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Why Iowa’s Senate race is one of the closest in the nation

November midterm elections are only seven weeks away. In Iowa, one of the closest U.S. Senate races is down to Republican and Iraq War veteran Joni Ernst and Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat. Judy Woodruff reports from Iowa City, where a win for Ernst could tip the Senate balance.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A quick look at the calendar reminds us that today is just seven weeks away from this year's midterm elections, when voters across the country will be deciding ballot issues and choosing state and local officeholders and members of Congress.

    With control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs, I headed to Iowa this past weekend, the site of one of the closest contests in the nation.

    If you love college football, the place to be in Iowa this past weekend was Iowa City, the home of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes, as they hosted the Iowa State Cyclones. The beer flowed freely, and over 100,000 exuberant fans jostled, ready to cheer or jeer at the slightest provocation.

    It's the biggest and oldest rivalry in this state, and it played out as another, newer rivalry is reaching a full boil: the contest for the open U.S. Senate seat here being vacated by 30-year Democratic veteran Tom Harkin.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    It's a battle between four-term Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley and Joni Ernst, until just a few months ago a little-known Republican state senator from a town of just over 5,000, who splashed onto the political scene earlier this year with a TV ad touting her experience growing up on an Iowa farm:

  • JONI ERNST, Iowa Republican Senate 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.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Another TV spot stressed how comfortable the National Guard lieutenant colonel, who served in Iraq, is shooting a gun.

  • NARRATOR:

    Joni doesn't miss much.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    All this endeared her to conservative voters, who catapulted her to an impressive 56 percent win in a field of five Republicans.

    Since her primary victory in early June, however, she has put less emphasis on her strong anti-abortion and gun rights views and reworded the slogan on her Web site, "Mother, Soldier, Conservative," to "Mother, Soldier, Independent Leader."

    Ernst herself, an Iowa state grad who said she was staying neutral on this big game day, downplays the change in tone.

  • JONI ERNST:

    Well, it's a different challenge, but what we have to do is compare and contrast between myself and the congressman, and I stand for Iowa and what's good for Iowans. We have done very well here as a state, and I believe our federal government needs to emulate Iowa. Congressman Braley is part of Washington, D.C., bureaucracy. It doesn't work for Iowa.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad, who appears to be sailing to reelection to his sixth time in that office, is campaigning hard for Ernst, who's surprised Democrats and pulled even with Braley.

    Did you like the castrating hogs ad?

    GOV. TERRY BRANSTAD, (R) Iowa: I loved it. I grew up on a farm holding hogs that the veterinarian castrated as well. But that's the kind of stuff that we farm kids do and working long hours. And not too many women are lieutenant colonels in the National Guard, have combat experience. So, we have never elected a woman, but I this is a woman that I think that can serve Iowa well.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The selling point that Iowa has never before elected a woman to Congress works with some voters, but not others.

  • JIM RODENBORN:

    To me, these elections oftentimes, the women are the swing portion of the vote. And I think voting for a woman would be attractive to them.

  • ANN RODENBORN:

    Well, it'd be wonderful, right, but I just wouldn't vote for someone just because they're a woman.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Some say they like her because she represents something different.

  • DALE WOODS:

    First of all, I would say Harkin has done an acceptable job. He's done a good job. I'm not sure a candidate on his side is the one that is going to make any changes in Washington. So I would take the newcomer.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But there are strong opinions against her as well, especially on the stances she's taken on issues like Social Security, abortion and contraception.

  • SARAH HAGEN:

    From a woman's perspective, I don't agree with what she says, especially with abortion and the whole no abortion with rape or incest. And I don't agree with that at all.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    The intensity the race reflects the fact that this is the first time in 40 years that Iowa has had a wide-open race for the U.S. Senate, with no incumbent on the ballot. Add to that the stakes, the fact that the U.S. Senate literally hangs in the balance.

    As result, the national Republican and Democratic parties are leaving nothing to chance. Outside groups are pouring in millions of dollars. And the candidates are under extra pressure to perform well and to energize the party faithful. High-profile Republicans such as Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Sarah Palin have all come to Iowa to campaign for Ernst.

