The more I see of the Republican race for U.S. Senate, the more I'm convinced that State Senator Joni Ernst will win the GOP nomination, barring some major gaffe or new revelation about her record.
Three reasons are after the jump.
1. Ernst successfully positioned herself as the "non-Jacobs" candidate.
As the only candidate able to spend more than a million dollars of his own money, Mark Jacobs was always going to be a contender in the Senate primary. At the same time, I've long doubted he could overcome three decades of not living in Iowa, a few campaign contributions to Democrats, plus proof he once supported a "cap and trade" policy to reduce carbon emissions. Consequently, the main task for his conservative rivals was to lock down the "not Jacobs" niche.
For months, Ernst's campaign attacked Jacobs in press releases. They also managed to get tremendous free media exposure from a small ad buy in late March.
At least four polls of the Republican Senate primary have been released during the past month. All show Ernst and Mark Jacobs fighting for the lead, with Sam Clovis and Matt Whitaker well back. Let's be skeptical about the Harper Polling survey that shows Ernst at 33 percent support, with Jacobs at 23 percent, Clovis at 14 percent and Whitaker at 3 percent. That poll was commissioned by the American Heartland PAC, which is running tv ads against Jacobs. We still have polls from Suffolk, Vox Populi, and Loras College showing a two-tiered race, with Ernst and Jacobs in the top tier.
In addition, Sam Clovis and Matt Whitaker disappointed in the fundraising department. Ernst hasn't raised a staggering amount of money, given how many Republican establishment figures have endorsed her (Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, former presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and more than a dozen state lawmakers). But as of March 31, her campaign had raised more than $740,000 since last summer and had $427,201 cash on hand with two months to go before the primary.
I strongly believe that if Clovis or Whitaker had been competitive financially, the Senate Conservatives Fund would be backing one of them in the IA-Sen primary. They speak with more confidence and conviction about the issues, while Ernst often comes across as a candidate who is afraid to stray from her talking points. Instead, the Senate Conservatives Fund announced its endorsement of Ernst in late April, not long after first quarter financial reports became available on the FEC website. I had to laugh, reading the group's official statement:
"We're very proud to endorse Joni Ernst for U.S. Senate in Iowa. There are other good candidates in this race, but Joni Ernst stands above the rest. She's a principled conservative, she has strong grassroots support in the state, and she can win this race if she gets her message out. If elected, Joni Ernst will fight to cut wasteful spending, repeal Obamacare, and balance the budget."
As Jacobs-supporting Republican blogger Craig Robinson pointed out, the Senate Conservatives Fund just got behind the only candidate in the primary who has voted to raise taxes--not once, but twice. Clovis and Whitaker have taken all the "principled conservative" positions on issues that should matter to an outside group based on ideology. The Senate Conservatives Fund should be allergic to any candidate backed by Mitt Romney and his senior Iowa supporters. But crucially, the Senate Conservatives Fund became convinced that Ernst (and by implication not Clovis or Whitaker) "can win this race if she gets her message out."
Just this week, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio endorsed Ernst. I don't see why a potential presidential candidate would wade into this primary unless he saw Ernst as the main alternative to Jacobs (Rick Perry's support for Matt Whitaker notwithstanding).
2. Other people are roughing up Ernst's main primary competition, while no one has been spreading any negative message about her.
Two outside groups are now targeting Jacobs in television commercials: Trees of Liberty, and American Heartland PAC. Ernst doesn't have to spend a dime against her main rival, the only person in a position to fund a strong statewide campaign effort. She can focus all of her energy and resources on a positive message.
Robinson's frustration came through loud and clear:
Ernst is able to appeal to conservative voters that may currently prefer Clovis or Whitaker because she is largely unknown and undefined. The Republican primary is just 27 days away, and Ernst's record, which includes votes in favor of higher taxes, remains unknown to most voters. That seems hard to imagine in a Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, but Ernst has been allowed to fly under the radar because she, Clovis and Whitaker have all focused their criticism on Jacobs. They have painted Jacobs as some sort of rich, out-of-state, liberal boogieman, but Ernst's record in the Iowa Senate raises plenty of questions when examined. [...]
The Ernst campaign has claimed that the wide array of Republicans that are backing her candidacy is an indication that she has become the consensus candidate in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. That may very well be the case, but it could also be because her Republican opponents have failed to make her explain the record she has established in the Iowa Senate since first being elected in 2011.
