10 Questions for the Iowa Senate Candidates

Source: By JOHN HARWOOD, New York Times • Posted: Friday, August 22, 2014

The Iowa Senate race is one of a handful that will decide whether Republicans or Democrats control the Senate for the last two years of President Obama’s tenure. The race to succeed retiring Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat, pits Bruce Braley, a Democrat who is currently in the United States House, against Joni Ernst, a Republican state senator.

Mr. Braley has criticized Ms. Ernst for opposing a minimum wage increase, threatening Social Security, and wobbling on support for the Renewable Fuel Standard that helps Iowa corn farmers by requiring use of ethanol in gasoline. Ms. Ernst, who is also an Iraq War veteran, has emphasized her raised-on-a-farm “Iowa values,” commitment to spending cuts, and opposition to an Obama agenda Mr. Braley has supported. She has benefited from disparaging remarks Mr. Braley made about Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, and a disagreement between the Braley family and a neighbor over chickens. Polls indicate the race is tight.

The Times’s John Harwood interviewed Mr. Braley and Ms. Ernst after their campaign appearances in Springville and Ankeny, respectively. What follows is a condensed, edited transcript of those conversations.


If you are an Iowa voter looking at the election, why not make a change and put the first woman in the Senate from Iowa? Is there not a unique value to having more women in the Senate?

Bruce Braley: I think there’s a unique value to having people from many different backgrounds serving in the Senate. And that’s what represents the entire American tradition that people want representing them. But people want problem-solvers working, not people who are going to drive us further apart. So when you support an agenda that’s similar to the agenda that Ted Cruz supports, which is shutting down the government, stopping the government from functioning, I don’t think that’s what Iowans are looking for in their next Senator.


When the Braley campaign says you’re the Iowa version of Sarah Palin, are you flattered?

Joni Ernst: Well, I am flattered because she is a strong leader. I am a strong independent leader. I am a strong female independent leader. And I do believe they use that as a distraction. Rather than focus on me, they’re focusing on someone else. She is the kind of politician I admire because she speaks what’s on her mind. And I think that’s important — to communicate to Iowans what is important. And, as I’ve said, jobs and the economy are very important to Iowans; overspending by the federal government is something that’s very concerning to Iowans; making sure that we have a budget — that is important to Iowans.


Republicans have used the things you said about Senator Grassley at the fund-raiser, the whole chicken dispute, to make an argument that you may be from Iowa, but you’ve gone too much Washington for Iowa. Has that hurt you?

Bruce Braley: I think it’s just laughable. I’ve lived in Iowa my entire life. I got my first job in third grade and I’ve worked my whole life. My parents grew up on Iowa farms during the Great Depression. That taught them and it taught me a lot about being fiscally responsible. I got my education in this state. I met my wife in this state, I raised my kids in the state. I worked in Iowa for 40 years before I ran for public office. I have not lost touch with Iowa. I have been a champion for the people of Iowa the last eight years I’ve represented the First District. And I think when people look at my background, they’ll find that out about me.


Why should Iowans support a U.S. senator who opposed the 5-year farm bill that just passed, and who ideologically doesn’t believe in the sort of energy policy that benefits Iowa farmers?

Joni Ernst: I have a record in the State Senate of standing up for the R.F.S. And I will continue to do that as we move forward. Again, that’s a distraction that the other side is trying to paint. We would like to see subsidies go away across the board. However, until that day happens, I’m going to stand for our agriculture economy — bottom line.

Why should Iowans support me? It’s because I am someone who sees an issue, and I’m going to address that issue head-on. I’m not going to bury my head in the sand and pretend that our country is moving in the right direction. The original intent of the farm bill, many years ago, was to protect our small and mid-size farmers. We’ve gotten so very far away from that. Chuck Grassley believes we need to get back to the original intent. I believe that also. Now, future farm bills, we’ll evaluate them on the good intent within those bills. We’ll have to take a look. But this one, we can’t keep pretending that we’re doing the right thing. We need to get back to the basics.


