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Capitol Ideas: What will Iowa's political ad campaign bring?

Farm appeal

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What do Iowa politicians do for a topper to “make ’em squeal” in 2016?

Republican Joni Ernst plowed new ground two years ago when she captured the imagination of Iowa voters and late-night talk show hosts alike by regaling them with tales of castrating pigs during her agrarian youth. She peppered that with shots of her in leather astride a Harley and had TV viewers looking down the barrel of a handgun in convincing Iowans, via her paid-media sales pitch, that she was the elixir for what ails the nation in Washington, D.C.

On the flip side, Democrat Bruce Braley provided a lesson on how not to run a successful campaign by showing up on cellphone video next to a liquor cart taking shots at Iowa Republican icon Chuck Grassley and offending rural voters in the process at an out-of-state fundraiser with trial lawyers.

Now comes former Lt. Gov. Patty Judge who hopes to challenge Grassley in the general election by matching his farm appeal with a resume that includes stints as a state senator, state agriculture secretary and — perhaps most importantly — a cattle producer from Albia.

Judge was complimentary of Ernst’s 2014 strategy, including the infamous TV commercial promising to use her skills at castrating swine to cut spending in Washington. But the Southern Iowa Democrat was noncommital whether she would take campaign marketing to the next level with some bovine topper.

“I’ve done the chores more than once” was the only farm-skills insight Judge would provide in a recent interview.

Though no political newcomer, Judge said she presently is focused on assembling a staff and organizing her campaign.

“We’ll worry about what kinds of TV ads we’re going to run later on,” she said.

However, the farm setting is fertile territory for any political ad agency worth its salt. To think otherwise would be a bigger mistake than when South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham celebrated Ernst’s Washington arrival by presenting her a plague mounted with a burdizzo — described by Wikipedia as a castration device used primarily on sheep or calves.

Grassley’s 2010 campaign — his sixth as a senator — featured his cutting grass at his New Hartford farm using three mowers he had welded together in a TV commercial with a down-home, regular-guy flavor.

The concern heading into the 2016 campaign season is that political candidates already have set the rhetorical bar pretty low with comparisons of men’s hand sizes and beyond.

The political landscape is ripe with potential metaphors of every stripe — as an observer who has wielded both pen and pitchfork after growing up on a farm and making a few laps around the barnyard before spanning four decades making laps around the Iowa Statehouse — and it will be interesting to see what particular set of skills, farm-based or otherwise, Iowa candidates may choose to highlight during this election go-round.

For all of The Gazette's Election 2016 coverage, please visit our election coverage center.

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