Joni Ernst
Joni Ernst

(WOMENSENEWS)–As she tries to become the first woman elected to represent Iowa in Congress, Republican State Senator Joni Ernst faces a problem: other women.

Her opponent Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, emphasizes his support of health care reform, equal pay and other legislation that helps low-income women.

Braley’s campaign has also increased outreach efforts to encourage women to vote. Democrats lost the House in part in 2010 because fewer female voters cast ballots in midterm elections than in presidential contests.

Ernst, meanwhile, has followed the traditional GOP playbook of emphasizing issues that appeal to male voters who are more likely to support Republican candidates than Democrats.

But Ernst’s emphasis on tax reduction, repeal of the Affordable Care Act and opposition to gun control may fall short Nov. 4 if women who support Braley’s kitchen table economic policies turn out in significant numbers.

On Oct. 27 the Democratic Senate Majority political action committee did what it could to make that happen by launching a TV blitz showing Ernst on videotape saying that that "yes, I have talked about privatizing Social Security." Senate Majority PAC was founded by a former aide of Majority Leader Harry Reid to increase the number of Democrats in the Senate.

This ad could cost Ernst support among workers concerned about retirement. A recent survey of likely voters found that preserving Social Security in its present form was the number one reason why likely voters backed the 56-year-old Braley.

Americans for Prosperity, another super PAC that supports free-market solutions to economic problems, retaliated with a TV spot Oct. 27 showing two chickens complaining that Braley, the past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association, was "not very Iowan" because he supposedly threatened to sue a neighbor because her chickens had wandered into his yard. "Iowa needs tort reform," the chickens clucked.

Hotly Competitive Race

The U.S. Senate race in Iowa is one of the 10 most competitive in the country and is high-profile for the Democrats, who are determined to retain the seat of Senator Tom Harkin, a progressive who is retiring after three decades.

Iowa is one of six seats that the GOP needs to win to become the majority of the Senate so that Republicans can set the legislative agenda during the last two years of the Obama Administration.

Forty-five percent of likely voters supported Braley and 44 percent Ernst in a Loras College poll of Oct. 28. Eight percent were undecided; 2 percent supported other candidates.

Winning the votes of independents and one-issue voters will be crucial in the waning days of the midterm campaign because the number of registered Republicans and Democrats is nearly equal. Braley led among independents 43 to 40 percent, the Loras College poll found.

Abortion has become a flashpoint in the battle for one-issue voters who can tip the race in their favor. Braley sponsored a pro-choice bill in the House that would have placed limitations on state restrictions on abortion providers.

Like Braley’s bill, Ernst’s bill in the Iowa senate also failed in 2013. The measure asked voters to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would have given "an unalienable right at any stage of development to a fetus." The bill was widely praised by the pro-life movement.

Abortion and Birth Control

Ernst reaffirmed her commitment to the bill during the Oct 11 debate, but said she would support an exception to save the life of a mother. She also explained that she supported birth control, although she didn’t specify what forms. Some women who use intrauterine devices, which prevent blastocysts from implanting in uterine walls, feared that Ernst’s "personhood" bill would prohibit these devices.

Raising the federal minimum wage is another hot button issue in the fight for uncommitted voters. Like Harkin, the leading champion of raising the minimum wage in the Senate, Braley supports an increase to $10.10 an hour. Braley predicts that the raise would increase the wages of 306,000 low-income Iowans, 57.percent of them women.

Ernst favors keeping the wage at $7.25 an hour because it would give high school students work experience. In 2013, 24 percent of minimum wage workers in the U.S. were between 16 to 19 years old, a Pew Research poll found.

As she tries to win undecided voters, Ernst has adopted a more moderate tone on issues such as abortion and repeal of the Affordable Care Act and is softening her image in ads.

Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, has also played down the rough and ready image she projected during the early months of the campaign. Her macho ads helped Ernst, a one-term state senator who was unknown outside her district, win 56 percent of the vote in the crowded GOP primary in June.

Her initial broadcast ads showed Ernst wearing a leather jacket, stepping off a Harley and removing a gun from her purse. In the "squeal ad," the 44-year-old Ernst vowed to make Washington bureaucrats squeal just like the pigs she castrated on her family’s farm as a child.

Gunning Down Affordable Care Act

In another ad, the 5’2" grandmother aimed the gun at a copy of the Affordable Care Act, which is unpopular in Iowa.

The latest ads feature Ernst wearing a demure jacket in a homelike setting or driving around the state. With flags flying in the background, Ernst pledges to take Iowa values to Washington. She also vows to repeal "Obamacare" and institute a series of free-market solutions to solve the health insurance crisis. However, Ernst does not specify what the alternatives might be.

During the summer, some polls showed that that Ernst’s advantage among likely male voters was as high as 22 points, but now it has dwindled to 13 points, the same as Braley’s margin with women.

The race is expected to be the most expensive non-presidential contest in Iowa’s history.

Since late June, the candidates and their financial supporters have spent more than $27.7 million on 57,000 TV ads to attract the attention of the state’s 1.9 million registered voters, found an analysis of public records by the Des Moines Register and seven other news organizations.

The 2010 landmark decision by the Supreme Court in the Citizens United case permits corporations, trade unions and wealthy individuals to contribute unlimited funds to super PACs.

As a result, oil billionaires Charles and David Koch, key backers of outside groups like Americans for Prosperity and Concerned Vets for America, have played an increasingly important role in Congressional races. This summer, Concerned Veterans for America attacked Braley for not doing more to fix the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The group criticized Braley, a member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, for missing several meetings when the committee was exploring solutions to the long-wait times by vets seeking care at various VA hospitals as well as bonuses paid to some VA executives.

Reliance on super PACs was a major issue of contention in the candidates’ Oct. 11 debate in Davenport. Braley denounced Ernst as a "stooge of the Koch Brothers" while she labeled him as a "Washington elitist" for accepting the support of San Francisco billionaire Tom Steyer.

Steyer’s super PAC, NextGen Climate Action, has criticized Ernst for her reluctance to acknowledge climate change and the dire consequences extreme heat and water shortages have had on agriculture, a leading industry in Iowa.