If a candidate like Sam Clovis or Matt Whitaker is to have any chance at winning the Republican primary next month, he must find a way to consolidate the conservative vote behind his candidacy. Their decision to needle Jacobs, who by most accounts isn't even courting staunch conservatives in the primary, has been a huge miscalculation. Jacobs seems like an easy target to campaign against, but it's Ernst who they must compete with to get conservative voters.
While nobody likes negative campaigning, it is important for Republicans to thoroughly vet their candidates in contested primaries. As we saw in the 2010 Republican congressional primary in the 3rd District, Democrats love nothing more than the opportunity to demoralize Republican voters about their nominee as soon as the primary campaign is over. Only one candidate - Jacobs - seems to have been vetted in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, while Ernst and the others have not had their past and record scrutinized.
Frankly, I don't know what Clovis, Jacobs, and Whitaker are waiting for. If they think that some outside group is going to air Ernst's dirty laundry for them, they are fooling themselves. In forum after forum, Ernst's opponents have had the opportunity to bring up her support of gas tax, yet they all seem scared to pull the trigger. With one month left to go in the campaign, it's time for one of Ernst's opponents to make her defend her record.
If Ernst's opponents fail to draw a distinction between themselves and her, it will not matter that Ernst's record doesn't match the rhetoric and packaging of her TV ads. Ignoring Ernst's record has already helped her become the anti-establishment, establishment candidate. If someone really wants to challenge her for the Republican nomination, they better engage Ernst, and quickly.
The Jacobs campaign did take a shot at Ernst last week with a website highlighting her many missed votes during the legislative session that just ended. But they stupidly launched the site on a day Ernst was doing National Guard duty. So the Jacobs message that she was "AWOL" in the Iowa Senate backfired. The 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain himself said Jacobs should apologize. I think it's valid to criticize Ernst for missing a lot of legislative work when the Iowa Senate is in session just four months of the year. But it will be hard for Jacobs to gain traction with that message during the final weeks before the primary. Besides, Ernst was present for most of votes taken just before the Iowa Senate adjourned for the year on May 1.
A separate post is in progress about the Senate candidate debates. Ernst hasn't shined in those settings. She seems to be playing it safe and doesn't speak with as much confidence as some of the others. But not making mistakes may be all she needs to accomplish between now and June 3.
3. Ernst's television commercials are pitch-perfect for the white male conservatives who will likely dominate the primary electorate.
I wasn't a big fan of her debut spot with its pig castration references, but anecdotally, Iowa Republicans loved it. Maybe Craig Robinson is right that the Ernst ads don't appeal to women, but I doubt that will be crucial in a Republican primary. Anyway, Robinson makes a big deal out of what looks to me like a very small edge for Jacobs among female poll respondents.
Since last summer, Ernst has been playing up her love of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and her tendency to carry a concealed weapon "probably 90 percent of the time." The image appealed to the ultimate Republican male fantasy woman, Sarah Palin, who came to West Des Moines recently to campaign for the "Midwest Mama Grizzly" she endorsed in late March. The Palin event wasn't well-attended, but it got plenty of media coverage.
"She's going to set 'em straight. She's a soldier. She's a hard-working farmer; she's a pistol-packing Harley rider, and I don't think Harry Reid is going to start talkin' down to her," Palin declared at a rally in West Des Moines late Sunday afternoon. The ballroom at the HyVee Center was only half full; about 300 people showed up, braving torrential rain, hail and thunderstorms to see the pair campaign together.
Ernst only mentioned the former vice presidential nominee once in her speech at Sunday's rally--but she seemed ready to embrace Palin's style. Her campaign RV is plastered with images of hogs and asks followers on the highway to "Honk if You Want to Make Washington Squeal." At the rally, Ernst noted Democrats have attacked her for carrying a weapon.
"I do have a permit to carry, and I do carry. And because I do carry, the Iowa Democratic Party, they have called me, pistol-packin' Joni - I love it!" she said to cheers.
The new tv ad Ernst launched on May 4 is an instant classic. The candidate rolls up on her Harley for some practice at an indoor shooting range. I'm having trouble embedding the video here, for some reason, but you can watch it on YouTube. Here's my annotated transcript:
Male voice-over: She's not your typical candidate. [Viewer sees Ernst wearing black leather riding gear, arriving on her Harley, taking off her gloves.]
