State Senator Joni Ernst and Democrat Congressman Bruce Braley squared off in the second of their three scheduled debates over the weekend. Round one was a clear victory for Ernst. Not only was she relaxed and confidant, but she handled the issue set of the debate with ease. Braley, on the other hand, was a nervous mess in the first debate. Despite an issue set that clearly favored the four-term Congressman, he failed to make headway against Ernst. Worse yet, Braley looked un-prepared and nervous throughout the first debate.
Saturday’s debate at St. Ambrose University in Davenport couldn’t have been more different from the first debate between Ernst and Braley. Even before the debate began, one could see that Braley was eager for his second opportunity to debate Ernst. As the candidates took the stage and stood behind their lecterns, Braley was all business. He spent most of the five to six minutes before the debate officially started jotting down notes on the pad of paper provided for each of the candidates.
It didn’t take long to realize that the Bruce Braley who was on the stage on Saturday night wasn’t the same guy Ernst easily handled in their first debate. This time,Braley was a well-prepped, razor-sharp trial attorney who was ready to make his case against Ernst to the jury, or in this case the voters of Iowa.
Where Ernst was able to easily stick to her talking points on issues in the first debate, on Saturday night, the questions asked of the candidates by a panel of eastern Iowa journalists were either more difficult or demanded unique answers. Multiple times in the debate, the candidates were asked questions that were submitted by residents.
One question was from a man currently on Obamacare who wanted to know what happens to him if the law is repealed. Ernst answered the question by talking about how Obamacare costs jobs, is an additional tax, and puts bureaucrats in control of one’s healthcare decisions, not patients and their physicians. Ernst’s response, while accurate, avoided the person’s question, and in doing so came off as cold and uncaring to this person’s situation.
Later in the debate, the candidates were asked to speak from the heart about the direction of the county.. Ernst said the reason she is running is because of how bad thing are going in America. She then transitioned and talked about how well things are going in Iowa under Governor Terry Branstad. Again, this individual wasn’t looking for a political answer from the candidates, but once again, Ernst didn’t really answer the question that was asked of her.
What’s frustrating is that in both instances, Ernst could have easily scored points by addressing these questions head on instead of trying use each question as an opportunity to critique Braley. Ernst’s ads on Social Security portray her as a kind and caring individual. People who meet her in person come away with the same impression. Yet, in this debate, by sticking to her talking points, she came off as somewhat cold and impersonal.
There were also a number of incidents in the debate where Braley just got the better of her. On the first topic of the debate, environmental issues, Ernst scored some points when she painted Braley as a flip-flopper on the Keystone pipeline, but once the questions turned to her previous statements about wanting to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, she was in trouble.
First, Braley did a good job of explaining why he was initially was supportive of Keystone, but the more he learned about it, the more he didn’t like. Now, you may disagree with Braley’s position on this issue, but by taking the time to explain his thought process on the matter, he actually came off as being thoughtful, not as a flip-flopper. He also keenly used the issue to needle Ernst about her ties to the Koch brothers, since big oil proponents are the ones who are really pushing for the pipeline.
Second, the entire discussion about Ernst wanting to abolish the EPA was cringe-worthy to watch. Again, Ernst makes valid points about the problems of with the EPA, but those are lost when the conversation evolves into numerous questions about how states can regulate a polluter who may not be located in their state, or who regulates federal waterways like the Mississippi River, or what about the Great Lakes that border another country, let alone multiple states.
As Braley did all evening, he explained the history of why the Clean Water Act and why it was necessary, which included the fact that President Nixon signed it into law. Without getting personal, Braley was able to paint Ernst not only as an extremist like many of the ads that Democrat groups are running against her, but by taking the time to add some depth the conversation, he came off as being better prepared than Ernst.
Even when the debate focused on topics that should be in Ernst’s wheelhouse, Braley was able score points. When discussing foreign affairs and whether or not ground troops are necessary to combat ISIS, Braley was able to score points in the debate. Ernst used the question to once again let people know that she has served in the military and led troops in Iraq. She also laid out her three criteria on sending troops into battle. First, there must be actionable intelligence. Second, there must be a clearly defined mission. And third, we must be willing to continue to care for our soldiers when they return home.
Braley agreed with Ernst’s stated criteria but added that it’s important to convince the American people that this action is necessary, and we must address the greater problem in the reason that lead to ISIS getting a stronghold. Ernst would later go after Braley on voting against funding any military action in Iraq. Ernst scored points with the attack on Braley’s vote, but again he provided quality and depth to the discussion.
Ernst gave two answers in the debate that are giving some conservative Republicans heartburn. Braley was asked about his proposal to raise that cap on Social Security taxes for people who make more than $117,000. Braley clearly knew he was walking on dangerous ground, but he said that he thinks millionaires and billionaires should have to pay social security tax on all their income. Even though Braley’s Social Security tax increase fits with the populist theme of his campaign, Ernst and the Republicans could have branded him as a tax raiser had she not said that she too thinks the idea should be looked at.
Ernst also said that she agreed with Braley on not repealing President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Many conservatives oppose DACA and believe the program is what caused many of the unaccompanied children of Central America to illegally enter the county, which has caused a humanitarian crisis along the U.S./Mexico border.
After the debate, the Ernst campaign emailed out a short video that contained what they believed was the highlight of the debate. It was video of Ernst bringing up yet again the disparaging remarks that Braley said about Sen. Chuck Grassley and farmers. The Republicans in the crowd loved it, just like they did when she used a similar line of attack in the previous debate.
Republicans have gotten a lot of mileage out of the recording of Braley at a Texas fundraiser, but I think debates and campaign needs to be about more than a year old video clip and his neighbors’ wandering chickens. I score debates like a boxing match that doesn’t end in a knockout. Issue after issue, I had a hard time awarding points to Ernst of Saturday night. Yes, she got in some good shots, but round after round I thought Braley got the best of her.
The good news for Ernst, is that she is still leading the U.S. Senate race. After two debates, each candidate has a clear win under their belts. I also think Ernst clearly has the narrative on her side. Braley’s repeated gaffes and stupid comments have taken a toll. Simply put, even though he was a much better debater on Saturday night than he was two weeks earlier, he’s still not likable.
I also don’t blame Ernst for her “lackluster” debate performance. I think this was a classic case of her advisors prepping her too much. She was prepared to go into this debate as an attack dog, and that’s exactly how she preformed. That was most evident in her closing remarks. There were numerous times when the two candidates had agreed with each other, but Ernst began her 90-second closing remarks by saying it’s clear that she and her opponent don’t agree on anything.
I think Ernst’s handlers got it all wrong. Braley and all the out-of-state political groups that are spending millions of dollars running negative ads against her are trying to sell the voters on an image of Ernst that she’s in the pocket of special interest, that she’s too extreme for Iowa, and that she’s basically evil.
Unlike the first debate where Ernst came off like she does in person, as a likable, all-Iowa farm girl, in this debate, she was overtly political. I know all the political advisors want their candidates to land a punch that makes their opponent cringe, but it’s equally important to come off to voters as someone they can relate to. Ernst had opportunities to do that in Saturday’s debate, but she opted to attack Braley instead. That is one of the main reasons why she lost the debate.