URBANDALE, Iowa — Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst has returned from two weeks of training with the Iowa National Guard to a midterm election race against Democrat Bruce Braley that has become a competitive contest in the battle for Senate control.
The seat has been occupied for 30 years by U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who announced last year that he would not seek another term. Now it is one of the closest races in the country, hotly contested by allied groups from outside Iowa as Republicans drive for the six-seat gain they need to grab the Senate majority.
On Monday, Ernst, a Republican state senator, spoke with veterans at a restaurant in the Des Moines suburbs.
"Once our veterans in Iowa are getting into the system, they are being cared for. I wish I could say that for every state out there," said Ernst, 44, referring to the scandals surrounding veterans' health care. "We need to address these issues head on."
For Ernst, the appearance was a reintroduction after a two-week reminder of her service. She is a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander in the National Guard — leadership positions that could serve as a counter to Braley's experience in government.
An attorney from Waterloo, Braley, 56, has won four consecutive terms to the U.S. House, including beating back a challenge in 2010 when an outside group spent more than $1.5 million against him. But Ernst, of Red Oak, has been an aggressive campaigner and has drawn attention with her ads about her farm upbringing, including one touting her experience castrating hogs.
In the financial match-up, the two raised similar amounts during the latest fundraising quarter, though Braley, who declared his candidacy more than a year ago and faced no primary challenge, has more cash in the bank. Braley raised nearly $1.7 million between April 1 and June 30 and had $2.7 million on hand at the end of June, while Ernst raised nearly $1.8 million and had $1 million in cash.
Braley has had a few challenges on the trail. Earlier in the year, video surfaced of Braley dismissing senior Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican, as possible chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In the video of Braley speaking to a group of lawyers at a fundraiser in Corpus Christi, Texas the candidate suggested Grassley was unqualified to hold the chairmanship as "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." Braley later apologized for the remark.
Braley recently replaced his campaign pollster and media consultant, staffing decisions that his aides refused to discuss Monday.
Supporters said Braley was always going to face a tight race in a state where votes are fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, especially in a year without a presidential election to drive turnout. But Democrats argue that Ernst has taken positions that are too conservative for Iowa, accusing her of favoring privatization of Social Security, for example.
"Republicans are stuck with a candidate who is too extreme for Iowa voters," said Matt Canter, Deputy Executive Director of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.
Ernst said Monday that she wanted to make sure Social Security is there for seniors, but said the program may need changes in the future.
"We have to recognize there is an issue with Social Security," Ernst said. "We need to look at solutions moving forward to make sure that my daughters and my grandchildren, all of our children and grandchildren, have that same Social Security system or semblance of that."