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March 26, 2014 12:41 PM The Dueling Videos of Iowa

By Ed Kilgore

Two videos (actually three, with one involving an ad from Mitch McConnell which featured brief footage of Duke winning an NCAA basketball championship, which I’ll write about later) roiled the Senate 2014 landscape yesterday, stimulating more discussion than perhaps any developments of the cycle.

A video taken of Iowa Democratic candidate Bruce Braley speaking at a Texas trial lawyers meeting back in January was released by a DC-based conservative PAC. Most famously, Braley told the lawyers that a Republican takeover of the Senate would put an “Iowa farmer who didn’t go to law school” (i.e., Chuck Grassley) in charge of the Judiciary Committee. He also bragged that he had been fighting “tort reform” for 30 years, which sounds pretty bad to people who think any sort of “reform” must be a good idea, or who consider trial lawyers a touch satanic. Slate’s John Dickerson has a pretty good analysis of the optics of the video, including the fact that Braley delivered his pitch in close proximity to the event’s hooch table, which seems to be sharing top billing with the candidate.

Braley’s already apologized for his slur on Grassley, and his implied under-appreciation of the legal skills of “Iowa farmers.” Republicans in Iowa and elsewhere are acting like they just won the lottery (Braley has been a modest favorite to hold Tom Harkin’s Senate seat from the day he announced).

But the furor over Braley’s video has almost been eclipsed by another one released by the GOP Senate candidate you might expect to benefit most from his alleged disrespecting of farmers: farm-bred state senator and Gulf War veteran Joni Ernst. Indeed, Ernst’s modest first ad buy presents her as someone who can “cut pork” because “I grew up on an Iowa farm castrating hogs.” This quickly become an object of mirth on YouTube and the late-night shows. But the Ernst campaign clearly considers it a positive, featuring it at the top of her web page (alternating with her endorsement by Mitt Romney, which will soon be joined if not displaced an endorsement from Sarah Palin).

The timing of the Iowa videos is interesting. Dave Weigel explores the hypothesis that the release of the Braley video was coordinated with Ernst’s ad, and finds no particular evidence. But even if non-Iowa sophisticates thinks it’s insane for a candidate to identify herself so prominently with castration, the attention is welcome for Ernst, who like the rest of the Iowa GOP Senate field has been in danger of being swept into irrelevance by the big wallet of former energy executive Mark Jacobs. If Ernst and the others can hold Jacobs below 35% in the June 3 primary, the nomination would be decided by a state GOP convention, which would tilt the playing ground far to the right.

In that respect, if Braley inadvertently boosted Ernst, maybe it will all work out for him. But it’s a reminder that one piece of video can change campaign dynamics like nothing else.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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