- Associated Press - Saturday, August 30, 2014

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Iowa is a state with a relatively small number of veterans and no military bases, yet the hotly contested Senate race here is heavily focused on the military.

Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley have often been talking about veterans and the armed forces more than jobs, taxes or health care. The television ads from the candidates and outside groups have also frequently addressed military issues, with Ernst highlighting her role as a lieutenant colonel and a battalion commander in the Iowa National Guard and Braley pushing his efforts as congressman to improve services for veterans.

“If you recall back over the last decade, we haven’t had a race like this in Iowa where people talk about veteran issues like this,” said Will Rogers, chairman of the Republican Party of Polk County, who served in the Army during the first Gulf War.

Several factors likely contribute to the military focus in Iowa. The recent scandals surrounding veterans’ health care and the air strikes against Islamic State militants in Iraq mean the troops are on people’s minds. In addition, it’s a very close race in a state with a fairly evenly divided electorate, so these issues might appeal to undecided voters in the middle.

“Her military record reinforces that she’s a strong, forceful figure. That gives her a marked advantage if Braley does nothing. He has to respond,” said Peter Feaver, a political science professor at Duke University who studies military issues. He said the candidates are essentially competing to show who cares the most about a largely non-controversial issue.

About 234,000 of Iowa’s roughly 3 million residents are veterans, according to federal data. There are about 9,200 National Guard soldiers and airmen in the state, with just one unit currently deployed. No units are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan, though over the past decade the number deployed to those countries from Iowa has been as high as 3,500. Ernst served in the second Iraq war.

Ernst, 44, a state senator, recently spent two weeks doing annual training with the National Guard and spoke to veterans when she returned. During an August appearance at the Iowa State Fair, she talked about a young man from Iowa who died serving in Afghanistan.

“He died standing up for what he believed was right,” Ernst told the crowd, urging them to “thank a veteran” that day.

Braley, 56, a four-term congressman, stresses that his father was a Marine and has touted his record working on veterans issues, which includes sponsoring legislation to provide tax credits to businesses that hire veterans and seeking GI benefits for Iowa veterans who were originally denied them. He recently campaigned with former U.S. Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat and former secretary of the Navy, who praised Braley’s “fierce advocacy” for veterans in a statement.

But Braley has come under fire for missing hearings held by the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in 2011 and 2012, though his staff argues that he attended nearly all the meetings for his assigned subcommittee. Conservative political action committees have run ads attacking Braley over the attendance issue.

Meanwhile, Ernst has pushed back against criticism that she is focusing on her military biography to avoid talking about other issues that might prove controversial. Democrats have also argued that Ernst has taken some military positions that are too conservative for the state - like recent comments that she would have supported leaving U.S. troops in Iraq for longer. Ernst’s campaign said she is simply concerned about national security.

Both candidates have talked about sexual violence in the military.

At a speech before a GOP women’s group, Ernst recently pledged to work with Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, on legislation to combat sexual violence in the military, arguing that it should not be a partisan issue.

In a recent television ad, the father of an Army nurse who was killed by her military husband, praised Braley for seeking legislation to combat sexual assault in the military. The bill didn’t pass though some pieces of it were implemented.

While military has been a focus thus far, with two months left in the race, the candidates may soon turn their attention to more traditional issues, like the economy.

“Usually there’s an issue or two in the summer that seems like a big deal but fades by the time October rolls around,” said Democratic consultant Jeff Link, an adviser to the Braley campaign.



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