Throughout the 2014 campaign season, the Iowa Senate seat held by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin has emerged as a surprisingly strong pickup opportunity for the Republican Party. President Barack Obama is wildly unpopular in Iowa, and Democratic nominee Bruce Braley has struggled to gain traction throughout the race (over the past five months, he’s seen a 10-point lead evaporate). But Republicans have a problem: their own nominee, state senator Joni Ernst.
Ernst has been an unconventional candidate from the beginning, but recently her curiosities have developed from quirky to extreme. In May, Ernst claimed that Iraq did, in fact, have weapons of mass destruction when the U.S. invaded. In June, video emerged of her vowing to stop Agenda 21, a non-binding UN resolution that she erroneously sees as a nefarious plot to outlaw property ownership. In July, she struggled to explain her flip-flop on whether President Obama “has become a dictator” who needs to be removed from office. Later that month, it was reported that Ernst believes that states can nullify federal laws they dislike.
Now another of her far-right positions is drawing widespread attention. In a Monday interview with the Globe Gazette, Ernst called for completely eliminating the federal minimum wage.
“The minimum wage is a safety net. For the federal government to set the minimum wage for all 50 states is ridiculous,” she said.
“The standard of living in Iowa is different than it is in New York or California or Texas,” she added. “One size does not fit all.”
Ernst’s comments represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how the minimum wage works. It is not “one size.” Although the federal government guarantees that the minimum wage cannot dip below $7.25 per hour, states can set their own rates (and they do — for example, New York’s is $8, and California’s is $9).
This is not the first time that Ernst has spoken out against the minimum wage; sensing opportunity, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has compiled an extensive list of her statements that government should have no role in the issue.
But Iowa voters seem unlikely to give her credit for consistency. In terms of both policy and politics, Ernst’s position is far out of line with her own state.
Iowa, which currently has a $7.25-per-hour minimum wage, would benefit greatly from the bill proposed by Senator Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-CA) to gradually raise the federal minimum to $10.10. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis, a $10.10 minimum wage would increase wages for 306,000 workers in Iowa — more than one-fifth of the workforce — and generate $272,483,000 of economic activity. Eliminating it altogether? Not so much.
Polls have consistenly shown that Iowans side with Braley, who favors an increase to $10.10, over Ernst in this case. So it’s no surprise that Braley has been using the issue to go after the Republican nominee.
The minimum wage attacks are just one part of Democrats’ broader campaign to paint Ernst as too far on the fringe for Iowa (or “an onion of crazy,” as Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz recently put it). They have also targeted her as out of touch on Medicare and Social Security.
If Democrats can’t make Iowans fall in love with Bruce Braley by November, it appears that they will try to do the next best thing: Make them view Ernst as extreme to the point of unelectability. And nobody is helping them make that case more than Ernst herself.
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