Ernst wins big in Senate primary, DSCC attacks as "the Sarah Palin of Iowa"

Joni Ernst only needed 35% of the vote to avoid a convention fight against her four competitors for the Republican nomination to the US Senate. Instead, she gained a clear majority of 56% and put herself in position to consolidate GOP support across all factions to face Rep. Bruce Braley, the uncontested Democratic nominee for the seat being vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin:

Joni Ernst, who highlighted her ability to shoot guns and castrate hogs to overcome disinterest in a sleepy primary election, dominated the field to become the first female GOP U.S. Senate nominee in Iowa history.

The 43-year-old farmer’s daughter turned state senator and military commander blew past the 35 percent necessary to claim victory over her four competitors, including retired businessman Mark Jacobs, who tried to overpower the rest of the field by self-funding his campaign with millions from his own wealth. With some precincts still out, Jacobs appeared to have fallen to a disappointing third place. He quickly pledged 100 percent support to Ernst.

Ernst wiped away tears during her victory speech. She stressed the values she learned growing up on a farm in southwest Iowa. “It really is a long way from Red Oak to Washington, but with your help, that journey is just beginning, and it is beginning tonight,” she said to cheers from supporters at her watch party at the Des Moines Social Club.

Ernst got onto the national radar with the fun jab at pork-barrel politics by recalling her hog-castration experience, but she won the state by attracting support from both Tea Party and so-called establishment Republicans in Iowa. Ben Sasse won in neighboring Nebraska using a similar, open-tent strategy, and both are expected to be strong candidates in the general election.

Ernst’s big win certainly has the DSCC worried, which rushed last night to paint her as a Sarah Palin clone:

“Her rigid partisanship and support for the federal government shutdown not only won her the support of Sarah Palin, but proved that Joni Ernst is the Sarah Palin of Iowa who would bring more gridlock and dysfunction to Washington,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Deputy Executive Director Matt Canter said in an email statement.

Gee, do all Republican women look alike to the DSCC? More seriously, do they expect that a Palin comparison will actually do damage to Ernst at this point, or at all in any context in Iowa? That looks like a boiler-plate Beltway perspective on flyover country that speaks volumes about the problems Democrats face in middle America this November.

Braley may be Exhibit B himself on that score. He also started off his efforts with a splashy video, but not one the Braley team expected. An attendee of a private fundraiser caught Braley insulting Iowa farmers in this now-notorious clip, in which the uncontested Democratic nominee pledged to be the voice of trial lawyers in Washington DC if elected to the Senate:

Stuck with that lemon on the record, Braley’s tried to make lemonade by emphasizing his legal career in campaign ads:

Rep. Bruce Braley is up with a new ad for his Senate bid touting his career as a lawyer — a résumé that’s caused the Democrat some grief in his bid for the competitive, open seat in Iowa.

In his 30-second spot, the congressman casts his oft-maligned profession as one of fighting for people and helping them solve their problems.

“Equal justice under the law is what this country is built upon, is one of the things that motivated me to want to become a lawyer, and fight for people,” Braley says in the ad, which shows footage of him talking to a variety of people in Iowa.

And make snide remarks about farmers, too, when he thinks the public won’t find out about it. Up until the primary, Braley still led in the RCP polling average, but only scores a 41.8/36.5 lead over Ernst over the last two months despite having no primary opponent of his own.

National Journal’s Alex Roarty warns Democrats that they’d better worry about Iowa, and their lackluster nominee:

Iowa once looked like one of the great GOP disappointments of 2014. Top-tier recruits like Congressman Tom Latham and Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds passed on the open-seat race and left Republicans with a handful of unknowns fighting a messy primary. Democrats, meanwhile, gave four-term Rep. Bruce Braley a free year to prepare for the general election.

But then Braley insulted the state’s most important constituency, the Republican Party discovered Joni Ernst, and suddenly a race rarely mentioned as a midterm battleground has become a legitimate pick-up opportunity for the GOP. Republicans received another break Tuesday, when Ernst, a state senator from Iowa’s rural western-half, won the GOP’s nomination outright. With 18 percent of the vote in, Ernst had captured just over 53 percent support. Not only did she avoid a run-off by cross the 35 percent support threshold, her margin of victory is something few would have imagined possible just a month ago. …

“You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as next chair of Senate Judiciary Committee,” he said. “Because if Democrats lose the majority, Chuck Grassley will be the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.”

The comment went down as one of the worst gaffes of the still-young midterm season, and Braley apologized within hours.

But to Republicans, it provided the frame for Ernst’s entire candidacy: a small-time Iowa farmer (and former veteran) taking on a condescending liberal more at home on either coast. (It also explains why most, if not all, Republican operatives preferred Ernst win the party’s nomination over the millionaire Jacobs, who could self-fund but would struggle to depict himself as a blue-collar champion.) That’s a potentially potent argument in not just a farm-heavy state, but one in which blue-collar white voters made up 56 percent of the electorate in 2010.

“It provides a strong contrast that I think a lot of Republicans in DC are anxious to have,” said Matt Strawn, a former chairman of the Iowa GOP. “Someone who comes from rural Iowa, who has a non-politician feel about her, running against an incumbent member of Congress.”

Keep an eye on this race. We’ll see whether the trial lawyers outnumber the farmers in Iowa.