Tight race between Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield in Iowa could determine balance of power in the Senate

Source: By Lauren Feiner, CNBC • Posted: Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Republican Joni Ernst minced no words in her first televised ad of her successful Senate bid in 2014.

“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” the then-state senator says in the ad before the camera cuts to footage of pigs. “Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.”

When Iowa voters cast their ballots in 2020, they’ll decide whether Ernst has lived up to that promise during her six years in Washington.

Ernst has become a reliable Republican vote in the Senate, voting against her party only 3.4% of the time in the current legislative session, according to data compiled by ProPublica. The average Senate Republican voted against the party 4.3% of the time in the current Congress, according to ProPublica.

She’s also an ally of President Donald Trump, who faces a challenge from Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden. With political observers predicting a close presidential race in Iowa, her fate may also be tied to that of the president’s.

National Democratic groups have zeroed in on the race as an opportunity to win back the majority in the Senate, with both the Cook Political Report and FiveThirtyEight rating Iowa’s Senate race as a toss-up. Cook rates the presidential race as a toss-up for Iowa as well, and FiveThirtyEight says Trump is slightly favored to win there. The GOP holds a 53-47 edge in the Senate.

Ernst, the first woman from Iowa to hold federal elected office, now faces Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive who has not previously held political office. Greenfield ran for Congress in 2018, but her bid ended after her ex-campaign manager admitted to forging signatures without her knowledge to get her on the primary ballot. Greenfield submitted a new petition to add her name at the last minute but failed to come up with enough signatures.

This time around, national groups such as EMILY’s List have made Greenfield’s name front and center for Iowa voters. That broad interest in the race has brought the Greenfield campaign a large influx of funds. Greenfield has raised more than $11.5 million as of June 30 while Ernst raised more than $14.4 million, according to Open Secrets.

The national spotlight has also opened a line of attack for Greenfield’s detractors, who have used it to paint her as a puppet for the liberal wing of her party.

“Theresa Greenfield won’t say where she stands, but the millions being spent to elect her from liberal extremists who will defund police, raise taxes and destroy Iowa jobs tells you all you need to know,” an attack ad from the Ernst campaign claims, juxtaposing clips of Greenfield and progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y.

The attacks sound similar to those Republicans have tried to wage against Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. Like Biden, Greenfield is a moderate Democrat who has publicly said she does not support defunding the police and has supported tax plans that would mainly impact the wealthiest families.

Toeing the line in a swing state as progressive money descends on her campaign, Greenfield has focused her message primarily on health care and Social Security. Greenfield’s husband died when she was pregnant with her second child. She has said she relied on Social Security survivor benefits to help make ends meet, fueling her desire to preserve such benefits.

“Theresa has the momentum in the final stretch of this race because she’s demonstrated from day one that she’ll always put Iowa first — from protecting access to health care to helping Iowans get through this pandemic to rebuilding our economy,” Greenfield for Iowa spokesperson Izzi Levy said in a statement, accusing Ernst’s campaign of “illegal coordination with a dark money group set up by her top political aides.”

Political nonprofits are sometimes referred to as “dark money” groups, because they can take unlimited amounts of money without revealing their donors. The groups must keep their work separate from candidates and can’t make their political work their primary focus.

An Associated Press investigation from December 2019 found that top aides to Ernst had created an outside group that worked closely with her to raise money for her reelection. The AP said based on documents it reviewed that the level of overlap could potentially be illegal. At the time, a senior advisor to Ernst told the AP that the campaign “is completely separate and independent from any outside organization,” and said “For the AP to suggest otherwise, is the definition of fake news.”

Ernst, meanwhile, has focused on issues that resonate most for Republicans, such as the economy and law and order, while trying to persuade voters she’s still the candidate who can make Washington squeal. In a statement, Team Joni spokesperson Melissa Deatsch focused on the outside money backing Greenfield’s campaign to claim she’s not right for Iowa.

“Iowans can’t trust Theresa Greenfield, who is hiding behind nearly $100 million that she and her liberal special interest allies are spending trying to buy Iowa’s Senate seat,” Deatsch claimed in a statement. “Liberal groups are pouring money behind Greenfield because they know she’d be a rubber stamp on their radical agenda. Greenfield may be great for California, but she’s far too liberal for Iowa.”

Outside spending supporting Greenfield has surpassed that for Ernst at $10.2 million for the Democrat compared with $6.8 million for the incumbent Republican, according to the most recent data from Open Secrets. Outside spenders pitched in $38.5 million to oppose Ernst, while $33.7 million was spent to oppose Greenfield, also according to the site.

Focus on health care and the economy

Like other Democrats contending for office this year, Greenfield has leaned on the issue of health care in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and upcoming Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, which became more uncertain after the recent death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

With a political fight brewing over the confirmation of Ginsburg’s replacement on the bench, Iowa State University political science professor Dave Peterson said keeping the race focused on health care would be the best strategy for Democrats.

