CEDAR RAPIDS — Iowa Democrats launched a new salvo in their attack on Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst’s connection to the billionaire Koch brothers.
“They’re trying to buy Tom Harkin’s seat,” Iowa Democratic Party Executive Director Troy Price insisted on a Wednesday conference call with reporters.
Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring at the end of his fifth term, and both parties and their allies have made the open-seat race one of the top contests in the Nov. 4 midterm election.
However, Price was on the defensive when asked how the Koch brothers’ support differed from the support Ernst’s opponent, U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, is getting from out-of-state billionaires and political action committees.
The new front in the battle was based on a Huffington Post report, including an audio recording, of Ernst praising the Koch brothers and their network of political contributors.
“The exposure to this group and to this network and the opportunity to meet so many of you, that really started my trajectory,” Ernst is heard saying on the recording from a supposedly secret retreat hosted by the Koch brothers.
The Ernst campaign compared the recording to one of Braley warning trial attorneys that Sen. Chuck Grassley, “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school,” could become chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“Both Joni and Bruce Braley have been caught on tape this year, but unlike Braley, she wasn’t insulting Iowans or farmers,” Ernst spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel said.
“It’s not a one-way track,” added Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. “Does Ernst take large donations? Yep. Are they larger than Bruce Braley’s? Nope.”
The Koch brothers already have spent about $7 million on the Iowa Senate race on their own and through various organizations, such as Americans for Prosperity, Price said.
Braley has benefitted, too, from out-of-state billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate PAC, which has spent $3 million in Iowa, according to Federal Election Commission data. The Democratic Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $500,000 for Braley and about $1.5 million against Ernst, FEC records show.
“These are expensive races,” Kaufmann said. “Before (Democrats) point out the dust in Joni’s eye, they better get the two-by-four out of Braley’s eye.”
It’s about more than the money, Price said.
“This is about the Koch brothers forcing their extreme tea party ideas that are out of step with Iowans on to our Senate race,” Price said. “It’s not about who’s supporting who, but who’s agenda are you fighting for.”
Again, Kaufmann said Democrats “should start with their own house before they throw stones.”
“I don’t have to have a recording of Bruce Braley thanking Tom Steyer in order to know that’s happened,” he said.
Kaufmann, who spent 10 years in the Iowa Legislature and hosted a number of presidential hopefuls at his fundraisers over the years, said campaign contributions don’t “automatically translate into sacrificing your principles.”
“If the Democrats are really sincere in their comments about big money in these races, then the very first thing they can control is their own candidate, Bruce Braley,” Kaufmann said. “Until they do that, all this is just bomb throwing.”