    BILL CLINTON, former U.S. President: Hey, guys.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And this weekend, Hillary and Bill Clinton showed up at Senator Harkin's last annual steak fry celebration to thank him and put in a pitch for Democrat Bruce Braley.

    HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON, Former Secretary of State: In just 50 days, Iowans have a choice to make, a choice and a chance, a choice between the guardians of gridlock and the champions of shared opportunity, and shared prosperity, a chance to elect a senator who knows that women should be able to make our own health care decisions.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    If Ernst's Achilles' heel is her very conservative track record, for Braley, it's some controversies he's created. He seemed to denigrate Iowa's other U.S. senator, Charles Grassley, as a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school. Braley apologized to Grassley and says he has put the incident behind him. He bores in instead on what his campaign calls his opponent's out-of-the-mainstream views.

  • REP. BRUCE BRALEY, Iowa Democratic Senate Candidate:

    My challenge in this race has always been to make sure that the voters of Iowa understand the clear choices in this Senate race on issues that affect Iowa's economy. I voted for a five-year farm bill. I worked three years and worked with Republicans to pass it. She said she would have voted against it.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Besides the farm bill and ethanol subsidies, voters bring up Social Security and Medicare. Longtime Iowa political reporter O. Kay Henderson says issues are at play, but in this state with a low unemployment rate, she believes the race may turn on something else.

  • O. KAY HENDERSON, Radio Iowa:

    When it boils down to it, this is a character race right now. They're both trying to cast each other as the kind of character that you just can't trust in Washington.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Both campaigns and outside groups are contributing to the character war with spots like these:

  • NARRATOR:

    Joni Ernst would be another Tea Party vote in the Senate. Ernst would privatize Social Security.

  • NARRATOR:

    Bruce Braley, trial lawyer and Washington politician, supports Obamacare.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Democratic strategist Jeff Link insists Braley's early gaffes in the campaign won't stick in voters' minds.

  • JEFF LINK, Democratic Strategist:

    I think we have had about 12 commercials that have used the clip of the Grassley comment. I don't think there's a person in Iowa that doesn't know about it. I hope they understand that he has a strong commitment to Iowa agriculture. That's why the Iowa corn growers endorsed him, and we are still in the position that we are, where she is viewed more unfavorably than he is.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Braley's campaign is making sure of that with spots of its own.

  • MAN:

    But I just don't trust Joni Ernst.

  • WOMAN:

    She supports a plan to eliminate Medicare's guaranteed benefit.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Republican strategist David Kochel, who's advising the Ernst campaign, insists the negative spots Braley has aired against her won't have the desired effect.

  • DAVID KOCHEL, Republican Strategist:

    Her views are very much in the mainstream of Iowa. Yes, she's pro-life, but many Iowans are pro-life. It's not the issue that she is primarily focused on. Any time you have $10 million in negative ads spent against you, it's going to make it a little more difficult. But we're going to have — we have been outspent by $2.2 million since the primary. I don't think it will be this way for the rest of the campaign.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Kochel is overseeing an advertising strategy that pivots Ernst's message away from her most conservative views to more moderate ones.

  • JONI ERNST:

    I care about protecting Social Security for seniors, like my mom and dad.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But Democrats are betting they can overwhelm what they call Ernst's centrist shift by reminding voters of her long-held right-wing positions.

    Retiring Senator Tom Harkin, who's raising money and campaigning hard for Braley, says he's counting on Iowans wanting to keep a balance in their Senate representation.

    SEN. TOM HARKIN, (D) Iowa: Senator Grassley and I don't agree philosophically. We don't agree on big issues. We don't vote alike on a lot of national issues. But when it comes to Iowa, we work together. And so I think Iowans have benefited from that kind of balance. If Joni Ernst wins, that balance gets upset. If Bruce Braley's there, then they keep that balance between Republicans and Democrats.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But, feeling Republicans breathing down their necks, Democrats are doubling down on this year's get-out-the-vote effort, which starts in just nine days, with the opening of absentee voting.

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