“I do think if they’re overly critical of [nominee Amy Coney] Barrett’s faith, that’s not going to be attractive to Iowans,” he said. Peterson himself donated the legal maximum to Greenfield’s campaign soon after Ginsburg died when he said it became clear Republicans would not abide by the precedent they set not to confirm former President Barack Obama’s nominee in an election year. Republicans including Ernst have said this time is different because Republicans control both the Senate and White House, which was not the case in 2016.

Still, the no-party voters who both candidates are vying to win over are usually not too interested in the ins and outs of the political fights, said University of Iowa political science professor Timothy Hagle.

“Since they don’t pay that much attention to politics they also don’t care about the political process kind of things,” said Hagle, who donated to Ernst’s campaign in 2014. He said he has not made political donations this cycle in part because he frequently talks with journalists about the election and said his comments were made as an academic, not as a Republican.

Meanwhile, Ernst has made the economy one of her key focuses. It has remained a strong issue for Republicans and for Trump after years of growth despite massive and ongoing unemployment due to the pandemic. According to a mid-September Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, 31% of likely voters polled said the economy was the most important issue in the election. Law and order followed at 18%, the Covid-19 pandemic at 15% and health care at 13%.

Ernst has appealed to Iowa’s rural voters by promising to cut down on regulations for businesses and fight “for a level playing field for farmers when it comes to trade,” according to her campaign website.

Trump and trade

Some rural voters have suffered under Trump administration policies Ernst has backed. Ernst supported the Environmental Protection Agency’s approval of year-round use of gasoline infused with 15% ethanol, a major product in Iowa. But ethanol producers later complained that exemptions the agency made to the standard for oil refineries undercut their gains.

Trump’s trade dispute with China has also hurt farmers, as Ernst acknowledged on CNN last year, but she’s defended its importance as a way to stand up for fair prices and national security.

Many farmers in Iowa seem to see the trade policies that way, too, according to academics interviewed for this article and several reports and polls published over the past year. While they may be experiencing pain in the near term, some say they believe the policies will end up benefiting them in the end.

“I’ve heard farmers say, ‘I understand it’s painful right now, but this is what needs to happen and so over the long term this is going to benefit me and I’m willing to stick it out,'” said Rachel Paine Caufield, a political science professor at Drake University in Iowa. “At the same time, I think that there is a general sense that the political system as a whole is not terribly responsive to small town agricultural interests.”

“And so if you feel abandoned by the political system and you feel like you found a candidate who is paying attention and talking to you — not just about you, but to you — I think that inspires a loyalty,” she said. “And I think there is an additional level of the negative partisanship that’s happening. If the alternative is to vote for Democrats, then you stick it out with the Republicans.”

A mid-September Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll found 56% of likely Iowa voters felt Ernst hadn’t done enough to help the state during her time in office, including 19% who plan to vote for her anyway. Of the likely voters polled, 43% said Ernst’s relationship with Trump was “about right,” while 37% said they are “too close.”

That opens the question of how much of Ernst’s political future is tied to Trump’s.

“My feeling is that if Iowa goes for Trump in the presidential race, Ernst is going to win [in the senatorial race] because I can’t envision that people that are going to vote for Trump are not going to vote for Ernst,” Hagle said.

“There hasn’t been much of a sense of what she’s done or what she’s been doing other than what the Republican Party, McConnell and Trump have been doing,” Peterson said of Ernst.

A more formidable foe

Ernst’s voting record isn’t the only thing that makes her run this time different from last. Academics interviewed by CNBC also considered Greenfield a stronger candidate than Ernst’s last opponent in 2014, then-Rep. Bruce Braley. The Hill dubbed him one of the “worst candidates of 2014,” in part due to a gaffe where he criticized senior Republican Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley as just a “farmer from Iowa.” Braley later apologized.

Beyond lacking stumbles, Greenfield’s message has been clearer than Braley’s, Peterson said. Her personal story touches on the key focus of health care and Social Security in her campaign. That clarity is something Ernst achieved in her last campaign, according to Peterson.

“Ernst had that six years ago,” he said. “She started with that ‘make ’em squeal’ ad that became famous, and there was a sort of sense of who she was and how she was going to shake things up. And Greenfield has that this time.”

“[Braley] faced no primary challenger and didn’t define himself or his issues very clearly to voters,” Paine Caufield said. “Joni Ernst was kind of the scrappy winner of a tough primary so defined herself early and creatively and she developed a voice for herself that hit on a certain demographic group in Iowa. While she was credible, she was also tough and ready and would say it like it was and didn’t need to be overly polite about it. She literally spent that entire campaign talking about castrating pigs.”

Peterson said many Iowans would tend to accept the incumbent but given the uncertainty in the economy during the pandemic, voters may be looking for alternatives.

“That’s where Greenfield running a good campaign can make her an attractive alternative,” he said.