant.