DAVENPORT, Iowa—Republican Joni Ernst and Rep. Bruce Braley (D., Iowa) clashed on outside political spending and a strategy to defeat Islamic militants in the second debate for Iowa’s Senate race Saturday night—but what critics have called a serious gaffe by Braley became the focal point of the event.
Both candidates mostly stuck to the same rhetoric that they have employed throughout the closely fought race. Ernst, a state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard, portrayed Braley as a staunch supporter of President Barack Obama—who is unpopular in Iowa, according to recent polls—and beholden to billionaire environmental activist and political donor Tom Steyer. Ernst has taken a slight lead in the race after winning the June primary for Republicans.
Braley, a four-term congressman and former trial lawyer, attacked Ernst for benefiting from spending by the Koch brothers. Republicans and independent analysts have criticized Braley as gaffe-prone and a weak candidate who could cause Democrats to lose the seat held by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa) for almost 30 years.
One of Braley’s key attack points against Ernst at the debate in eastern Iowa appeared to backfire.
Braley repeatedly said that "sound-bites have consequences" and accused Ernst of once saying that she opposed all federal subsidies—including the Renewable Fuel Standard that benefits Iowa corn growers.
"Words matter and they have consequences that are harmful to Iowans," Braley said.
Ernst was ready to respond. "Actions speak louder than words," she said, before noting that the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association gave her a 100 percent rating on renewable energy issues.
"I think it’s very important to have farmers in the United States Senate," she said. "When you talk about your words, behind closed doors at a fundraiser in Texas, you poked fun at Sen. [Chuck] Grassley [R., Iowa] for being just a farmer without a law degree."
The crowd of about 750 attendees at St. Ambrose University in Davenport erupted in cheers. Braley stood stone-faced.
The congressman’s comments about Grassley at the January fundraiser have dogged him throughout the race. Grassley is a popular figure in Iowa, which has more than 30 million acres of farmland. Miles of cornfields line the highway from the state’s central hub and capital, Des Moines, to Davenport on its eastern edge.
Braley’s comments have reinforced the perception among critics that he might not be the right candidate for the farming-heavy state. Ernst, by contrast, rose to prominence after a political ad that touted her experience "castrating hogs on an Iowa farm" when she was younger.
Braley also appeared to make another miscue at the debate. When asked about ads linking him to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Braley offered a simple response.
"The answer is I’ve never met Michael Bloomberg," he said, prompting laughter from audience members.
However, a press release from Braley’s office in December 2010 stated that he spoke at an event in New York City on bipartisanship with other politicians in the state, including Bloomberg.
Bloomberg donated $2.5 million to Senate Majority PAC, the group helmed by former aides of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), earlier this year, Politico reported. Senate Majority PAC has spent about $2.7 million on ads attacking Ernst, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
Outside spending in the race came up several times during the debate. Braley frequently noted that Ernst is "supported by the Koch brothers and other big oil backers." At one point, he called on Ernst to "join me right now in committing to tell all outside groups to pull their money out and let Iowans decide this election."
Ernst responded that groups allied with Braley have spent millions more attacking her compared to ads against Braley.
"Here he is calling for [election spending] reform, and yet we’re being tremendously outspent on the airwaves by these outside groups," she said.
Foreign policy has also become a key issue in the race. The Islamic State (IS) is closing in on Baghdad in Iraq, threatening to massacre civilians in Syria, and has beheaded American journalists—raising fears that the terrorist group could eventually launch attacks in Europe and America.
Ernst, who said at the debate that she has "had my boots on that ground" as an Iraq War veteran, recently argued in favor of ramping up U.S. airstrikes targeting the Islamic State and potentially sending U.S. special operations forces to Iraq and Syria to gather intelligence and coordinate with local forces. Braley has opposed the prospect of any ground troops in Iraq and Syria, and said at the debate that Congress should be called back into session to debate an authorization for U.S. military action in the countries.
"There is no military solution that doesn’t involve a political solution in Iraq and Syria," he said. "[The Islamic State] has to be eliminated and people who attack Americans have to be brought to justice or to the grave."
Ernst said voters would likely be "confused" by Braley’s stance on the Islamic State. At the first debate, the congressman appeared to mischaracterize his vote authorizing the training of Syrian rebels battling the terrorists—and he has previously voted against funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The race could help determine whether Republicans retake the Senate majority and remains a virtual tie, according to a new Des Moines Register poll released Saturday. Ernst has a slight one percentage point lead over Braley, within the poll’s margin of error.
Fifty-nine percent of likely Iowa voters said U.S. officials should not rule out using ground troops against the Islamic State, an indication of growing concern about the Islamic militants.