The Iowa U.S. Senate race: the fact-checks so far
The signature ad of the Iowa Senate race plays up Republican Joni Ernst's skills in castrating hogs. The signature ad of the Iowa Senate race plays up Republican Joni Ernst's skills in castrating hogs.

The signature ad of the Iowa Senate race plays up Republican Joni Ernst's skills in castrating hogs.

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson September 18, 2014

Editor’s note: Today we look at the race for U.S. Senate in Iowa. It's the fourth in a series of stories about our fact-checks in closely contested Senate races. Our previous installments looked at the races in AlaskaArkansas and Colorado.

As Election Day approaches -- and control of the U.S. Senate hangs in the balance -- Iowa’s Senate race has become one of the nation’s most closely watched.

The seat has come open due to the retirement of Democrat Tom Harkin. Seeking to fill Harkin’s shoes are Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley and Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst.

Early on, Braley had been considered the frontrunner, but Ernst burst on the scene by running an ad boasting about her ability to castrate hogs, which carried her to an easy victory over a crowded GOP primary field. Since then, polls have shown a tight general-election race between Braley and Ernst.

That’s a big reason why the race has featured a lot of hard-hitting ads.

We’ve checked more than a half-dozen ads in this contest, some by the candidates and some by outside groups. Here’s a rundown of what we’ve found.

Medicare and Social Security

Iowa ranks fourth in the nation for the percentage of its population over 65, behind Florida, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. So it should be no surprise that ads on Medicare and Social Security have been airing frequently.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee -- the campaign arm of Senate Republicans -- ran an ad that said, "Bruce Braley voted to cut $700 billion from Medicare to support Obamacare." This has been a common Republican attack line in recent campaign cycles, but we’ve repeatedly expressed skepticism about its accuracy.

The health care law that President Barack Obama signed does include cost savings that could impact some Medicare beneficiaries, such as those enrolled in HMO-style Medicare Advantage plans. But the ad overlooks some key nuances.

The statement that suggests that the law is reducing benefits now, across the board, but it’s actually reducing the future growth of Medicare spending. The law also targets these reductions at health-care providers, not beneficiaries. And the ad ignores new spending from the law that would benefit Medicare beneficiaries, such as expanded coverage for prescriptions.

We rated the claim Half True.

Meanwhile, the Senate Democrats’ rival group, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, charged in an ad that Ernst "would privatize Social Security."

In a debate on local TV, Ernst did say pretty clearly that she supports "reform" for Social Security in order to keep it fiscally sound over the long term. However, by using the word "privatization," the ad overstates the degree of clarity in the policy changes Ernst says she supports, while also glossing over the fact that she limited her proposed changes to "younger workers."

We also rated this ad Half True.

Outsourcing jobs

The Iowa Senate race also has played host to another common claim this campaign cycle -- that Republicans have done things to encourage the outsourcing of U.S. jobs.

NextGen Climate Action Committee -- a pro-environment group that supports Democrats -- said Ernst signed a pledge that "protects tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas."

Ernst did sign the Taxpayer Protection pledge, a promise promoted by Americans for Tax Reform, which is a broad vow to oppose all tax increases. However, that pledge does not specify protecting tax loopholes for companies that have employees overseas.

In one instance, Americans for Tax Reform urged signers to vote against a bill that closed one of these loopholes, but the decision was more about stopping a tax increase than protecting outsourcing -- and Ernst had yet to sign the pledge then, anyway.

We rated this claim False.

Minimum wage

An ad by Braley focuses on the minimum wage as part an effort to paint Ernst as "too extreme" for Iowa.

The ad said Ernst does not support a "national minimum wage." While Ernst's public statements have been contradictory at times, she has said on multiple occasions that states should decide the minimum wage, not the federal government. She's also called the minimum wage a "safety net," and her campaign told us that by that she means the current baseline minimum wage.  

We rated Braley's statement Mostly True.

Committee attendance

We checked two claims in an ad aired by Concerned Veterans for America, an advocacy group with funding linked to the Koch brothers, deep-pocketed libertarians who have been supporting a range of Republican candidates this cycle.

Braley "skipped an astonishing 79 percent of veterans affairs committee hearings. He even skipped an important VA reform hearing to attend three fundraisers," the television ad charged.

On the claim that Braley "skipped an astonishing 79 percent of veterans affairs committee hearings," we found that Braley had missed about 76 percent of all 2011 and 2012 full committee hearings. He did, however, attend almost all of his subcommittee hearings.

We rated the claim Mostly True.

As for the the ad’s second claim that -- Braley "skipped an important VA reform hearing to attend three fundraisers" -- we found that he had three fundraisers the same day, but none overlapped with the veterans affairs hearing. In fact, Braley was counted as present at a separate oversight hearing that occurred at the same time.

So we rated the claim Mostly False.

Eliminating the federal Education Department

A coalition of environmental groups, including include the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Action Fund, ran an ad against Ernst that said she wants to "shut down the Department of Education and abolish the EPA."

In an April debate, Ernst called for the closure of both federal agencies, and her campaign didn’t dispute that.

So we rated the claim True.

Obamacare and special interests

An ad by Freedom Partners -- a group that has served as a hub for funding by the Koch brothers -- charged that Braley took "tens of thousands from his friends in the health insurance industry" and gave them "special favors" by voting for Obamacare.

We found that Braley took tens of thousands of dollars from the insurance industry, though from all types of insurers, not just health insurers. The actual amount he received from health insurance sources was $20,500, or about $2,000 for every year he served in Congress -- a very modest amount.

More important, Braley, like most Democrats, had campaigned on expanding health coverage to the uninsured, and then, faced with a landmark and highly partisan vote, carried through on his stated intentions. We concluded that it was ridiculous to suggest that donors who contributed less than 1 percent of his warchest weighed more heavily on his vote than his ideology, his past campaign promises and his partisan affiliation.

We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

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The Iowa U.S. Senate race: the fact-checks so far