By this time tomorrow, the 2014 midterms will be over, but for one or two runoff elections in Louisiana and/or Georgia and perhaps some final ballot-counting in the Aleutian Islands, and we’ll be able to start focusing on what really matters: handicapping the 2016 races for the White House and Congress. But if nothing else remains from this uninspiring and forgettable campaign season, I suspect we will come to see one particular 2014 contest as historically significant. The Iowa Senate race between Congressman Bruce Braley, a Democrat, and state Senator Joni Ernst, a Republican, may stand as a case study of what happens to campaign politics in a world where traditional journalism is hanging on by a thread.
On the face of it, Ernst would seem like a long shot for Iowa. The state has historically had room for both prairie populists like Tom Harkin, who is retiring, and curmudgeonly conservatives like Chuck Grassley, and, yes, Congressman Steve King has hung onto his House district in conservative western Iowa despite saying plenty outlandish things. But one would imagine that running for statewide office in a sober-minded state that went for Barack Obama by six percentage points in 2012 would be a challenge for someone who has compiled the list of positions and statements that Ernst has. Over the past couple years, and in no particular order, Ernst has: said that Obama has “become a dictator” and suggested he should be impeached; told an NRA convention that she would be willing to take up her Smith & Wesson against the government “should they decide that my rights are no longer important”; spoken and voted in favor of state nullification of federal laws; said she still believes there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we invaded in 2003; and given credence to the notion that there is a United Nations-driven conspiracy called Agenda 21 that is, as she put it last year, set on “moving people off of their agricultural land and consolidating them into city centers, and then telling them that you don't have property rights anymore.”
And these aren't just one-off comments, either. Ernst holds a long list of established positions that would seem like a tough sell with many voters in Iowa. She is critical of the existing social safety net—she has spoken in favor of privatizing Social Security and waxed nostalgic about the time, before food stamps, when “wonderful food pantries” took care of the poor. She is opposed to a federal minimum wage and has said that $7.25 an hour suffices for Iowans. She has sponsored “personhood” legislation that would have amended the state constitution to legally define someone as a “person” at conception, and said at a GOP primary debate this spring that if such a bill passes, abortion providers “should be punished.”
Yet Ernst is now favored to beat Braley in a race that was expected to be relatively safe for the Democrats back when Harkin announced his retirement, and if she does so will make it far more difficult for the Democrats to maintain their Senate majority. What could explain this turnabout? Well, there is of course the general context—a midterm year when Democratic turnout is far lower than in presidential years, at a time when Obama’s approval rating in Iowa is anemic. There is the fact that Braley has proven himself a deeply flawed candidate, starting with his head-clutchingly damaging comment in a closed-door meeting with fellow trial lawyers in Texas referring dismissively to Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
But those factors don’t suffice to explain why Ernst’s record has received as little scrutiny as it has. For that, one must consider the race through a media lens. Norm Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute argued persuasively last week that Ernst has benefited from the tendency in the national media to affix narratives to campaign seasons: whereas in 2010 and 2012, the narrative was that the Republicans had nominated extremists like Todd Akin and Sharron Angle, this year it was that Republicans had wisely quashed such candidates during the primaries; Ernst was thus categorized as a scrubbed-up establishment project (hey, she was endorsed by Mitt Romney in the primaries, and had his consultants running her campaign!), rather than as a yet another fringe figure spouting conspiracy theories. This, Ornstein says, is how one ends up with national depictions of Ernst like the “warm, almost reverential” profile that recently ran in the Washington Post Style section and made virtually no mention of Ernst’s many flirtations with the hard-line right.
I would go even further than that. The media’s penchant for fixed narratives is an age-old tendency, but Ernst’s rise has also been enabled by a newer phenomenon: the decline of the traditional media, and of local newspapers in particular. I wrote during the 2012 election season about the impact that this decline has had on political accountability journalism—when major campaign finance scandals can unfold in a swing state with nary a mention in the local press—and the impact has been if anything more noticeable this year, two years further along in the deterioration of the local media. I’m a former small-town and metro newspaper reporter myself, and as I scour papers in key states such as Colorado, Georgia, and North Carolina for news on the close races there, I’ve been struck by how little there is to find beyond stories on the latest polls or basic who-said-what dispatches from the trail. Yes, there are now reporters covering those races from burgeoning national outlets like Politico and Bloomberg, but those reporters are often (though not always) doing so from afar, and they are not being read on a regular basis by voters in those states as the local papers are. Yes, there are exceptions, such as the thriving Texas Tribune website in the Lone Star State, but they are few and far between. And no, the better-staffed metro newspapers of yore did not always focus their political journalism on the stories that mattered most, but on the whole, they provided vastly more serious, substantive scrutiny than candidates can expect to get today.
