THE BLOG
10/20/2014 05:24 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

In Iowa Senate Race, 'Lawyer Issue' Remains Relevant

As we are mere weeks away from the national midterm elections, it's worth noting how that "lawyer vs. nonlawyer" theme is developing in Iowa, where a race for United States Senate is both deadlocked and growing nastier by the day.

The Daily Beast branded this year's election as "Iowa's ugliest Senate race ever" and set the scene well, noting that in one "corner is Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term Congressman from the industrial city of Waterloo. In the otheris Republican Joni Ernst, a first-term state senator and lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard from the rural county seat of Red Oak. Both candidates have clear strengths, clear weaknesses and campaigns that are not afraid to go for the jugular."

Already heavily covered, the race got an attention boost last week when First Lady Michelle Obama campaigned for Rep. Braley and consistently mispronounced his name as "Bailey." Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert had the funniest take -- here it is in context via the Des Moines Register newspaper.

(The race is so close that this week's airplane-crash death of a minor candidate, Libertarian Party leader Doug Butzier, was being evaluated in political terms even though he likely held less than two percent of likely voters.)

The lawyer-nonlawyer theme arose when U.S. Rep. Braley warned some out-of-state potential contributors that they "might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law, serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee." Of course, that non-lawyer would be U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, Iowa's iconic senior senator.

It has remained an issue through the summer into crunch time. The Des Moines Register newspaper noted that "the remarks by Braley, a trial lawyer and congressman who is running in the high-stakes open race for retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin's seat, quickly caught fire on Twitter and various national news sites. Many political insiders predicted that this incident will bruise a campaign that they've been confident would see victory in November."

In response to the video, Grassley spokeswoman Beth Pellett Levine said that "by the logic expressed on this recording, a trial lawyer shouldn't be involved in policy making about agriculture, or energy, or health care."

The Braley campaign issued a quick apology. However, the lawyer theme got a surreal boost after a Republican blogger reported that Braley "forced the neighborhood association around his summer home to pay nearly $2,000 in legal fees he accrued after his wife complained about a neighbor's chickens." That played into the narrative that Braley, while elected to the House in 2006, was previously president of the "Iowa Association for Justice," -- in other words, a lawyer's lawyer.

The issue remains on the agenda. Politico reports that, during a live TV debate last week,

when Braley said 'sound bites have consequences,' his mantra of the night, Ernst fired back by recalling that Braley mocked Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley as a farmer without a law degree during a closed-door fundraiser with trial lawyers that was caught on camera. Her supporters in the crowd cheered.

I've noted the education issue in use by populists in other races, the most high-profile current example is perhaps the Wisconsin governor's race, where New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie showed up to campaign for potential 2016 presidential rival, and current governor and recall-election survivor, Scott Walker.

The local ABC News affiliate noted that "Christie needled [Walker's opponent's] credentials as a Harvard Business School graduate. Walker does not have a college degree. "I didn't go to Harvard Business School, but I don't think they were teaching plagiarism," Christie said, referring to the opponent's use of another state plan in her economic pitch. (She blamed and fired a consultant and said "of course" she's using ideas from other states.)

While jabs against "book smarts" and against lawyers is not exactly new, there is evidence to support its relevance. Maybe at the ballot box. A New York Times "Economix" blog about the Congressional Research Service 2012 reports that "nearly two of every five United States senators is a lawyer, but the share is declining... lawyers account for 23.91 percent of today's House, down from a high of 42.56 percent in the 87th Congress (1961-62).

While few would argue that "being a lawyer" is on par with jobs and immigration as election issues go it may be worth realizing that in populist elections higher education not only is of limited help, it can be a disadvantage.

In Iowa's big money, neck-and-neck senate race, with control of the United States Senate in the balance, it's interesting that the "lawyer issue" can retain its relevance, and that it remains a big debate applause line.