IA-Sen: Joni Ernst's first tv ad arrives at remarkably convenient time (updated)

In what may be merely a coincidence, two stories related to Iowa’s U.S. Senate race made a big splash yesterday on national blogs and cable news networks as well as in local media.

In what may be merely a coincidence, State Senator Joni Ernst’s campaign released its first television commercial on the same day the 501(c)4 group Priorities for Iowa released a video drawing national attention to a gaffe by Democratic Senate candidate Bruce Braley.

In what may be merely a coincidence, several prominent Ernst supporters run that 501(c)4 group, which was created a few weeks after Ernst’s campaign launch.

It’s common nowadays for candidates’ campaigns to spend money spreading positive messages, while outside entities (political action committees, 501(c)4 advocacy organizations, or 527 groups) pay to get the best opposition research into the public sphere. But candidates are not allowed to coordinate messaging or timing with those outside groups.

I’m not saying someone from the Ernst campaign gave Priorities for Iowa a heads-up on when they were planning to release their tv ad. I’m not saying someone from Priorities for Iowa let Ernst staffers know ahead of time when they planned to drop their bomb on Braley. I’m just saying, the clip from a two-month-old speech by the Democratic candidate couldn’t have been released at a better time for Ernst to capitalize on her attention-getting “castration” spot.

Mark Jacobs, one of Ernst’s four rivals for the GOP Senate nomination, has been advertising on television or radio almost continuously since December. Recent polls have shown him ahead of his rivals in name recognition and support for the GOP primary. Ernst’s campaign needs to get the candidate’s name out but has been low on funds. She ended 2013 with $289,514.91 cash on hand in theory but really only $186,000 to spend before the June 3 primary, after subtracting money she can’t use until the general election period and funds needed to pay bills deferred from the fourth quarter.

In early March, the Ernst campaign brought on Iowa Republican power-broker David Oman as finance chair. Two days later, Mitt Romney sent out a fundraising e-mail for Ernst. (She had endorsed him shortly before the 2012 Iowa caucuses.)

Romney’s support presumably brought some big donors off the fence in the IA-Sen primary. We won’t know for sure until the first-quarter FEC reports come out next month.

It doesn’t look like the Ernst campaign is flush with cash, though, because they’re only spending a few thousand dollars to run their opening television commercial. The ad buy is only for cable in the Des Moines market, rather than an effort to reach viewers statewide.

Here’s the opening Ernst spot, called “Squeal”:

The ad certainly got Ernst noticed. National political journalists quickly started tweeting about her opening line, “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.” (For the record, former Iowa Lieutenant Governor Patty Judge used a version of this line first, as a dig against Sarah Palin.)

Several cable news programs featured the Ernst ad yesterday. Jimmy Fallon even made a joke about it on last night’s Tonight Show.

A male voice-over in the middle of the commercial delivers the Ernst campaign’s elevator speech for the “mother, soldier, and conservative.” This line is already old hat to Iowa political junkies, but it’s new for most people who have never heard of the candidate.

I’m not convinced the spot succeeds on other levels. The script carries the hog castration humor through the ad (“So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork”), all the way to the closing phrase “Let’s make ’em squeal.” Maybe this gimmick will appeal to the Republican audience Ernst needs to win over this spring. Some journalists and commentators were laughing at her yesterday, but they don’t get to vote in the Iowa GOP primary.

The weakest point is Ernst’s delivery. As usual during this Senate campaign, she comes across as rehearsed. Her smile looks forced, and there’s a kind of disconnect between her eyes/eyebrows and what she is saying. Judging from the many cuts and edits, they needed a lot of takes to shoot this ad. At one point, Ernst halts strangely in the middle of a sentence: “My parents taught us to live within our means. It’s time to force Washington [pause, nod] to do the same.”

Anyway, Ernst got herself in the news a few days before a critical quarter-end fundraising deadline, so in that sense, mission accomplished. Who knows, her campaign may even expand the ad buy later, if they raise a lot of money this coming week.

