U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst speaks during a town hall at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.

DES MOINES — Heading into her first re-election, GOP U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst has a 72 percent approval rating among Iowa Republicans.

However, the first-term senator is ranked among the 10 least popular members of the U.S. Senate, according to Morning Consult polling. That’s based on her 37 percent disapproval rating, which is tied with one other senator and better than only eight others — including Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who scored 39 percent disapproval.

That’s no surprise to Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price.

“She has used her position in power to help her rich cronies and party bosses rather than representing Iowa values,” he asserted.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann prefers an Iowa Poll showing Ernst’s support at an all-time high.

“Given her record-breaking approval rating and her enormous fundraising haul, it is clear Iowans overwhelmingly support Sen. Ernst,” he said.

A rule of thumb in politics is that an incumbent is in trouble if his or her approval rating is less than 50 percent. In Ernst’s case, a Morning Consult survey of registered voters found 40 percent of Iowans approved of her performance. While that falls far short of the 57 percent approval rating found in the Iowa Poll, it puts the Red Oak Republican ahead of the approval ratings of a couple dozen senators and not far behind Democratic presidential hopefuls New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris, both with 43 percent approval ratings.

“At this point, the relatively low approval rating is probably more a function of sharing party affiliation with the president than any particular vote or action,” said Chris Larimer, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

Eighteen months before the 2020 election, Ernst’s approval number in the Morning Consult poll probably is not fatal, according to Larimer and Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political science professor.

“Her approval is still above disapproval,” Hagle said.

The 2020 presidential race “will, or at least could” be a factor, he said. While Donald Trump’s presence on the 2016 ballot didn’t seem to bother Grassley’s bid for a seventh term, “Ernst isn’t at that stage yet, given that this is her first re-election campaign,” Hagle said.

Factors Larimer looks at include whether an incumbent is accessible and relatable. Larimer, who has researched Iowa governors running for re-election, found that a 44 percent approval rating was a predictor of a 50.1 percent vote share.

“So, while a 40 percent approval isn’t great, it might be enough in the absence of a strong challenger,” he said.

So far, Democrats have not come up with such a challenger. Former Democratic Gov. Tom Vilsack and 3rd District U.S. Rep. Cindy Axne both have passed on running against her.

That point isn’t lost on Ryan Dawkins, who teaches political science at Grinnell College.

“The fact that high profile Democrats are choosing to pass on a run is definitely a sign in Ernst’s favor,” he said. “Politicians are strategic about these decisions, after all.”

Ernst’s 40-37 approval/disapproval rating may not encourage a challenger, “but they aren’t overly discouraging either,” Hagle said.

“Democrats will need to field a quality candidate to make it a real contest,” Hagle said. “Someone with name recognition would probably be better for Democrats, but it’s not necessarily required.”

in 2014, Ernst had less name recognition than Democratic U.S. Rep Bruce Braley, but won they seat they vied for.

Although Republicans have a 17,000 voter registration advantage in Iowa, Hagle said it likely will be the 37 percent of Iowa’s 2,111,788 voters who are neither Republicans nor Democrats who will likely decide the outcome. Republicans and Democrats have similar shares of the electorate — 31.8 percent and 31 percent, respectively, according to the Iowa Secretary of State.

And not to be overlooked, Hagle said, is that “Iowa likes its incumbents — usually.”

“So (Ernst) can’t take the race lightly, but it wouldn’t be time to worry yet,” he said.

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