Braley, Ernst Differ in First U.S. Senate Debate

Sep 29, 2014

Joni Ernst, republican candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks during a debate with democratic candidate Bruce Braley.
Credit Charlie Litchfield / The Des Moines Register

The two major party candidates for Iowa’s open U.S. senate seat debated last night at Simpson College in Indianola. The debate came a day after the first Des Moines Register Iowa Poll of the general election. It shows Democratic Congressman Bruce Braley trailing his Republican opponent State Senator Joni Ernst by 6 points. Braley had the first opening statement and after a quick introduction says there are big differences between him and Ernst.

“This election is about a clear choice between moving Iowa forward and following a radical tea party agenda that’s going to take us backwards,” Braley said.

Ernst took a similar approach to an opening statement: a brief introduction and the differences as she sees them.

“For the past 8 years Congressman Braley has been there voting with Nancy Pelosi,” Ernst said. “Higher taxes, bigger government, the Wall Street bailout, Obamacare; this is his Washington record.”

Ernst played up her record in the National Guard and called out Braley for missing a large number of Veterans Affairs committee hearings. They were asked about foreign policy, immigration, taxes and the minimum wage. Braley said the most important thing for Iowa’s next U.S. Senator to do is to fight for the state’s working class families and his opponent’s stance on the minimum wage does NOT keep those families in mind.

“She not only wants to not support raising the minimum wage, she wants to repeal the federal minimum wage and she does not want to raise the state minimum wage,” Braley said. “That means these Iowans are going to continue to be left out of this recovery.”

But Ernst said what’s right for Iowa’s minimum wage is not necessarily right for California or New York.

“I grew up working minimum wage jobs to put myself through college. I was the morning biscuit maker at Hardee’s in Red Oak so I understand and I believe that we need a minimum wage,” Ernst said. “I believe that and I support that, however I believe that needs to be set by the states.”

Moderators of last night’s debate took questions from viewers. Des Moines TV Anchor Kevin Cooney said many questions for Ernst were about what she believed about climate change. 

“I don’t know the science behind climate change, I can’t say one way or another what is the direct impact from whether it’s manmade or not,” Ernst said. “I’ve heard arguments on both sides but I do believe in protecting our environment but without the job killing regulations that are coming out of the (Environmental Protection Agency).”

Ernst said her opponent agrees with those EPA regulations. Braley said Iowans want a strong agriculture economy.

“If you don’t accept that this is a real problem, which it sounds like Senator Ernst doesn’t, many Iowa companies believe it strongly and if we don’t do something it’ll harm our economy,” Braley said.

On the Affordable Care Act, Ernst said every Iowan deserves access to healthcare, but Obamacare is not the answer. She said it’s increasing taxes and costing jobs. Braley said the ACA isn’t perfect and says it can be improved. But their most confrontational interaction of the night came when each accused the other of being beholden to special interests.

“So remember that please that you are running against me, not against any of these other groups. You are running against me,” Ernst told Braley.

“I realize that and Senator, President Obama’s name is not on the ballot and I’m not going to owe president Obama anything on Election Day. You’re going to owe the Koch brother everything,” Braley said.

“I owe nobody anything except these Iowa people,” Ernst fired back.

Drake Political Science Professor Dennis Goldford was in the audience and said neither candidate really won the debate.

“Early on, Braley was very much on the defensive. He just gets buried by this charge of not being present for these various veterans’ affairs hearings,” Goldford said. “On the other hand State Senator Ernst still talks in a lot of platitudes and glittering generalities and never says a lot in substance of what she’d do.”

Godlford said Braley’s performance does give him a chance to right the ship given the weekend poll that showed Ernst in the lead. Braley and Ernst have two more scheduled debates.