Trump’s Trade Wars, Covid Response Could Cost Republicans an Iowa Senate Seat

Source: By Laura Litvan, Bloomberg • Posted: Thursday, October 1, 2020

President Donald Trump’s newfound struggle to keep Iowa in Republican hands, just four years after a comfortable win in the Midwestern state, could also prove decisive for control of the U.S. Senate.

Joni Ernst is running behind in her quest for reelection on Nov. 3, after binding herself both to the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s leadership team in her first term. A member of the Judiciary Committee, she’s looking to the fight with Democrats over Trump’s pick to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to energize Iowa Republicans.

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Polls show Theresa Greenfield, a 56-year-old real estate executive contesting a statewide office for the first time, with a slight lead. A win over Ernst, 50, would give Democrats one of the three or four seats they need for their first Senate majority in six years, depending on whether Joe Biden beats Trump.

Along with Iowa, Republicans in Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and Colorado are seen by political analysts as particularly in danger, while Alabama is a likely Republican pick-up. Ernst herself had a close contest in 2014, prevailing with 52% of voters.

“In the six years she’s been in office, she hasn’t extended her reach into the electorate very far beyond the conservative base—and that has her at risk,” David Yepsen, a longtime Iowa political observer and host of the Iowa PBS’s Iowa Press program, said of Ernst. “Her fate is tied to Trump’s.”

A Sept. 18-22 Monmouth University poll showed Greenfield with a three-point lead, and a Sept. 14-17 Des Moines Register survey showed the same margin, at 45% to 42% for Ernst.

Iowa has been a swing state for some time, narrowly voting against George W. Bush for president in 2000 then narrowly backing his reelection. The Hawkeye State went for Barack Obama twice, then in the 2014 mid-term election chose Ernst to take the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

Trump won the presidential contest in the overwhelmingly white, and rural, state by a 9 percentage point margin in 2016. But since then, Democrats have flipped two of Iowa’s four seats in the U.S. House, leaving just one Republican representative. Ernst too has seen a shift, with her approval rating retreating from a 56% high in February 2019 to 44% last month, Des Moines Register polls show.

Iowa, the nation’s largest producer of hogs and second-largest producer of soybeans, has been hit by Trump’s trade war with China. The state also has seen a spike in Covid-19 infections since mid-August. Both developments might have helped erode support for Trump and, by extension, Ernst. There also are parochial issues. In the Des Moines Register poll, 56% said Ernst hasn’t done enough in Congress to benefit Iowans.

The incumbent is trying to both shore up her base and win over independent voters. As one of McConnell’s lieutenants—she’s been vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference since 2019—Ernst has argued that a Democratic Senate majority would be out of sync with Iowan sensibilities. Among the potential agenda items if Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer takes over are ending the filibuster—the ability of 41 senators to block bills—and adding seats to the nine-person Supreme Court, Ernst says.

“They’re talking about packing the Supreme Court, they’re talking about doing away with the filibuster,” Ernst said in an interview last week. “Iowans see the radicalization of the Democratic Party, and they feel like it’s gone too far.”

While Ernst, a veteran officer of the National Guard, opposed Trump’s call to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military, she’s largely embraced the president otherwise. She voted to acquit him after his impeachment and backed Supreme Court nominees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. And she was the only incumbent GOP senator up for re-election to speak at the Republican National Convention in August.

Sen. Joni Ernst talks with fairgoers as she works at the Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday August 17, 2019.
Sen. Joni Ernst talks with fairgoers as she works at the Pork Tent at the Iowa State Fair on Saturday August 17, 2019. Photographer: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

The first woman to be elected to a federal office from Iowa, Ernst weeks ago convinced Trump to allow existing filling-station pumps to be used to distribute higher-ethanol gasoline—helping Iowa corn farmers and biofuel producers.

For her part, Greenfield has advertised the same roots that helped Ernst build her appeal six years ago, having grown up on a farm. She’s also highlighted the deep importance to her of the social safety net. When she was 24, her husband, a union member and electrician, died in a workplace accident. She supported her two sons in part using Social Security survivor benefits. Now she’s running on a platform of safeguarding Social Security, Medicare and the health insurance provided by Obamacare—which Ernst voted to repeal in 2017 and which the Trump administration wants to overturn in court—amid the strains imposed by the pandemic.

“Iowans are worried about their jobs and their paychecks, worried about their healthcare,” Greenfield said in an interview last week. “Those are the issues that are really motivating people to get out there and take a look at our candidacy and vote for their next senator.”

The former urban planner says she’s “open” to the idea of abandoning the Senate’s filibuster tradition, but wants to see first if Republicans prove to be obstructionist in the event of a Democratic majority. On the current Supreme Court fight, Greenfield says the move by Trump and Senate Republicans to fill Ginsburg’s seat before the election could turn off Iowan voters. She’s also said she’s opposed to adding seats to the court.

Democratic senate candidate Theresa Greenfield speaks at a picnic hosted by the Adair County Democrats in Greenfield, Iowa on Sunday August 11, 2019.
Democratic senate candidate Theresa Greenfield speaks at a picnic hosted by the Adair County Democrats in Greenfield, Iowa on Sunday August 11, 2019. Photographer: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call

The contender has had a challenge boosting her name recognition amid efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. While Ernst recently completed a tour of all of Iowa’s 99 counties, Greenfield held no in-person events between March 13 and July 11, citing caution about the pandemic. She said she is now “criss-crossing the state” with two or three events weekly.

“Traditional campaigning gives the candidates the chance to get around the state and get that name recognition, said Timothy Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “Because of the pandemic, she hasn’t had the opportunity as much. It’s a tougher sell.”

Greenfield is proving successful enough at fundraising, however, hauling in $6 million to the incumbent’s $3.6 million in the three months through June, the most recent quarterly data available. Ernst’s cash balance remained higher, at $9.1 million against $5.9 million.

Given the stakes of the race, both candidates are benefiting from spending by national party committees and outside groups that include Super-PACs run by allies of McConnell and Schumer. Total outside group spending so far has exceeded $71 million, including funds spent before Greenfield won a four-way Democratic primary in June, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

Groups that include the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Schumer-allied Senate Majority PAC have spent about $32 million to defeat Ernst. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund are among groups that have spent a combined $26 million to see off Greenfield.

With Trump and Biden tied in a RealClearPolitics average of recent Iowa presidential polls, an x-factor has emerged in the final weeks of the campaign—the recall of Iowa’s popular former Republican governor to the campaign trail. Terry Branstad governed the state for more than two decades, in two stretches dating back to the 1980s, before Trump tapped him as his ambassador to China.

Branstad returned in September to help push Trump and Ernst to victory. With about one third of registered voters independent, against one third each as Republican and Democrat, any sway he might have could prove influential.

“Branstad could do a good job of helping to fire up the foot soldiers and the people who are out knocking on doors for the party faithful,” Yepsen said. Even before the former governor’s arrival, Republicans were doing well in finding people to add to voting rosters, he said. The party had a 5,000 voter registration lead over Democrats in the state at the start of September, reversing a deficit from earlier in the year, according to Yepsen.

Also still to come are the Senate Judiciary hearings with Trump’s Supreme Court pick, Amy Coney Barrett, and Ernst’s involvement as a panel member. Yepsen said both parties could boost the support of their bases through the likely tensions.

“I think it energizes everybody.”