Eight weeks before election day, Democrats' best hope in Louisiana's sixth congressional district is at the VIP room of an all-you-can-eat restaurant in Denham Springs, talking about his baggage.
"When I was here in 1971, I was running for governor and nobody knew me, and that was not too good," Edwin Edwards explains to the local Kiwanis Club, in his French-inflected Acadia Parish cadence. "Now I'm running for Congress and everybody knows me and that's not good."
After eight years in federal prison for corruption and one-short-lived reality show, the 87-year-old Edwards is back. The former four-term governor and four-term congressman known for his womanizing and gambling (and one-liners about both) is gunning for the South Louisiana House seat being vacated by GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy, who is running for Senate.
But Edwards isn't even the strangest candidate in the race. The wide-open field also features 10 Republicans, four of whom could win: a self-proclaimed Sarah Palin disciple; a 28-year-old techie; an unabashed Koch brothers supporter; and an outspoken state senator.
James Lee Witt, candidate for Congress in Arkansas' 4th District, wipes away a fresh gob of tobacco spit with his brown cowboy boots and tells me about his old friend Bill.
"He was down here rededicating the Greers Ferry Dam…and he called me after that, because my wife had passed away you know, and he…visited with me for a little while," Witt says, recalling a recent conversation with the 43rd president, as we wait for the start of a parade in Arkadelphia. "I said, 'I need to tell you something,' and he said 'What's that'" I said, 'I think I'm gonna run for Congress in the 4th District.' And he said"—here Witt breaks into his finest Clinton impression—"'James Lee, I think that's a great idea!'"
This year's Iowa Senate race—a key contest that could determine whether Republicans gain control of the upper body—has so far not been shaped by titanic policy issues. Instead, farm animals have played a larger role. GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley in this much-watched face-off, got a boost from an ad in which she bragged about castrating hogs. Braley has been hurt by the news that he allegedly threatened* a lawsuit against a neighbor whose chickens had wandered into his yard. Ernst has accused Braley of sexism for including stock footage of baby chickens—i.e., "chicks"—in an ad that asserted she had not made a "peep" about cutting government pork.
This may not be shocking for a Senate race in the Hawkeye State. But what is surprising is that the campaign has not been much affected by a series of controversial, extreme, or just plain dumb remarks Ernst has made—and her subsequent denials that she said them.
Here are a few examples of Ernst's out-there statements:
Ernst has alleged that the federal government is partnering with the United Nations to force Iowans off their land and into urban cores as part of a conspiracy called Agenda 21. At a campaign event last November, she said:
All of us agreed that Agenda 21 is a horrible idea. One of those implications to Americans, again, going back to what did it does do to the individual family here in the state of Iowa, and what I've seen, the implications that it has here is moving people off of their agricultural land and consolidating them into city centers, and then telling them that you don't have property rights anymore. These are all things that the UN is behind, and it's bad for the United States and bad for families here in the state of Iowa.
At a candidate forum in January, she said that President Obama has "become a dictator" and should be impeached.
Meeting with business leaders in late August, she complained about the existence of federal minimum wage. Here's what she said, per the Mason City (Iowa) Globe Gazette:
The minimum wage is a safety net. For the federal government to set the minimum wage for all 50 states is ridiculous…The standard of living in Iowa is different than it is in New York or California or Texas. One size does not fit all.
She told the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition last September that federal laws can be nullified by states:
She told the Des Moines Register editorial board in May that the United States really did find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Per my colleague Pat Caldwell:
"We don't know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in," she said, "however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." When a Register reporter quizzed her on what information she has, Ernst said, "My husband served in Saudi Arabia as the Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that's a hot-button topic in that area."
She said at a GOP primary debate in May that abortion providers "should be punished" and zygotes should be granted full constitutional protection if the state passed a "personhood" amendment—and in 2013, sponsored a bill in the state Senate to make that possible.
Ernst is hailed by supporters as a straight-talking candidate who will stick to her conservative principles. But throughout this campaign, she has been quick to walk away from her most bizarre statements as soon as she's challenged on them.
When asked by Yahoo News last month about her suggestion that an international cabal would relocate her constituents to Des Moines, Ernst said, "I don't think that the UN Agenda 21 is a threat to Iowa farmers." When asked about impeachment in July, she insisted, "I have not seen any evidence that the president should be impeached." She added that "obviously" the president is not a dictator. In June, referring to the federal minimum wage, she said that, contra whatever she said earlier that month, "I never called for the abolishment of it. Never." In May, she walked back her weapons of mass destruction claim and conceded that Iraq had none at the time of the US invasion. Recently, Ernst attacked Braley for proposing an adjustment to the Social Security retirement age, while simultaneously making an identical proposal herself.
It's Braley's poultry-related gaffes—and not Ernst's Palinesque positions and subsequent clarifications—that have made the biggest political dent; the most recent poll of the race found Ernst with a 6-point edge. It's just easier to understand a claim about someone's character than it is an international conspiracy. "Something like Agenda 21—who knows about that?" says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "But they understand the idea that my neighbor is suing me over chickens."
*Correction: This piece originally stated that Braley had sued his neighbor.
Milton Whitley's gift to Texas was called twisted yam on a stick. You take a yam, cut it into a spiral, deep fry it, cover it in butter, smother it in sugar, coat it in cinnamon, eat. Is it healthy? Of course it's healthy—yam is a superfood. The final product was a finalist at the 2009 Texas State Fair, before losing out to the eventual winner, deep-fried butter.
A native of Dallas County, Whitley started off as a catfish cook and worked his way up the comfort food chain to an appearance on national television presenting Oprah and Gayle with a homemade sweet potato pie. He now teaches science at a public school. But last year he set his sights on something more daunting than the fried-food contest at the state fair—getting elected to the Texas Legislature as a Democrat. Whitley, who's running in the Dallas-area 113th state House district, is one of a dozen candidates selected as part of a trial program for Battleground Texas, the Democratic organizing project launched last spring by a cast of Obama campaign veterans who are hoping to turn the nation's largest red state blue.
It's game day in Baton Rouge, and the bro in the purple shirt wants Mary Landrieu's help doing a keg stand.
Landrieu, elected three times by the narrowest of margins, is once again locked in a tight reelection campaign, this time against GOP Rep. Bill Cassidy. With six weeks until Election Day, every moment counts. She spent her Saturday morning at a beach near Lake Charles, in the state's southwest corner, taking part in a cleanup effort cosponsored by Citgo, the Venezuelan oil company, pegged to the anniversary of Hurricane Rita. As a member of the president's party in a state where the president is deeply unpopular, this event neatly encapsulates Landrieu's strategy: Keep it local. She'll fight for coastal restoration, but she'll also fight for the oil and gas industry, and with her seniority and connections, she'll cut deals to help out both.
The other part of her pitch is that she is an independent-minded daughter of Louisiana who is in touch with the needs and traditions of her constituents. Over the last month or so, that part of her messaging has taken a hit. First, the Washington Postreported that Landrieu listed her primary residence as her parents' New Orleans home but spent most of her time in Washington, DC. Seeing an opportunity, a one-time Republican challenger filed a lawsuit to have her taken off the ballot (that suit was thrown out). Thus, here we are on the edge of the LSU's quad, four hours before the Tigers kick off against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, contemplating keg stands.