Joni Ernst is just a bit exotic

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What if the Des Moines Register broke the news that one of the candidates running for Senate in Iowa is a lunatic … and no one, not even the Des Moines Register, noticed?

That’s what happened recently in the Des Moines Register’s article comparing the two voting records of Democrat Bruce Braley and Republican Joni Ernst in their contest to succeed retiring Senator Tom Harkin. It’s a report that’s informative enough, and portrays both voting records, rather than what the candidates say on the campaign trail, as the best measures to gauge what they really care about.

It turns out both candidates seem deeply concerned about veterans’ affairs. Braley’s shown a passion for increasing protections for America’s most vulnerable, while Ernst seems to have a track record that stresses the importance of individual rights (as long as those rights don’t include abortion, or the freedom for gays to marry). Great.

Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst (Wikipedia)
Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst (Wikipedia)

But buried deep in the article is an observation that lasts exactly one sentence. Ernst has championed exactly a dozen bills to expand gun ownership and access, with the editors noting that one of them “would criminalize enforcement of federal gun bans.”

No more elaboration. The author just goes on to talk about her rock-solid credentials as a social conservative, as if the revelation that a would-be U.S. senator would like to have officials arrested for enforcing federal law is just another day in the office, reporting on a GOP candidate who long-time political guru Charlie Cook might call “exotic.”

Unfortunately, for Joni Ernst, pushing a bill to criminalize the enforcement of duly passed laws is just another day at the office.

It’s already come out that she would have supported legislation “to authorize local law enforcement to arrest federal officials attempting to implement the unconstitutional health care scheme known as Obamacare.” It’s what she told the libertarian group Campaign for Liberty in 2012, whose roll call of Iowa legislators willing to take the oath of fealty can be seen here.

Now, according to the same newspaper that noted Ernst’s extremism so discreetly, she’s ahead in the race to become Iowa’s next senator. Last week brought grim news for Senate Democrats, with the blackest news coming from the Des Moines Register’s poll of the race, which put Ernst up by a 44-38 margin.

The paper was almost right on the money in 2012, when on November 3 it forecast an Obama lead of five points in the state (he won days later by a six percent margin). If it’s right again, it’s a distressing and depressing trend for Democrats on more than one level. One, because control of the Senate seems to be a tossup, and an Ernst victory will go a long way to bringing about the rise of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. But two, and on a more visceral level, Joni Ernst’s surge in Iowa is something that just shouldn’t be happening. This could happen in Texas with Ted Cruz, sure. But not in a state that gave Obama its backing twice, by margins of 10 and six percent.

Congressman Bruce Braley (Wikipedia)
Congressman Bruce Braley (Wikipedia)

Luckily, there’s still time until election day, and a playbook Bruce Braley can follow that will minimize the chances of Iowans waking up one chilly November to Senator Ernst.

Senator Harry Reid: From Boxer to Brass-Knuckled Democrat

For much of the 2010 election cycle, Senator Harry Reid looked like a goner. He was unpopular, with approval numbers in the 30s. He trailed generic Republicans in polling, and Nevada’s economy had created an electorate that was anguished, angry, and quite ready to shop for a new senator.

Then came Sharon Angle.

Reid’s 2010 opponent came from the fringe of the GOP, with a voting record in Nevada’s General Assembly that was so unorthodox, pure, and far-right that colleagues often described votes that sailed through the chamber with her lone dissent as being “21 to Angle.” Angle made no bones about her conservative bona fides. “I’m not too conservative. There’s no such thing,” she insisted to reporters.

And in the fall of 2010, it seemed like there might not be, at least in Nevada that year. Despite her slip ups, and despite the unforced errors Angle made on the trail (she attended an event meant to bolster her standing with the Latino community, and then noted that while she bore no group hostility, “some of you look a little more Asian to me,”) she remained ahead of Harry Reid by a point or two in polls, sometimes more.

But the election night told a different story, as Harry Reid’s machine powered him to victory, along with the narrative his team had created around the race. Senator Reid, who Nevada’s premier political reporter Jon Ralston calls Prince Harry for his political ruthlessness and iron grip on the state’s Democratic party, had framed the debate as a choice rather than a referendum, and pulled a rabbit out of a hat. In an economically ravaged state where the incumbent should not have won, and in a GOP wave year in which the incumbent should not have won, the Majority Leader would be returning to the Senate.

2010 Senate candidate Sharon Angle (Wikipedia)
2010 Senate candidate Sharon Angle (Wikipedia)

He was saved by an aggressive, ruthless, and brilliant ground game that targeted likely supporters and turned them out. With plenty of help from Angle’s record and even her own widely condemned ads, he galvanized the Latino community. Even the Asian-looking ones must have gone to the polls.

His aides had told reporters, before the identity of his opponent was even clear, that Reid was ready to “vaporize” the eventual nominee – using the candidate’s own record to paint a picture that his state’s voters simply couldn’t say yes to.

And now Bruce Braley has to do the same thing, against a similar challenger.

Shining a Spotlight on A “Very Personal Matter” 

In the candidates’ debate last week, Ernst downplayed her conservatism. That’s a shrewd move on her part. In an Obama state that has a strong libertarian streak, her social conservatism won’t sell well, which is why she ludicrously tried to portray her own social views as “a very personal matter” rather than a detail that will affect millions if she’s entrusted with a Senate seat.

But if Braley has a politically savvy bone in his body, he won’t let her get away with that. He should ask, in campaign fliers, rallies, and TV ads, whether Ernst acted like her views on social issues were just her own humble opinions when she joined legislative pushes to restrict a woman’s right to choose, and continue to deny marriage equality.

Just think: In a Public Policy Polling report released in July 2013, 74 percent of Iowans said that gay marriage being legal in the state had had no negative effects on their lives. Opinons are shifting in favor so rapidly, the percentage of Iowans in favor has to be even higher now. I’m sure that more than three quarters of the Iowan electorate could benefit from some moral instruction coming from the Ernst campaign.

And then there’s this business of wanting to arrest federal officials who carry out federal law. Loony doesn’t begin to describe it. Think of the Tea Party Patriots who came to Washington in force in 2011 and proceeded to bring about the trauma of debt default threats to the U.S. economy, so convinced they were that they had a mandate and a right to resort to such tactics. Or think of the government shutdown in 2013, when a band of House Republicans egged on by Ted Cruz, starved the government of funds it needed to operate for days and days in a quixotic bid to derail a law that had been voted on, vetted by the Supreme Court, and then ratified by a five-million vote margin in the 2012 election.

Ernst_FB_SarahPalinThink of Joni Ernst’s support of arresting officials who implement our democracy’s laws. Can there be any doubt that she would be an enthusiastic addition to this brigade of flame-throwers who come to Washington for one reason only, to destroy?

The Des Moines Register may have missed the main story about Ernst in its article. But it did get one thing right: In a four-year legislative career, Joni Enrst has told voters who she is, more accurately than she ever will in a commercial. And no matter how much she downplays them as “a very personal matter,” I think we can count on her to keep her commitments to GOP activists and Tea Party Groups.

It’s just up to Bruce Braley, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and anyone hoping to combat far-right extremism in this country to make it clear to Iowans exactly what Ernst’s commitments are.