Iowa is the ultimate example. The state’s largest and most influential newspaper, the Des Moines Register, once one of the most highly regarded provincial papers in the country, has over the years been hammered by cuts under its ownership by the Gannett Corporation. Just last month, the Register announced it would cut 18 more jobs between itself and its sister paper, the Iowa City Press-Citizen, and, like other Gannett papers, would make all of its newsroom employees re-apply for their jobs.
Meanwhile, the paper has come under strong criticism from Iowa Democrats and liberals for its coverage of the Senate race, which has featured strikingly scant scrutiny of Ernst’s aforementioned remarks and positions. From my checks of Nexis, I found just two Register articles about Ernst’s impeachment comments; zero articles about her comments attacking the social safety net (one editorial mentioned them); zero articles about her pledge to take up her Smith & Wesson against an overweening government; zero articles about her Agenda 21 warnings; one article about her support for nullification of federal laws; and zero mentions of her comments at a summit organized by the Koch Brothers in which she thanked them and their financial backers for having “really started my trajectory” in politics. By contrast, I counted five Register articles featuring Braley’s comments about Grassley not having a law degree.
Critics of the Register coverage have focused their ire on its main political reporter, Jennifer Jacobs, accusing her of having a soft spot for Ernst. (They note, among other examples, that she posted online a very short video clip of Braley in a Fourth of July parade with the suggestive headline: “Does Braley claim to be a farmer in this parade route exchange?” In fact, it’s far from clear that he did.) But the real issue here is not so much Jacobs’ coverage, but that so much in politics in Iowa—a state of three million people—should ride on a single reporter who can only cover so much on his or her own. In a healthier, more vigorous local media landscape, coverage would tend to balance out more, filling in the gaps.
But the landscape is far from healthy, and Ernst has flourished in what remains. She capitalized on Braley’s Grassley-as-farmer comment, which a conservative oppo-research group happened to release just as she had her own pro-farmer ad about castrating pigs ready to go. A few weeks later, with so little coverage of the race coming out of the mainstream press, Ernst got a big assist from the partisan press: a conservative blog reported that Braley had threatened litigation in a dispute with a neighbor over chickens that turned out to be “therapy chickens” for autistic children. The story was catnip for the national media—never mind that the claims that Braley had threatened to sue over the chickens proved on closer scrutiny to be greatly overstated. (The conservative blogger who broke the story went on, lo and behold, to become a spokesman for the Iowa Republican Party.)
While reporters were stalking the chicken coop in Braley’s hood, precious few ventured to Ernst’s hometown of Red Oak (also my grandmother’s hometown, as it happens) to do any real digging into shenanigans there like those Ben Jacobs wrote about in the Daily Beast. As a prophylactic against potential attacks, Ernst was adept at crying injury at barest slights—as when she said that Braley’s claim that she had been “AWOL” from her Senate tasks was an insult to her National Guard service, or when, even more incredibly, she declared sexist a Braley ad that, playing off Ernst’s castrated pigs ad, flashed an image of a baby chick to accompany this line, “We’ve all heard the one about pigs squealing, but when Joni Ernst had the chance to do something in Iowa, we didn't hear a peep.” (Somehow, according to Ernst’s campaign, the mere image of a baby chick implied “chick,” the gender slang.) Finally, Ernst simply refused to sit for general election interviews with the Register or any of the state’s major papers except for the conservative Sioux City Journal.
Ernst closed the campaign with the same mastery of the fractured media landscape as she’d shown all along. When a week-old clip of Tom Harkin commenting on her looks (complete with a reference to Taylor Swift) surfaced two days before the election, she took great offense, giving more fuel to the story. Meanwhile, there was precious little mention of another instance of her parroting the Fox News echo chamber, her telling Esquire’s Charlie Pierce that his assertion that there was only one person now diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. was merely his “opinion.”
In one of the best assessments of Ernst’s rise, Mother Jones’s Patrick Caldwell, an expert on Iowa politics, wrote last week:
If elected, Ernst would certainly be among the most conservative senators in the country. Yet she owes her rise to prominence not to the tea party, but to the Rotary Club types—the GOP establishment, which urged her to run and bet that her biography and folksy political charm would matter far more than her extreme policy positions. She is somehow both the handpicked champion of the mainline business-minded wing of the Republican Party and a hard-right conservative reactionary—the logical end-result of the ongoing merger of the tea party and the rest of the GOP. And if she wins on Tuesday, she’ll set an example that Republican candidates will emulate for years to come.
Caldwell is right. And that reshaping of Ernst, from a credulous vessel for borderline-crackpot theories to a polished Chamber of Commerce Republican, would have been far more difficult to pull off in the media landscape of a decade or two past. Ernst showed how it’s done. Get ready for more like her.
Correction: this article initially referred imprecisely to the derivation of the Harkin video clip, which was disclosed by Buzzfeed.