Breaking News Emails
Without an incumbent on the Senate ballot for the first time in three decades, Iowa's outsized role in American politics is extending beyond the presidential race and into the midterm election. The party that wins the wildly close Senate race here could very likely control the chamber next year.
Here are my top three takeaways from talking to voters in the Hawkeye State on the 'Meet the Voters' road trip across the heartland:
1) Yes, it really is thisclose.
Polls show that this race has been within the margin of error for weeks. And on the ground, this really feels like it could be the closest race in the country. Voters are practical, they're paying attention, and -- like the ones we met in Kansas -- they're most interested in a candidate who can break through Washington gridlock. It's hard to imagine that the party that wins or keeps control of the Senate doesn't get there through a victory in Iowa. And if the state isn't an individual bellwether, it's a compliment to fellow purple state Colorado; if one party loses both of those states, the math is probably just too complicated for a win any other way.
2) For a nasty race, this one's still Iowa Nice.
There's just something nice about Iowa. As hard-fought, expensive, and high-stakes as this race is, there's a sense that candidates just can't go too negative here. Both Braley and Ernst are trying very hard to capture the same spirit of civility that allowed Iowans to send two ideologically opposed politicians -- retiring Democrat Tom Harkin and Republican Chuck Grassley -- to Washington again and again without feeling conflicted about it. You see it in how Ernst goes out of her way to compliment Harkin; it's also evident in how Braley's still smarting from being caught on camera calling Grassley "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." The focus on comity is also creating a high-wire act for Ernst, who won her primary surrounded by a cast of high-profile conservatives not known for moderate stances (Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, the list goes on). She now needs to keep the state's social conservatives in the fold but also capture persuadable independents who want to see bipartisan compromise.
3) Two important sets of swing voters will determine the outcome here.
For Braley, the name of the game is capturing Iowans who swing between voting and not voting. The whole ground game for Iowa Democrats is about turning out casual, less inspired voters who usually only show up to vote for Democrats in presidential years. The campaign talks a big game about this -- but we won't know how successful the strategy was until Election Day.
For Ernst, the key is a different kind of swing voter. Just as they have a sense of big-picture fairness (like sending a staunch conservative and a hard-core Democrat to the Senate together for 30 years), Iowans have a sense of history. Ernst would be the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa, a fact that's not lost especially on independent female voters. The big question is whether Ernst overperforms among those women or if Braley has raised enough doubts about her to keep them leaning his way. One factor that may matter here: while Ernst has tried to moderate many of her most conservative positions, she's not backing away from her support of 'personhood,' the classification of the unborn as persons with full legal rights. As Ernst told me, supporting personhood "is stating that I do believe in life. I will never say that's a mistake because, again, I am always someone who is going to support life."
NBC's Carrie Dann contributed to this report.