Senate debate follows new polls

Alex Hanson

Less than 24 hours after a new Des Moines Register poll showed Republicans picking up a six-point lead in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, the candidates gathered just 36 days before the election to debate issues on their platforms.

The debate was hosted by KCCI and the Des Moines Register and took place at Simpson College in Indianola.

U.S. Rep Bruce Braley, a Democrat who is vacating his House seat in Iowa’s first congressional district, debated state Sen. Joni Ernst, a Republican from Red Oak. The Senate seat is being vacated Sen. Tom Harkin, who has decided to retire after five terms in Congress.

The hour-long debate focused on a wide range of issues, starting with Social Security. Braley asked Ernst about her support for making Social Security a private program. Ernst responded saying that the program needs reforms, but that she would “protect social security” in the future.

On the issue of foreign policy and terrorism, both candidates agreed that ISIS is the greatest threat to America, and something should be done to combat the Islamic terrorists.

One issue of the discussion that relates directly to college students was the importance of the Department of Education and how it pertains to pell grants and student loans.

Both candidates take different positions; and a student at Simpson College was able to ask Ernst a question about her position. Ernst responded by offering ways to keep the programs without the Department of Education.

“It doesn’t do anything to those who receive pell grants and student loans,” Ernst said. “Those are programs that are very necessary for our college students, but they can easily be housed in the Department of Treasury.”

Ernst added that employees at the Department of Education have been deemed “non-essential,” and she believes that education should have more control from states.

Another issue that may affect college students is an increase in the minimum wage. Braley detailed his dislike for Ernst’s plan to eliminate the federal minimum wage. 

“I can say with absolute clarity that the most important job for Iowa’s next Senator is to fight for Iowa’s working class,” Braley said. “If 300,000 Iowan’s would get a pay raise by simply increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, that tells me that a lot of Iowan’s are missing out.”

Other issues discussed in the debate included the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, changes to the tax code, immigration, abortion, tort reform, climate change, deficit spending and regulations. 

Kelly Winfrey, lecturer for the Catt Center for Women and Politics,  spoke about the candidates’ highs and lows during the debate, saying that at times Braley articulated his position more clearly while Ernst held a position that was more broad.

On immigration, she said Braley clearly supported the bi-partisan Senate immigration bill passed last summer, while Ernst answered broadly, saying “I don’t support amnesty”,but didn’t lay out a specific policy proposals.

Winfrey said Braley clearly had the edge on the topic of climate change. Ernst claimed that the Earth’s climate is changing, but would not admit that humans are directly the cause.

One of the most heated moments of the debate came towards the end, she claimed. Braley aligned Ernst with the Koch Brothers, billionaires who are supporting Republican candidates around the United States. Winfrey said Ernst did a good job turning to Braley and directly addressing that he is running against her.

“Congressman Braley, you’re not running against these other people [the Koch Brothers], you’re running against me,” Ernst said. “I am a mother, I am a soldier and a I am an independent leader.”

Ernst also said that Braley is being funded by Tom Steyer, a billionaire from California who is backing some Democrats this campaign cycle.

The new Register poll shows Ernst leading Braley by six-points, 44-38. The poll also shows Braley trailing big time with rural voters. 15 percent of voters plan to support Braley while 58 percent plan to support Ernst. Though Ernst has the chance to be Iowa’s first female Senator, women are supporting Braley by 13 percent. Ernst leads male voters by 25 percent.

Winfrey said over the next few weeks, Braley needs to spend more time campaigning with voters to make himself a more likeable candidate. She said that Ernst has come off more likeable than Braley over the past few months, and during the debate it was clear that Ernst is a better speaker.

Winfrey also said the gender gap is based more on ideology. More women tend to support Democrats, while men tend to support Republicans.

“I’m sure women would like to send their first female Senator to Congress,” Winfrey said. “Political ideology is more of a deciding factor when voting for someone.”

Braley and Ernst are set to debate again on Oct. 16 in Sioux City. That debate will be broadcast in the Ames/Des Moines market on ABC5, WOI-DT.

Election Day is Nov. 4.