Which brings me to the other big IA-Sen story yesterday: Bruce Braley’s disparaging comment about Senator Chuck Grassley, brought to national prominence by the 501(c)4 group Priorities for Iowa. Bleeding Heartland discussed the Braley video here, but a few other points are worth highlighting.

It’s hard to overstate how much that breaking news story benefited Ernst.

Before yesterday, Iowa’s Senate race was pretty far down the list of likely Republican pickups. Election forecaster Nate Silver recently gave Braley a 75 percent chance of keeping Tom Harkin’s seat in the Democratic column. Writing up his interview with Ernst in the current edition of the conservative Weekly Standard, John McCormack commented,

Ernst aides say the only reason she is trailing Jacobs in the primary is that Jacobs is the only candidate who has yet run TV ads. According to sources, powerbrokers at the National Republican Senatorial Committee like Ernst but on balance favor Jacobs. On the one hand, that view is understandable, given that the wealthy Jacobs could fund his own campaign. There are perhaps nine Senate seats more likely to flip from Democratic to Republican than Iowa’s. A dollar spent on Iowa is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere, and Ernst’s fundraising has been lackluster to date.

On the same day Ernst turned heads nationally by talking about castration, Priorites for Iowa gave pundits and Washington-based GOP strategists a reason to believe Braley is quite vulnerable after all.

Yesterday Priorities for Iowa “could not immediately provide the date of the recording” of Braley speaking to trial lawyers in Texas. A Bleeding Heartland reader forwarded an invitation indicating that Braley was in Corpus Christi on January 23. I have no idea when Priorities for Iowa discovered this video, but my hunch is they have been sitting on it for several weeks, waiting for the right time to release an edited version.

501(c)4 non-profits usually claim an educational mission. The Priorities for Iowa website describes its mission as follows:

Priorities for Iowa, Inc. is a non-partisan group of Iowans committed to educating and informing citizens on a variety of issues. We are focused on strengthening our economy, standing up for Iowa families, and defending our Iowa values.

“Non-partisan”–what a joke. Everyone involved with Priorities for Iowa has worked on Republican campaigns or served as a GOP elected official. All of them were connected to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign, either as a staffer, consultant, or prominent endorser.

Furthermore, this group has no vague goal of “standing up for Iowa families.” In practical terms, these people are strongly committed to electing Joni Ernst as U.S. senator.

Ernst formally launched her Senate campaign last July. David Kochel’s wife, Kimberly Kochel, made a $2,600 donation almost immediately on July 10. That’s the maximum donation for a Congressional campaign during the primaries. Ernst staff denied David Kochel was directly involved in the campaign. No surprise that a “proven conservative” would want to distance herself from one of Iowa’s best-known Republican supporters of same-sex marriage rights.

In August 2013, David Kochel and Sara Craig, a consultant for his Redwave Communications firm, launched Priorities for Iowa and immediately started attacking Braley.

Two of the three founding Priorities for Iowa board members were already on record supporting Ernst for U.S. Senate. The Ernst campaign rolled out the endorsements from Dallas County Recorder Chad Airhart and former Iowa House Republican Renee Schulte within two days of each other in late July. That’s a few weeks before Priorities for Iowa launched with Airhart and Schulte as board members. (Incidentally, Schulte was a relatively early Romney endorser in Iowa during the last presidential campaign.)

David Kochel made his own $2,600 donation to Ernst’s Senate campaign in late September, near the end of the third fundraising quarter.

As long as there’s no illegal coordination of messaging, it’s perfectly legitimate for people to create a 501(c)4 or super-PAC or 527 group to spend unlimited money indirectly benefiting a political candidate. In that sense, Priorities for Iowa is comparable to Restoring Our Future, an outside group formed by supporters of Romney for president.

