At the start of this year Democrats knew they had a tough fight ahead to hold the Senate. The GOP establishment was supporting several credible nominees in red states (NC, AR, AK, WV, SD, MT and LA) and the party was making a serious play for Michigan. Never did it enter Democrats minds that they would have to play defense in two Obama strongholds, Iowa and Colorado. This being the same Iowa that anchored the President’s Midwest Firewall and the same Colorado that has not seen a Republican win a statewide federal election since 2004 (Bush).
Now, Democrats find themselves fighting to hold these two states. In Iowa, the party initially thought a scattered and (presumably) weak GOP field would buoy their star recruit, Congressman Bruce Braley. In Colorado, Senator Mark Udall was supposed to sail to victory over a Tea Party challenger. However, these expectations collided with reality and reality won.
The GOP has star recruits in both Iowa and Colorado. Initially rejecting overtures by the NRSC to enter the race, Congressman Cory Gardner is fighting hard to show Colorado’s blue lean is not a permanent phenomena. Iowa State Senator Joni Ernst busted out of a crowded GOP field by appealing to primary voters in a gusty and folksy way (castrating hogs and setting sights on Obamacare). Both are running neck and neck against Democratic incumbents.
Udall has run a decent campaign in Colorado but has struggled to effectively label Gardner. The “War on Women” meme Democrats used so effectively in 2010 and 2012 has run smack dab into a savvy candidate who has so far dodged the attacks by backing off support for a state Constitutional amendment based on personhood and supporting contraception availability over the counter.
Congressman Bruce Braley’s campaign has been a disaster. Instead of being coronated as the heir to retiring liberal Senator Tom Harkin, Braley has made a number of unforced errors. Braley made a massive error when he commented to a group of trial lawyers disparaging fellow Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as “A farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Braley soon apologized but the damage was done and Ernst’s campaign hammered him for his elitist views. Braley has also been targeted for forcing a neighbor to put her hens in a fenced area after they wandered over onto the Congressman’s vacation home lot or be served. This just gives the GOP and outside groups more ammo to hit Braley with.
The state of these races stands in stark contrast to the last campaigns Udall and Braley ran. In 2008, Udall easily won Colorado’s open Senate seat with 53% of the vote. Braley faced a tough Congressional race in 2010 but after his district was redistricting he won with 60% in 2012. Both candidates do not have such easy races on their hands this time.
It is clear Democrats are in full on panic mode about the state of both races. Braley has been unable to gain traction against Ernst, even as his campaign and outside groups have attempted to paint her as a Tea Party accolyte. They point to comments she made in the past about climate change, Agenda 21, her support for a Personhood Amendment (banning Plan B contraception) and being an ideological extremist. The endorsement of Sarah Palin has also been a target. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairman of the DNC, recently called Ernst, “An onion of crazy,” at the Iowa State Fair. So far none of these attacks have worked.
Ernst has a moderate image in terms of her policy successes. She took on her own party to help pass bills which required public schools to test for dangerous toxins in their buildings, protected funding for mental health services for Iowans and allowed parents of children with severe epilepsy to buy non addictive cannabis oil.
Udall’s campaign is continuing to try to hammer Gardner on women’s issues and immigration reform. However, Gardner voted for the DREAM ACT in the House and voted against repealing DACA. Even in his strongly Republican district, Gardner was a vocal proponent of a piece-meal approach to reform and urged leadership to act before the midterms.
The wildcards in each race are ultimately things none of the candidates have control over, the President’s approval rating and what happens to Healthcare premiums. The President has horrid approval ratings in both states which might depress Democratic turnout. Further, according to the Health Research Institute of PricewaterhouseCoopers insurance premiums are expected to spike in Colorado and even more so in Iowa. Voters can expect this whammy to hit right before the midterms.
The individual dynamics of each race matter as well of course. Gardner and Udall are both sociable fellows who connect with voters well. In Iowa, only Ernst can lay claim to that title while Braley comes off as insecure and less willing to talk to voters (according to media outlets).
Gardner has separated himself from the party on immigration and contraception while Ernst has broken with her party over the military handling sexual assault cases. Udall supports fracking in the state and the Keystone Pipeline. However, Braley is running as a conventional Democrat who supports Obamacare and the President in every way. This won’t help him come November.
Democrats claim their ground game will save them both seats and surprise in several red states as well. Maybe so. But right now Democrats look befuddled as to how these two sure-thing races got away from them so quickly even as Michigan appears to be leaning Democratic for the first time this cycle.