Conservative Joni Ernst. [Footage freezes as Ernst is taking off her helmet. Words on screen: CONSERVATIVE JONI ERNST]
Mom. Farm girl. And a Lieutenant Colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse. [Viewer sees footage of Ernst getting off motorcycle, walking into building. Words on screen: JONI ERNST MOM, then JONI ERNST FARM GIRL, then JONI ERNST LT. COLONEL, then footage of Ernst putting on ear plugs and protective glasses]
Joni Ernst will take aim at wasteful spending. [footage of Ernst loading a handgun, preparing to shoot]
And once she sets her sights on Obamacare [viewer sees Ernst aiming gun, words on screen JONI ERNST SET SIGHTS ON OBAMACARE]
Joni's gonna unload. [views of Ernst holding gun from different angles, viewer sees and hears her firing gun at target]
And one more thing... Joni doesn't miss much. [viewer sees target with most of the bullet holes near the center]
Ernst speaks to camera: Give me a shot. I'm Joni Ernst and I approved this message. [words on screen: CONSERVATIVE JONI ERNST U.S. SENATE]
The first time I saw this ad and heard, "Joni doesn't miss much," my immediate thought was, "Except votes in the Iowa Senate." But I'm not the target audience. Conservative Republican activists will love this ad. Never mind that Ernst won't be in a position to "unload" on Obamacare, except through votes on legislation President Barack Obama would veto, even if it passed the Senate.
Robinson must have spoken for many Jacobs supporters when he remarked, "Ernst's catchy TV spots make it clear as to who her targeted audience is: Tea Party conservatives, Second Amendment activists, and conservative primary voters. In other words, not the establishment types who are consulting and supporting her campaign for the U.S. Senate." That's true, but it's the kind of inside baseball that won't affect the primary vote.
To get her "shot" at Bruce Braley, all Ernst has to do is not screw up badly between now and June 3. I think she can pull that off.
Any comments about the Senate race are welcome in this thread.
Final note: I expect at least one candidate will manage to clear the 35 percent threshold needed for an outright victory in the June 3 primary. But even if the Senate nomination is decided at a statewide GOP convention, Ernst strikes me as much better positioned than Jacobs, Clovis, or Whitaker, because of her establishment support.
UPDATE: This news will play well with Republican voters too.
State Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate in Iowa who has said she often carries a handgun in her purse, has carried a firearm inside the Iowa Capitol building in the past, a campaign spokesman confirmed Thursday.
Ernst spokesman Derek Flowers had said on Wednesday in response to an inquiry from The Des Moines Register that Ernst has not carried a firearm in the Iowa Senate chamber. But Flowers issued a second statement on Thursday saying she had done so in the past, when there was ambiguity in the rules as to whether lawmakers could bring firearms into the Statehouse.
"During that time, on occasion, Joni carried. Prior to this session starting, the rule was clarified for her and she has not carried in the Capitol since," Flowers said.
SECOND UPDATE: Ernst sat down with the Des Moines Register editorial board on Friday. She's saying all the "right" conservative things, such as wanting to eliminate the federal Department of Education and supporting a constitutional amendment to balance the budget. I give her credit for admitting that there is waste in the Department of Defense. I would like to see her elaborate on the "free market alternatives" that could replace Obamacare. I suspect she has nothing to say besides a few talking points. On foreign affairs, she seemed completely out of her depth:
Ukraine crisis: Ernst called for a strong response to Russia's incursion into Ukraine, but said she didn't believe the U.S. had "checked all the boxes" for steps to take before intervening militarily. The U.S. and allies should press sanctions against Russian leaders, remove the country from the G8, provide loans to Ukraine and energy assistance before responding with force.
"Finding those nonmilitary solutions is always very important," she said, adding, "At some point, when negotiations are failing and you see that there is a threat to our national defense, a threat to our vital interests, then at that time the decision needs to be made whether to engage militarily."
The Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction: "We don't know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the intelligence that was operated on. I have reason to believe there was weapons of mass destruction. My husband served in Saudi Arabia as an Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that's a hot-button topic in that area."
No matter how many boxes we check, there's no way the U.S. could ever engage militarily in Ukraine. We know it, and Russian President Vladimir Putin knows it.
I'm surprised Ernst still buys into the mountain of Bush administration lies about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction.
I've said before that Ernst comes across as highly programmed. Her comments to the Register on taxes are a perfect example. I wonder whether she could elaborate on what she views as unjustified loopholes or unnecessary regulations that are supposedly hampering business.
"We need to lower taxes immediately on hardworking families here in the United States. But in the long-term I think we have to scrap the tax code. There are so many loopholes in the tax code right now we need to make fairer, flatter and simpler. And then beyond that, rules and regulations. We talk about so many rules and regulations that are hampering businesses."