Joni Ernst’s “Bruce Braley Moment”

Photo by Julie Fleming

By Pat Rynard

September 2, 2020

Sometimes you really do wonder if Sen. Joni Ernst is trying to lose.

As if Iowa wasn’t already facing enough embarrassing national headlines for the state’s disastrous COVID-19 situation, Ernst decided she’d make her own waves with a set of dangerous comments on pandemic conspiracy theories.

In the Amie Rivers story in the Courier that has since gone viral, Ernst is quoted as citing the false 10,000 number of “real” COVID-19 deaths from the thoroughly debunked internet conspiracy theory. Even more amazingly, she besmirched the reputation of the frontline health care workers she so often says she supports.

“These health care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they’re doing?” Ernst mused to the Waterloo crowd on Monday night.

Ernst’s reckless comments drew massive national attention, drawing coverage at CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, MSNBC, The Hill, the Daily Beast and more, as well as most of the Iowa media outlets.

It was needless. It was bizarre. It was dumb.

It’s also likely to be incredibly damaging to her reelection effort, which was already in a precarious position with Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

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During the avalanche of social media traffic last night, one commentator on Twitter said that this “should be her Bruce Braley moment.”

And honestly, that kind of fits.

(Well, in the way that the national reporters viewed the epic 2014 open-seat race. Many Democrats in the state thought Braley got a bad rap for comments they felt turned out to be true, but that’s the frame that caught on.)

Ernst has certainly failed to recapture the magic of her 2014 run, where she burst onto the scene with the famous hog castration ad. And her campaign this past year has been beset by campaign missteps and awkward, damaging quotes from the candidate herself, just as Braley often shot himself in the foot six years prior.

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Braley never really recovered from the “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” description of Chuck Grassley he made while standing in front of an alcohol cart at a fundraiser. That quote was played incessantly in TV ads. And the disputed story about Braley threatening to sue his neighbor over a chicken piled on to Braley’s image problems (fun fact: that story was a big reason Starting Line was founded).

You can certainly expect to see Ernst’s quotes on COVID-19 in TV ads and mail pieces soon enough. Her weak, attempted walk-back of a statement saying “Over 180,000 Americans have died because of COVID-19″ isn’t going to undo the damage.

The entire episode paints Ernst as a bizarre conspiracy theorist, so caught up in hyper-partisan, far-right news echo chambers that she’s willing to suggest health care providers are lying about the virus. That she made the comments while Iowa was experiencing the worst increase in COVID-19 cases in the country made it even worse, like she was more interested in finding a way to dismiss the deaths and sickness than actually coming up with a way to fight it.

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No matter what Donald Trump says, no matter what the polls say, the pandemic is the number one issue on voters’ minds in 2020, and Ernst just put herself on the side of the conspiracy weirdos who are making things worse. That will hurt in an extremely tight race that will be decided on the margins.

And it follows up on several other instances where Ernst has made self-inflicted problems for herself this cycle.

The most obvious one was the “dark money” scandal from December 2019, where the AP found Ernst’s campaign coordinating and passing along donors with an organization they’re legally not allowed to work with. That was an unnecessary, too-cute operation in a cycle where money was going to flow in anyway.

It produced terrible news coverage for Ernst, gave endless fodder for TV ads and damaged her image of an outsider going to D.C. to clean things up — instead, she was just another politician skirting the laws to raise big money. Had that not happened, Ernst may have maintained a polling lead on Greenfield.

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There’s been other weird missteps along the way. Like that time she took a shot at Greenfield’s dog Ringo (why did she even know the dog’s name?), which led to a viral fundraising haul for the Democrat. Or the time she callously laid out how she would ram through a conservative Supreme Court nominee in a lame duck session, even if Trump lost and Republicans lost the Senate.

I wrote at the time that “Ernst is really bad at this,” and she’s only piled on the evidence since then. For as great a campaigner she seemed to be in 2014, she’s been terrible at in 2020. Even her initial TV ad lacked any sort of creativity for a candidate who first became known for a unique message (it was a generic NRSC-themed ad about China and the supply chain).

Over the past day, many online have speculated over why Ernst said such a thing in Waterloo. Is she trying to curry favor with Trump, who recently shared the same conspiracy theory? Is she trying to rev up support of the far-right to boost turnout?

I think the answer is a much more simple one: she actually believes this stuff.


Go back and look at some of the clips from 2014 about her thoughts on Agenda 21, another fringe, online conspiracy theory.

There’s no four-dimensional chess going on here. Ernst just believes in some super weird stuff. Probably because she spends her days consuming far-right news coverage. Some Republican elected officials are able to sift through the far-right click-bait and distinguish between the conspiracy theories and real information. It seems Ernst just can’t.

And now some of that side to her personality is coming through.

Iowans will get to choose soon if that version of Ernst is one they want to remain in the Senate, but it’s certainly not the candidate they thought they knew in 2014.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 9/2/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.



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