Rep. Bruce Braley’s (D., Iowa) record on veterans’ issues could be a key determinant in the battle for Iowa’s open Senate seat, according to party strategists and recent polls in the state.
Republicans have also pulled closer to Democrats in the ground war for absentee ballot voters, another important indicator ahead of the Nov. 4 election.
While Braley’s criticism of Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) earlier this year as a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school"—viewed by many analysts as a serious gaffe in the farm-heavy state—has attracted the most scrutiny, the four-term congressman’s absences at full Veterans’ Affairs (VA) Committee hearings could be more damaging.
Braley missed more than 75 percent of the House VA Committee’s hearings in 2011 and 2012, though he did attend most of the subcommittee meetings on economic opportunities for veterans. Some of the hearings he skipped focused on the growing backlog of disability claims and long wait times for veterans—problems that have since been discovered at VA medical centers nationwide. He attended three fundraisers on the same day in September 2012 that he missed one of the VA hearings.
Two-thirds of likely Iowa voters said Braley’s absences at the VA hearings were a problem, according to a Des Moines Register poll conducted late last month. That issue received the most concern from voters among all the criticisms of either Braley or his Republican opponent, Joni Ernst.
"[Braley’s record] really stands out if you’re a veteran, or a member of household with veterans," said David Kochel, a longtime GOP operative in Iowa, in an interview. "It’s particularly important at a time when the VA has had so much trouble with 120,000 vets not getting the care they need. I think it’s been a big problem for him."
Braley’s campaign and allied groups have attempted to counter Republican criticism by airing ads with veterans who support him.
Democrats typically have an advantage with on-the-ground organization, including larger numbers of volunteers who knock on doors and make phone calls to encourage people to vote early or with absentee ballots. However, Republicans have narrowed that gap this year in Iowa.
Registered Democrats have requested about 18,000 more absentee ballots than Republicans as of Monday, compared to a gap of about 42,000 at the beginning of the month. About 10,000 more Democratic ballots have been returned.
Kochel noted that Republicans tend to return more absentee ballots that are requested.
"In the last 11 days we’ve made substantial progress, including with voters who didn’t vote in 2010," Kochel said. "We’re feeling pretty good about where we are."
Braley’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Although outside groups have spent about $7 million more attacking Ernst compared to ads that hit Braley, Kochel noted recent polls that show the congressman is not consistently winning his congressional district in northeast Iowa.
Western Iowa is traditionally more conservative than the eastern part of the state.
"I would look for western Iowa to break for Joni, and [Braley’s] been relatively unpopular in his own congressional district," Kochel said.
The Iowa Senate race remains a virtual tie, according to the Real Clear Politics poll average, with Ernst assuming a slight lead in recent surveys.