Iowa uses lot of coal-fired power. Do you agree with what the president has proposed to do about new emissions standards for power plants?

Bruce Braley: I’ve been a strong supporter of doing everything we can to try to make sure that Iowans have access to the cleanest renewable types of energy they can. That’s why I have pushed to make sure that we maintain the wind energy tax credit. We get 25 percent of our electricity in this state from wind. By the end of the decade it’s projected to be 40 percent. And we are growing a lot of our energy in the state.

So I support a policy that moves us in the direction of reducing our dependency on fossil-based fuel. I support the president’s effort to reduce emissions and it’s important to do that in a way that takes into account existing energy technologies, especially those in a state like Iowa. At the same time Big Oil is helping fund my opponent’s campaign. They held a big fund-raiser for her that was hosted by Exxon Mobil and the American Petroleum Institute.


Republicans in Congress, over the last couple of years, have cut – with the administration, reluctantly – a lot of domestic spending. The spending that hasn’t been cut is entitlements — Medicare, Social Security. Is that what you want to trim when you talk about going to Washington to cut spending?

Joni Ernst: There are a number of things that need to be trimmed across the board, looking at Department of Education, I.R.S. — there are so many departments that we can cut from. What we have to do is protect those that are on Medicaid now; those that are on Social Security now. That, we need to protect. We have made promises to these people.

Going forward, we need to look at younger generations and protecting that for them in the future. So, we need to look at a number of different options. Again, I’m not going to bury my head in the sand.

We have to understand there’s a problem, and address it. But those that are already engaged in Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, we need to protect that for them.


What lessons should Iowa draw, should the country draw, from the chaos and violence going on next door in Missouri right now?

Bruce Braley: The most important lesson is we need to listen to each other, to our neighbors. And we need to make sure that our neighbors’ concerns are being heard. I think one of the biggest problems that’s come out in Ferguson is there were many, many people in that community who felt like the response to the problem that unfolded there was overwhelming force, rather than let’s sit down and bring people together at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty about what happened, there’s a lot of tension in the air. Respect for the rule of law is a very important value in American society, and it has to be combined with a respect for each other. That’s why I was encouraged when the governor brought in a local person who had grown up in the community who was with the Missouri Highway Patrol to try to provide some of that healing that was necessary. And I hope it that as we move forward people are going to continue to reach out and try to break down barriers and bring that community together.


Rand Paul said the other day that the application of criminal justice, as shown by Ferguson, is skewed by race. Do you agree with that? And, if so, what should be done about it?

Joni Ernst: I don’t know if I agree or disagree on that. I haven’t focused on Ferguson right now. I just think it is a community of people that need to work through this issue, regardless of race.


Hillary Clinton recently said that had the president been more aggressive in arming moderate rebels in Syria, we might not be in the situation we’re now facing in Iraq. Is she right about that?

Bruce Braley: I went to classified briefings when we were faced with very difficult choices in Syria. And a lot of my colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, expressed concerns because there were no clear options. There were no good options. And one of the dangers was arming somebody and having those weapons turned around and used against Americans or used to be harmful to U.S. interests.

She is entitled to her opinion, but I think that the president had a very difficult choice to make. He was getting a lot of pressure from Congress, Republicans and Democrats, about not putting boots on the ground in further committing us to another long conflict in the Middle East. I’m comfortable with what he did.


As a politician and a soldier, do you think the United States should adopt a more aggressive military policy in reaction to ISIS in Syria and in Iraq?

Joni Ernst: I would have to evaluate troops on the ground. But knowing that we have American citizens that are still in Iraq, we need to protect them as much as we possibly can. So as much as I hate to see us losing ground in Iraq, I would want to know what the intelligence was for the people on the ground, what’s going on, what is the additional threat that ISIS has to the country. I think the president made the mistake a number of years ago by not listening to his senior military advisers. I think we need to do what we should to protect American interests over there.