Iowa GOP Candidate for Senate Adjusts Her Message

Source: By Elizabeth Williamson, Wall Street Journal • Posted: Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Joni Ernst Seems to Reach Toward the Center in General Election Race

INDEPENDENCE, Iowa—Republican Senate candidate Joni Ernst grabbed national attention earlier this year with a television ad that began, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” and ended with a jab at “big spenders” in Washington: “Let’s make ’em squeal.”

The homegrown take on cutting government pork not only propelled Mrs. Ernst to victory in Iowa’s five-way Republican primary but was celebrated on TV talk shows, political websites and by late-night comedians. “The greatest opening line in the history of campaign commercials,” said the conservative National Review Online. Endorsements came in from tea-party standard-bearers such as Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

But it was a more cautious Mrs. Ernst who appeared before Iowa farmers this month for a campaign speech in her race to succeed retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. Her only reference to her famous line was that “some of you might know we had hogs.” She closed with the anodyne promise: “We will do what’s best for Iowa agriculture.”

Running against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in one of the year’s closest Senate races, Mrs. Ernst, a state senator, is now reaching for the political center.

Sunday night, in the first televised debate between the candidates, Mrs. Ernst—whose primary-season ad opposing the Affordable Care Act showed her aiming a handgun—repeatedly referred to the need to “work in a bipartisan manner” on policy that has sharply divided the two parties in Congress. Mr. Braley countered by calling her “a bridge-burner, not a bridge-builder.”

The slogan that propelled Mrs. Ernst in the primary—”Mother. Soldier. Conservative.”—now appears in her fliers as “Mother. Soldier. Independent leader.” Gone is the TV ad that called her a National Guard “lieutenant colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse.”

The Iowa election is a reminder that, while both parties say motivating core supporters is a key to victory, candidates in many competitive races are taking steps to ensure they don’t cede the political middle ground.

In Alaska, Republican Senate candidate Dan Sullivan reversed course and now supports a ballot measure calling on the state to raise its minimum wage. In Colorado, North Carolina, Virginia and elsewhere, GOP Senate candidates have called for over-the-counter sales of birth-control pills after, in some cases, backing measures that would end or narrow abortion rights.

The dynamic generally has been different among Democrats, many of whom didn’t face primaries this year and the demands of their party’s activist base. Still, many Democrats are breaking from their party to oppose an immigration-law overhaul and demand changes to the Affordable Care Act and construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

In Iowa, which President Barack Obama won twice, the strategy appears to be working for Mrs. Ernst. She has absorbed months of attacks that she is too conservative for the state, yet held a six-point lead in a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night, which put her ahead of Mr. Braley 44% to 38%.

Democrats answered by releasing a memo saying their own most recent poll showed the two tied at 42%.

Mrs. Ernst, who served in Iraq with the Iowa National Guard, ran in the GOP primary as a states’ rights supporter who questioned why the federal government sets a minimum wage and opposed federal subsidies to businesses. In an April debate, she pledged that as a senator she would work to shut the U.S. Education Department and Environmental Protection Agency.

These days, she notes that she supports the federal Renewable Fuels Standard, which requires the use of ethanol in gasoline, benefiting Iowa corn growers. She says that while she accepts that the U.S. government sets a minimum wage, it should be up to states to increase it. She still favors closing the U.S. education and environment agencies.

Mrs. Ernst’s campaign says she hasn’t altered the beliefs she expressed with sharpness in the primary. “She hasn’t changed a bit,” said Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel.

If she wins, Mrs. Ernst would be the first female federal official elected in Iowa. Still, the presence of a woman on the GOP ticket hasn’t overcome a pervasive gender split that defines the two parties nationally: Recent polls suggest that more men support Mrs. Ernst, while more women favor Mr. Braley.

Mrs. Ernst blames that split on “all the negative, false ads out there.” While hustling from the farmers’ event in Independence to her next stop, she said, “I’m someone who wants to protect future generations [but] I’m being bombarded by false attacks.”

Mr. Braley, meanwhile, has been working to walk back from a number of gaffes. Earlier this year the Democratic congressman was seen in a video appearing to insult farmers and Iowa’s GOP senator, Charles Grassley, a popular figure in the state. Mr. Grassley backs Mrs. Ernst.

Unlike Democratic candidates in more conservative states, Mr. Braley isn’t trying to distance himself from his party. For example, he defends the federal health law while calling for improvements.

Many Democrats are aware that with Mr. Harkin’s retirement, the state and Senate are losing a reliable liberal who held the seat for 30 years. Mr. Braley in recent weeks has attended a number of money-raising tributes to Mr. Harkin, headlined by Democratic Party stars including Hillary and Bill Clinton.

One recent Saturday, Mrs. Ernst worked the tailgate crowds at the University of Iowa’s football game against Iowa State, hugging well-wishers and greeting old friends. Giving her a bear hug, one man told her “Ted Cruz needs some help up there.” Mrs. Ernst said, “We can all use some support,” before quickly moving on.

Some Democratic voters say the campaign has shown Mrs. Ernst to be the candidate Republicans saw during the primary, someone they say is too conservative for the state. “In my mind Joni Ernst is very extreme—her positions might be a normal thing for out in Alabama, but not for Iowa,” said Jayme Neiman, 34, a Democrat from Waterloo.

Some voters chalk up Mrs. Ernst’s new tone to the necessity of winning a general election.

“Folks will say that she was one candidate during the primary and now she’s another candidate, but her politics haven’t changed,” said Kevin Kuhle, a policy adviser with the Iowa Farm Bureau, which hosted Mrs. Ernst’s talk with farmers. “She ultimately is a member of her community—she grew up on an Iowa farm and I really do believe she carries those Iowa values.”

Bruce Neiman, a hog farmer from Manchester, predicted she would win “if she sticks to business and doesn’t appear to be getting diverted by what are to me the frustrating issues such as abortion or gun control,” he said.