Incidentally, the Ernst campaign’s third quarter and fourth quarter FEC reports show no disbursements to any political or communications consulting firm associated with Kochel. The Ernst campaign is employing Targeted Victory, a Virginia-based firm providing similar services to Kochel’s Redwave Communications and Redwave Digital.

It may be purely coincidence that Priorities for Iowa released its Braley video the very same morning that Ernst’s campaign released its tv spot. If so, what a lucky break for Ernst.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: Clearly the ad resonated with some conservatives. Sarah Palin endorsed Ernst on the morning of March 26.

If Nebraska’s Deb Fischer can see through the bull in Washington, then Iowa’s Joni Ernst can help her cut through the pork. Growing up on a hog farm in Southwest Iowa, Joni has taken her “pork cutting” skills to the Iowa State Senate where she has been a champion for life, small government, and lower taxes – voting for the largest tax cut in Iowa history. In Washington, she has pledged to defund Obamacare, limit the size of government, and protect life. As a concealed weapon license holder, she will fight to defend our Second Amendment rights – the NRA has given her an “A” rating.

Joni is a veteran of the Iraq war and continues her service as a Lt. Colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. She’s been a fighter for freedom both in and out of uniform. Iowa – come together and send this Midwest Mama Grizzly roaring to Washington on her Harley so she can join with the good guys to get our country back on track!

Any question about the type of Senator Joni will be? Check out her first ad – she makes it pretty clear: http://youtu.be/p9Y24MFOfFU

Support Joni Ernst today! To learn more about Joni and support her campaign, please visit her website at www.joniforiowa.com

– Sarah Palin

Raise your hand if you ever thought Sarah Palin, David Oman, and David Kochel would be working to elect the same candidate in a competitive GOP primary.

So, Bleeding Heartland readers, how much does Palin’s support help Ernst in the primary, and how much does it hurt her if she becomes the nominee?

SECOND UPDATE: Stephen Colbert had a go at the Ernst tv ad on the March 26 edition of The Colbert Report. Worth viewing.

THIRD UPDATE: This is not satire, this is a fundraising e-mail blast the Ernst campaign sent out on March 27 (photo not included):

Friend,

By now you may have seen or heard about Joni Ernst’s hit television commercial, “Squeal”, that’s been garnering national attention.

Networks, publications, and public figures, including Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, The Tonight Show and even TIME Magazine have been so impressed that some outlets have even dubbed it as having one of the “greatest opening lines” in political advertising history.

Be a part of history by making a contribution today so that you can own a piece of “Squeal” merchandise and show D.C. you want an end to its addiction to pork spending! For a contribution of $30 or more, we will send you a “Squeal” bumper sticker.  For a contribution of $50 or more, you can have our “Make ‘Em Squeal!” pork rub and a “Squeal” bumper sticker. And for a contribution of $75 or more, you can own the pork rub, bumper sticker and our “Make ‘Em Squeal” t-shirt!

Your contributions will help mother, soldier, and proven conservative, Joni Ernst, increase the number of “Squeal” commercials she airs across the Hawkeye State as she aims to defeat her liberal opposition and take her Iowa values to fix the mess in Washington.  Such a victory will move us one critical step closer to a Republican majority in the United States Senate – allowing us to repeal and replace Obamacare!

Make a contribution today to help bring some good old fiscal responsibility to Washington because as we know, Washington’s is full of big spenders…let’s make ’em squeal!

Sincerely,

Team Joni

After seeing that the Ernst campaign put “Let’s make ’em squeal” on a t-shirt, Mr. desmoinesdem commented, “These people have never seen ‘Deliverance.’”

FOURTH UPDATE: While multiple Iowa media initially credited Priorities for Iowa with releasing the video, the Republican super-PAC America Rising may have been the first to post it online. Like Priorities for Iowa, America Rising is run by former Romney campaign operatives. Speaking to Dave Weigel, a representative of that group denied being involved in the IA-Sen primary. But for Weigel, the perfectly-timed yet small Ernst ad buy suggests that her campaign “knows exactly what it’s doing.”  

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