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FactChecking the Iowa Senate Race

Longtime Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin is retiring, and Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst are each hoping to be the one to replace him. Braley was once an early favorite to hold the seat for Democrats, but Ernst now has a slight lead in a very competitive race that most political forecasters rate a pure “toss-up.”

Ernst — who gained national prominence with a TV ad touting her hog-castrating prowess — has been attacked for being an “extreme” candidate who wants to privatize Social Security. And Braley — whose campaign has made a number of gaffes — has faced claims that he rarely attends his congressional committee hearings and is out-of-touch with Iowa voters.

Here’s a look back:


Claim: Ernst “would privatize Social Security.”

Facts: Ernst hasn’t proposed or endorsed a plan to change Social Security. In fact, she opposes any changes in Social Security for current seniors or workers nearing retirement age.

senatebattleAt most, Ernst has said that she would consider allowing “younger workers,” or those “just entering the workforce,” to put some portion of their Social Security payroll taxes into interest-bearing or stock market-based “personal savings accounts” for their retirement. Braley and other Democrats have hammered Ernst ever since, claiming that she “would privatize Social Security” or that she has “proposed privatizing Social Security.” But that goes too far.

Ernst hasn’t offered any specifics or committed to a fully “privatized” Social Security system, or even a partial one, as the Braley campaign and Democratic TV ads would have voters believe. That is a point that Ernst made in a televised debate with Braley on Sept. 28, when she said, “I haven’t endorsed one option over another, but we need to come together in a bipartisan manner to solve these issues.”

Full story: “Ernst and ‘Privatizing’ Social Security,” Oct. 7


Claim: Braley “skipped an important VA reform hearing to attend three fundraisers.”

Facts: That’s false. None of the fundraisers was scheduled at the same time as the congressional hearing that Braley missed.

Here’s what’s true: Braley missed a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, titled “Veterans Affairs in the 112th Congress: Reviewing VA’s Performance and Accountability,” on Sept. 20, 2012. He also attended three fundraisers for his reelection campaign that day in Washington, D.C., including a breakfast scheduled from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m., a lunch event at noon and a fundraising reception from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m.

The problem with the claim made in an ad from Concerned Veterans for America? The three fundraisers Braley attended didn’t conflict with the hearing he missed, which lasted from 10:19 a.m. to 11:54 a.m. The Braley campaign has said that the congressman missed the VA committee hearing because he was attending a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing that was taking place at roughly the same time. The official hearing transcript shows he was present at the oversight hearing, but it is not known for how long. And his campaign declined to tell us.

Full Story: “Braley’s VA Hearing Attendance Under Attack,” Aug. 1


Claim: Braley “skipped an astonishing 79 percent of Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearings.”

Facts: That’s accurate, but not the whole story.

Braley missed 15 out of 19 full committee hearings as a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee from 2011 to 2012. However, that’s not his complete attendance record. Braley also served on the Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity those two years, and he attended 15 out of 17, or 88 percent, of the subcommittee hearings. That means that, in total, combining the full committee hearings and subcommittee hearings, Braley was present at nearly 53 percent of the hearings that he could have attended.

Full story: “Braley’s VA Hearing Attendance Under Attack,” Aug. 1


Claim: As an Iowa state legislator, Ernst “never wrote one measure to slash spending.”

Facts: Ernst’s record isn’t completely devoid of any effort to cut spending, as a Braley campaign ad suggests.

Ernst co-sponsored several measures intended to save the state money or cut wasteful spending, such as bills to freeze state hiring, develop less expensive state retirement plans and require a cost-benefit analysis before building new state rest stops.

It is true, as the same Braley ad says, that “she backed measures to actually increase spending,” including funding for transportation projects, the state preschool program, and a fund for road and bridge repair. But saying Ernst “never wrote one measure to slash spending” overlooks the part of her record aimed at cutting costs.

Full Story: “Pork, Served Two Ways, in Iowa,” June 13


Claim: Braley “voted to raise taxes on every single Iowa taxpayer.”

Facts: That’s a distortion of Braley’s clearly stated position to retain Bush-era income-tax rates for all but individuals making more than $200,000 a year, or $250,000 for couples.

The vote cited in an ad from the National Republican Senatorial Committee is one Braley cast in the House in December 2010 as a protest against extending Bush tax cuts for another two years for the more affluent. Had the bill failed, the Bush tax cuts might have lapsed on schedule on Jan. 1, 2011, for “every single” taxpayer, as the ad claims — assuming no other compromise was worked out. As it happened, the bill passed by a more than comfortable margin of 277 to 148, and the tax cuts were temporarily preserved for everyone.

But Braley’s vote against that bill doesn’t mean that he favored raising everybody’s income taxes. In fact, he clearly didn’t. During debate on the measure, Braley reiterated that he opposed any increase in taxes on the majority of taxpayers, saying the deal he voted against included at least an $81 billion tax break for “the wealthiest people in this country.” More recently, Braley voted to raise taxes on only about the top 1 percent, while keeping federal income taxes the same for all who are less affluent.

Full story: “NRSC Distorts Braley Tax Record,” Oct. 22


Claim: Ernst supports “a plan cutting Medicare’s guaranteed benefit.”

Facts: This tired claim misrepresents Rep. Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, which wouldn’t take away any benefits that are currently “guaranteed.” Ryan’s proposal would require private plans to cover the same benefits as traditional Medicare.

The Senate Majority PAC ran similar ads in other Senate races, tying Republican candidates to Ryan’s plan to gradually transition Medicare to a premium-support system in which people currently under 55, once eligible for Medicare, would get government subsidies for a selection of insurance plans on a Medicare exchange. The exchange would include both private plans and traditional Medicare. The DSCC also ran an attack ad against Ernst on this issue.

Ernst’s support for Ryan’s plan is indirect. She voted against an Iowa state Senate resolution that expressed opposition to the Ryan plan in 2011, which, unlike his current plan, didn’t give future beneficiaries the option of selecting a traditional fee-for-service Medicare plan. Ernst’s website says she “opposes any efforts to change the promised benefits for today’s seniors.”

Full story: “Midterm Medicare Mudslinging,” Oct. 3


Claim: Braley is backed by an environmental activist who “stands to profit by blocking” the Keystone XL pipeline.

Facts: This is inaccurate. It is based on outdated information about the investments of Tom Steyer, whose NextGen Climate Action group has run TV ads against Braley’s GOP challengers.

Steyer, a former hedge fund manager, gave up ownership of Farallon Capital Management at the end of 2012 to pursue a career in environmental activism. Farallon invested hundreds of millions in oil and gas companies, including Kinder Morgan, an energy company that owns a pipeline that would be an alternative to Keystone if the latter project didn’t come to fruition, according to industry analysts.

So, in the not-too-distant past — 2012 — Steyer could have stood to profit if the Keystone pipeline project had been blocked. However, Steyer instructed Farallon to divest his personal holdings of money in tar sands and coal when he left the company. More important, his old hedge fund no longer has any holdings in that pipeline company.

The ad, from the conservative American Crossroads super PAC, also implies that Braley opposes the pipeline project because NextGen is spending millions to help him defeat Ernst. Braley initially voiced support for the pipeline in 2012, but has been opposed to it since at least May 2013, when he voted against authorizing the northern leg of the project. Braley says he’s opposed to the project because it threatens renewable energy jobs in Iowa and because there’s no guarantee the oil transported by the pipeline would stay in the United States.

There’s no evidence of any quid pro quo between Braley and the billionaire environmentalist.

Full Story: “Special Interest Battle in Midwest Races,” Sept. 23

— The Staff of FactCheck.org