Iowa Republican Joni Ernst wants to go to Washington to "make 'em squeal."

There's No Meat in Iowa Senate Race

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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With a now-famous ad in which she boasted of her prowess as a hog castrator, Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst rode to victory in the Republican primary for the seat of U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who is retiring at the end of the year.

Ernst promised that if she makes it to Washington, those animal husbandry skills will be put to the service of her constituents and the nation.

“I'll know how to cut pork,” she said in the ad. “Let's make 'em squeal.”

She’s now running neck and neck with the Democratic candidate, three-term U.S. Representative Bruce Braley, in a race that could determine which party will control the Senate.

How could an ad that cost the Ernst campaign just $9,000 cause such a stir? A majority of Hawkeyes probably know that such treatment is an occupational hazard for the state's male swine. More important, where’s the beef in this year’s election? These midterms are making vegans of all of us. Name a race that's about something. Income inequality was all the rage a few months ago. Who’s talking about that now?

If Iowa voters, among the country’s best informed, are falling for gimmicks, there’s no hope for the rest of us. Thanks to their status as the first-in-the-nation caucus state, voters there pride themselves on sitting long hours in church basements learning the issues. They get dined, wined, polled, town-halled and focus-grouped to a fare thee well. With a little effort, a precinct chairman can have a presidential candidate bunk in the rec room overnight. For the quadrennial Ames straw poll, thousands are bused in and treated to an all-day bacchanalia of barbecue, beer, country music and politics.

But this year, Iowans are being insulted by a race that is mostly an exchange of negative attacks. Ernst’s opponent isn't any good at it. A blue-collar upbringing, a populist by philosophy, and mild in personality, Braley is no match for Ernst who is by turns a simple farm girl and a bomb thrower.

She said the idea of a federal minimum wage was “ridiculous,” called President Barack Obama a dictator who might deserve impeachment, and worried that the United Nations could force farmers off their land. She’s opposed to same-sex marriage and in 2013, and she backed a “personhood” amendment to the Iowa state constitution that would ban all abortions, some contraception and turn miscarriages into murder investigations.

In 2012, she told a libertarian group that she would allow state law enforcement to arrest federal officials trying to implement the Affordable Care Act. At a National Rifle Association event that year, she said she would shoot first and ask questions later if the government violated her rights.

“I believe in the right to defend myself and my family -- whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important,” she said.

Her voting record in the state Senate is a chorus of no, no, no. No student loans, no community colleges, no worker training. She voted against expanding Medicaid eligibility to include a family of four with an income below $32,000 a year, against raising the state's earned income tax credit for the working poor, and against giving tax credits to farmers who donate to food banks for the hungry.

On “Meet the Press” on Sunday, she refused to call her support for personhood “a mistake,” Even though she wiggled a little in a debate last month, saying that the personhood “amendment is simply a statement that I support life.”

It doesn’t matter that Ernst is a collection of stances and bromides. The simple persona she conveys -- mom, Army reservist, state legislator -- has kept her ahead.

Braley has much less to work with, even though he wrestles with ways to create jobs that pay a living wage, provide an affordable education and deal with climate change (Ernst is a denier). He does better on substance in debates with Ernst, but no one notices because he doesn’t smile or connect. During a visit to Iowa, first lady Michelle Obama couldn’t get his name right until the crowd shouted it at her.

And he’s blurted out some doozies, too. He complained about not having towel service in the House gym during the government shutdown. Worse, Braley griped to a group of trial lawyers that if Democrats lose control of the Senate, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley could become the next chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he was just “a farmer from Iowa, who never went to law school.” Not a crowd-pleaser in an agricultural state.

In recent days, Ernst made news by refusing to sit down with the editors of Iowa's biggest paper, the Des Moines Register, to explain her views and seek their endorsement. Instead she headed to the dulcet-voiced interviewers of Fox News.

She’s closing out her campaign the way she began, reminding voters that she’s just a simple farm girl, albeit one who takes a tough line with pigs. In the same plaid shirt, the same dark vest, on the same hog farm, Ernest reminds people she’s not a snooty lawyer looking down her nose at Grassley. Standing in a sty, Ernst calls it a mess.

“It’s dirty, noisy, it stinks.” But she’s not talking about where she is. “I’m talking about the one in Washington.”

In a campaign devoid of policy prescriptions, but with plenty of free-floating rage at Washington, she may be expressing what voters think. This year, it may be the most vivid metaphor that wins elections.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net