2014: The Year Democrats Lost the Press
Democrat Bruce Braley's struggling U.S. Senate campaign finally got a break over the weekend. The Des Moines Register endorsed him, and with few reservations. "We have long been impressed with Braley's intelligence, passion and hard work in the House," wrote the editors. "He is unlike too many members of Congress who see the job as throwing sand in the gears of not only Congress but the judiciary and the administrative branch." It synced like a rhythm track with Braley's own, plodding promise to be a "bridge-builder, not a bridge-burner."
Republicans knew this was coming, and they worked hard to blunt any possible impact from the endorsement. Republican Joni Ernst, who has been narrowly ahead of Braley in recent polling, had not met with the Register's editorial board. The paper was not alone in being stiffed, but Ernst's campaign cheerfully explained that it would not waste time on haters. The same day that Braley's DMR endorsement came down, Ernst appeared on Fox News's “Huckabee,” an eponymous show hosted by the winner of the 2008 GOP Iowa caucus, who had lost the Register endorsement to John McCain.
"I do totally understand about why you didn't want to meet with editorial boards," Huckabee said. "You go in there for a long period of time. They hammer you with a bunch of questions, that are gotcha questions. Everything you say can and will be used against you. It seems to me, while some people are beating you up, it's a good move."
"The Des Moines Register has been so focused on tearing me down in its editorials," Ernst explained.
Good thing she added the word "editorials." The Register, which has partnered with Bloomberg Politics on state polling, has driven Democrats to madness with what they view as positive Ernst coverage and mistake-focused Braley coverage. The coverage has included quick-hit responses to tracker finds, like a video of Braley saying "so am I" on a parade route after a woman says "we're farmers." (Braley's said that he misheard her as saying "we're for farmers.") It's included more subtle decisions, such as stories that have introduced negative information about Ernst in ways that cast doubt on the truth of them.
One example: A recap of an Ernst-Braley debate in which Braley's claim that Ernst signed "a pledge" to the Koch brothers is given no context beyond Ernst's denial. (There was no mention of Ernst's appearance at a closed-door Koch network fundraiser, where she thanked donors for "changing the trajectory" of her race.) Another example: After Washington Post reporter Matea Gold broke news about a new super-PAC being run from the office of Ernst's key consultants (there's a "firewall" between the two interests), the Register sourced that claim to a less-credible sounding Braley strategist.
Today, it's the Post that's giving Iowa Democrats even wilder conniptions. Reporter Monica Hesse embedded with Ernst for part of her Iowa bus tour, and came away with a piece about how a "biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangy, twinkly farm girl and mother" who used to be merely a "small-town Republican state senator with a vision of filling a U.S. Senate seat."
There was no mention of Ernst's consultants, veterans of campaigns for Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio, who (as WaPo's Phil Rucker reported initially) helped craft her image. The image was taken for granted; Braley's campaign, as seen through the eyes of the conservative voters Ernst was courting, represented the "city part" of Iowa, which was less authentic, regardless of where Iowans were increasingly choosing to move.
The Ernst coverage is representative of a trend that has wounded Democrats in 2014, and took a lot of doing by Republicans. Democrats entered this election cycle confident that in purple states, they could pulverize Republicans by accentuating their most conservative issue stances. It had worked against Mitt Romney, and toxified Missouri's un-mourned loser Todd Akin. In Michigan, North Carolina, Colorado, New Hampshire, and Iowa, Democrats went in early to brand Republicans as opponents of birth control mandates, supporters of invasive ultrasounds, destroyers of entitlements, and so on.
In Michigan, the strategy largely worked. That had a lot to do with Republican Terri Lynn Land, who responded glibly and sarcastically to the idea that she could be part of a "war on women," and who avoided press and debates during the period when reporters were getting to know the candidates. In North Carolina, Democrats have kept the race closer. But in the latter three states, Republicans characterized the Democratic attacks as patronizing and desperate, and that message has sunk in. You could see it in the Denver Post's surprise endorsement of Republican candidate Cory Gardner, which branded Senator Mark Udall's social issues-centric campaign "obnoxious." When debate moderators told Udall he was being nicknamed "Mark Uterus," they were responding to months of derision from the right. National media coverage of New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen-Scott Brown has always started with the question of whether Brown's charisma could slowly conquer New England. That's benefited conservative news sites like The Blaze and The Weekly Standard, which have snapped up video of debate audiences laughing or jeering at Shaheen, proof positive that her cynical campaign has backfired.
These narratives shape reality. In New Hampshire, polling has consistently shown Shaheen to be more personally popular than Brown. In Iowa, Braley was more popular than Ernst for months; only recently have his favorables fallen behind hers, and in a Quinnipiac poll she's at +6 favorable while he's at net zero. In Colorado, Gardner–by general acknowledgment, one of the most natural talents on the ballot this year–has zoomed ahead of Udall on popularity. That feeds into the coverage, into which candidate looks desperate, into whether policy attacks are seen to be working or backfiring. The press, which does not want to look like it's being habitually unfair to Republicans, has been more of an asset than a hindrance.