US & Canada

US mid-terms: Pigs, 'therapy chickens' and the Senate

Kirk Swanson with his beloved prize boar Hillbilly Bone at 4K Farms in Red Oak Iowa
Image caption Kirk Swanson with his beloved prize boar Hillbilly Bone

The crucial Senate race in the state of Iowa is generating huge interest in America. Millions of dollars have been poured into the campaigns there.

But it is farmyard animals that are playing a surprising, but perhaps decisive, role in what remains a knife-edge battle.

At the beginning of the year, most poll-watchers were predicting a straightforward Democratic win for the Iowa Senate seat.

But with a single sentence, in one campaign advert, the relatively unknown Republican nominee to be senator changed everything.

"I'm Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington, I'll know how to cut pork."

It was an advert focused on rural values, which grabbed attention across America.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Joni Ernst greets supporters at a rally

"Because Washington's full of big spenders, let's make 'em squeal," ends Ms Ernst, an Iraq War veteran.

The sentiment clearly struck a chord with many in this largely agriculture-dependent state, such that the latest opinion polls show a race that is now simply too close to call.

It has turned Iowa into one of the key political battlegrounds of these mid-term elections.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says Iowa is key to Democrats maintaining their slim majority in the Senate.

Pig farmer Kirk Swanson is one of those who says he will now vote for Joni Ernst.

"If you look back at what this country was built on, it was built on hard work and ethics and pride. I think there's people in Iowa that still stand for that," he says.

He, like Ms Ernst, is from an area called Red Oak, where farms, pens and barns are everywhere you look, and he is passionate about what he does.

But standing among some of his dozens of sows, all squealing for their breakfast, Mr Swanson does say that both candidates have focused far too much on personality than on policies.

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Image caption Bruce Braley holds up his work boots at a campaign rally

"I do know one thing," he says. "Our ad campaigns have got so negative that I look forward to the elections being over.

"My grandparents, they probably would've slapped me if I would've handled situations like that, of talking bad about somebody to try and promote myself."

The absence of a big policy issue in these elections, like the economy or health care, may have encouraged this focus on the character of candidates, not just here but across the US.

In this crucial battle in Iowa, there are many who feel the Democrats just have not got their tactics right.

We travelled right across Iowa to the east of the state and a beautiful spot called Holiday Lake. It is where the Democratic candidate, Bruce Braley has a home.

His fate, in one of the most important Senate races in the country, could be decided not just by pigs, but poultry as well.

It became news that he and his wife complained about the free-roaming chickens of their neighbour, Pauline Hampton.

"I saw Carolyn Braley mowing her lawn, and I went down to offer her some eggs," says Ms Hampton.

"That's when she told me that they had filed a formal complaint. They had never mentioned it until I was actually bringing over some eggs for them."

Image caption Pauline Hampton with her chickens at Holiday Lake, Iowa

In an interview with the Washington Post, the candidate defended his family's reaction and denies reports that he threatened legal action.

"This was a personal dispute between my wife and a neighbour because chickens were on our property all the time," he told the Post, who quoted another neighbour that supported his claim.

One woman we spoke to in the area says the incident has definitely influenced the way she would vote.

"If I had any good thoughts about Mr Braley before, I then thought, 'Can't we just be neighbours and all get along?'" says Kim Pendarvis.

"If that's how you handle your personal life then how are you going to handle the country when you're in a senatorial position?"

It did not help matters for the Democratic candidate when Pauline Hampton revealed that her chickens, which we finally track down making themselves comfortable in her vegetable patch, were therapeutic animals, used in sessions with autistic children.

On such things could the destiny of the US Senate be decided.

Both parties know this race matters. It is why so many political big-hitters have been here to drum up support.

On Tuesday night, they will all be watching to see if four chickens and a pig-themed campaign do indeed help tilt the balance of power in America's upper house of Congress.