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‘Pork’ ad raises public profile of Iowa GOP primary challenger

June 2, 2014 at 6:47 PM EDT
Voters in eight states will be heading to the polls Tuesday. In Mississippi, a Republican incumbent is being challenged by an outspoken conservative radio talk show host, while in Iowa, a little-known state senator has picked up steam with an ad about cutting spending in Washington. For a closer look at the upcoming round of midterm primaries, Gwen Ifill turns to political editor Domenico Montanaro.

GWEN IFILL: We turn to politics with a preview of two of tomorrow’s closely watched primaries.

Voters will be heading to the polls in eight states, among them, Mississippi and Iowa, where Republicans are battling for their party’s nominations.

Joining us to look at these latest midterm tests is NewsHour political editor Domenico Montanaro.

OK. You’re going to march us through it again, Domenico, starting in Mississippi. Thad Cochran, a good white-haired member of the Senate, well-known, very popular, at least was, is in a tight fight.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: And that may be the reason.

First and foremost, the white hair, being somebody that has been around for 40 years in Congress, he’s the second most senior Republican in the Senate, and that’s part of the problem. He has spent as many years in Congress as his opponent is old. He’s 42 who is running against him, been there in Congress the same amount of time.

A lot of conservatives don’t like the votes that Thad Cochran has taken, but mostly it’s an issue of style. He’s about bringing home the bacon, but he’s also willing to work with Democrats, part of that kind of old structure of the Senate, the club, everybody gets along, being civil.

They want somebody who’s a little bit more of a fighter, and state Senator Chris McDaniel, who is running against him, provides that for Tea Partiers.

GWEN IFILL: OK. You mentioned the 40-something competitor against Thad Cochran, who is 72?


GWEN IFILL: Seventy-six?


GWEN IFILL: So, who is Chris McDaniel and how is he making this work?


He’s a state senator, but also an outspoken conservative radio talk show host in the state who has said a lot of controversial things. And this is one of the things where Republican establishment types in Washington are a little worried that McDaniel, who has picked up some steam in the past couple of weeks.

If he were to win, they are equating him to a possible Todd Akin like in the last election cycle that we saw. And this has a lot of signs…

GWEN IFILL: Todd Akin is the Republican from Missouri who said a few unfortunate things about abortion, got him in trouble.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Right. Right, about legitimate rape. And that wound up government Claire McCaskill, who is a Democratic senator, a clear shot at winning reelection.

Well, Republicans are afraid that not just — this could maybe turn Mississippi to the Democrats, Travis Childers, an ex-congressman running there, but also a lot of other Republican members are going to have to wind up answering for some of McDaniel’s past statements.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about McDaniel. He’s not had an unblemished campaign.


And the big scandal that has happened there in the state so far is that far McDaniel supporters were arrested for illegally taking pictures allegedly of Cochran’s wife, who’s bedridden in a nursing home and has been there for many years.

And a lot of people say, well, why does that fire — why would anyone do that? They say that he should be more by her side and he lives in Virginia and Washington, D.C., instead of being home with his wife. That hasn’t gone over so well.

A lot of people thought that that would kind of be the final thing for Cochran to win. But polls just in the last few days have shown a tied race.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s go to Iowa, speaking of a race which used to be very tight, but isn’t anymore because of a woman named Joni Ernst.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Joni Ernst, who is another state senator there and has really picked up steam, mostly because of an ad that she’s run this time around.

GWEN IFILL: We have a little bit of it. We have got to show it to you.


JONI ERNST, R, Iowa Senatorial Candidate: I’m Joni Ernst.

I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I will know how to cut pork. I approve this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make them squeal.

GWEN IFILL: I don’t know — I just don’t know what to say to that, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, nobody knew who she was, frankly, before this. Mark Jacobs, who is a wealthy businessman, Republicans in D.C. loved the guy because he could fund his own campaign.

Well, here comes Joni Ernst with this ad and, boom, rockets to the top. She’s now at about 36 percent in the Gold Standard poll in Iowa, 18 for Jacobs. But the key here is the 35 percent threshold that a candidate has to meet to move on past — to win the nomination, because if she doesn’t clear 36 percent, and she’s right on that line, it would go to a state convention, where 2,000 activists would wind up picking the nominee, so forget this entire primary campaign and all the millions of dollars that have been spent. It would come down to those activists.

And it’s not clear that she would be the pick, although a lot of people do think she will cross that 35 percent threshold tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: Part of her appeal is also her appeal to the people who have — national figures in the party, for instance, Sarah Palin. When Sarah Palin endorsed Joni Ernst, it was the first time I had heard her name.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Well, Sarah Palin — Marco Rubio is campaigning with her today. Suddenly, when someone looks like a winner, everybody gets on board.

GWEN IFILL: Mitt Romney is there.

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Mitt Romney is there.

In fact, she’s one of the rare candidates that has some Tea Party-Sarah Palin support and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, who came in the last couple weeks for her.

GWEN IFILL: So, there’s a Democrat somewhere in all of this, right?

DOMENICO MONTANARO: Yes, Bruce Braley, who winds up being the person who is actually favored, because race is even open because Tom Harkin, who is the Democratic senator there, is retiring, one of the architects of President Obama’s health care law.

He’s leaving the Senate. And Bruce Braley, who is a congressman from the state and also a former trial lawyer, he’s favored by a few points, but a lot of people are saying Ernst, she could bring some of that energy to the race. That could make it difficult for Braley to run against someone like her.

He had a flub about Senator Chuck Grassley, who is the other Iowa senator, being just a farmer who would chair the Judiciary Committee. What does he know? Well, here comes Joni Ernst with her make them squeal ad. She grew up on the farm. It’s going to be a very energetic race, for sure.

GWEN IFILL: It would seem that, you want to be a senator from Iowa, saying that someone is just a farmer isn’t necessarily considered to be an insult.



Domenico Montanaro, thanks again.