An Update on America’s Dumbest Senate Race

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Aug. 13 2014 10:52 AM

An Update on America’s Dumbest Senate Race

Bruce Braley explains Article 131 of the Geneva Convention in terms flyover folks can understand.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There's been little upside to covering Iowa's U.S. Senate race, the contest between Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and state Sen. Joni Ernst. After writing a short item about the Republican Party's focus on Braley's argument with a neighbor who'd let chickens defecate on his vacation home lawn, a Republican strategist chastened me for failing to see what "every pundit" saw, that Braley was running America's worst campaign. (I don't know who would be scared into writing something because "every pundit" was writing it. If you know such a person, get him the help he needs.) But my post did not dispute that Braley had screwed up by calling Sen. Chuck Grassley a "farmer from Iowa who never went to law school," and that this had allowed Ernst to run a personality-focused campaign.

The good news for Braley is that the attackers seem to have run out of material. On Sunday the YouTube account of "Taylor Cohen" ran a clip from 2011, in which Braley told Ring of Fire (a radio show late of Air America) how he sold populism in Iowa.

I think part of the problems that progressives have faced is, at times, there has been an impression that there is an elitism among progressive policies that wants to ignore the realities of what’s going on in places between the East Coast and the West Coast. And, look, I face this every time I do a town hall meeting. I listen to the concerns of people. You know, from what you’ve done your entire life is that the biggest concern people have is that nobody is listening to them. And by engaging voters and talking about why you are a proud, progressive, populist and what that means in terms they can understand, that’s how you connect with voters and show them the false policies that are being offered to them and the choices that don’t lead to an economic boom for the middle class.

Did you miss the gaffe? Allegedly, it was Braley saying he was "engaging voters and talking about why you are a proud, progressive, populist and what that means in terms they can understand." As far as I can tell, this was pushed by the Iowa GOP (which claimed "Bruce Braley thinks he has to talk down to us Iowans so we can understand him") and picked up by National Review and Powerline, but fell with a wet thud in the mainstream media. When I called the hit "lame," reporter Ashe Schow asked why it was any different than the comments she'd recently reported from North Carolina Rep. Renee Ellmers. If you've forgotten:

Men do tend to talk about things on a much higher level. You know, one of the things that has always been one of my frustrations and I speak about this all the time – many of my male colleagues, when they go to the House floor, you know, they’ve got some pie chart or graph behind them and they’re talking about trillions of dollars and, you know, how the debt is awful and, you know, we all agree with that.
But by starting off that discussion that way, we’ve already turned people away. Because it’s like ‘that doesn’t affect my life, I don’t understand how that affects my life.’
So one of the things that we have worked with, with our male colleagues – and I have seen a difference, I will tell you I’ve seen a difference – is to again, engaging individuals on their level. Talking about them on a personal level first.

The difference is pretty obvious. Ellmers said explicitly that men talk on "a higher level," using "pie charts or graphs" but failing to connect to women on a personal level. Braley talked about the "impression that there is an elitism among progressive policies," as manifested on the coasts. He didn't say the coasts operated on a higher level; he said that they were seen as elite.

Boil that away, and you're left with Braley saying something just about every candidate for office says. I spent a chunk of last weekend following Rick Santorum in Iowa as he explained to conservatives that they lost votes if they just talked about Reagan and tax cuts and Reagan and freedom and Reagan.

The individual attacks on Braley, at this point, aren't individually important. They're important as bricks in a wall. Democrats are pursuing a similar strategy, plunking down tape after tape of Ernst, who spent a long time as the right-wing candidate in the primary, sounding like a ... well, right-wing candidate. Meredith Shiner has the latest example, a debate clip in which Ernst promised that she would oppose the threat posed by the U.N.'s Agenda 21 to suburbanites and farmers. Democrats seek to make voters see Ernst as a Sarah Palin golem; Republicans seek to make voters see Braley as an unrelatable, lawsuit-happy snob. It's all very inspiring.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 


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