DES MOINES — Six years ago in Iowa, Joni Ernst was in a competitive, open-seat U.S. Senate race in which she surged late to defeat her opponent.
If Ernst is to earn a second six-year term in the Senate, she will need another late surge in these final days before the election.
Ernst, a Republican, is facing re-election against Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. Polling throughout the summer and fall has showed a close race, and most poll results have been within the margins for error. Real Clear Politics’ average of recent polling on the race shows an average of Greenfield with a 1.8-point advantage.
In other words, the Ernst-Greenfield race is a pure toss-up, which is how most national political forecasters see it.
“I call it ‘anyone’s guess who’s going to win,’” said Kelly Winfrey, an elections expert and assistant professor of journalism at Iowa State University.
Libertarian Rick Stewart and no-party candidate Suzanne Herzog also are on the ballot in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.
Ernst was first elected to the Senate in 2014. Longtime Democratic U.S. Tom Harkin retired that cycle, and Ernst defeated Bruce Braley, a Democratic Congressman from eastern Iowa.
Polling on the Ernst-Braley race had also been very close throughout. A late poll from Selzer & Co. and the Des Moines Register showed Ernst with a 7-point lead, but even with that, Real Clear Politics going into Election Day showed Ernst with an average 2.3-point edge.
Ernst defeated Braley by 8.5 points.
This year, Ernst is locked in another neck-and-neck race, this time with Greenfield.
“I have been fighting for Iowa,” Ernst said in an interview. “I was born and raised in Iowa. I live just a few miles from the farm where I was raised. And every Sunday when I get up and take my mother to church, I’m looking my neighbors in the eye, I’m looking my community members in the eye, I’m listening to them, not only what their opportunities are but their challenges, too. And I’m projecting that in Washington, D.C.”
Ernst’s pitch for re-election includes claims that she has worked hard on Iowa-specific issues like the federal ethanol mandate — a beloved program in Iowa’s agricultural sector — and federal assistance in the wake of this summer’s derecho. She tells voters she has worked in bipartisan fashion in the Senate while also ensuring her Republican base that she has supported polarizing Republican President Donald Trump and top conservative causes like repealing the federal Affordable Care Act and approving another conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Ernst also pitches her work to address domestic abuse and sexual assault in the military — Ernst says she has been a victim of both — and boosting mental health care resources for farmers and veterans.
Ernst’s lines of attack on her opponent have included criticism of Greenfield’s history as a real estate business executive, and charges that Greenfield has not campaigned in as many counties across that state as has Ernst.
“I think that she’s done a good job touting her record and explaining what she’s done and what she’s accomplished in her six years there,” Winfrey said of Ernst. “And she’s also done a very good job responding to the attacks that have come from Greenfield or the Democratic Party about her positions.”
The one attack Ernst faces most is her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a Democrat-era health care program that expanded access to health insurance for tens of millions of Americans. One of the most popular elements of the law is its stipulation that Americans cannot be denied health insurance just because they have a serious health condition.
Ernst voted multiple times for Senate legislation that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act. None of those bills made it all the way; the closest came in 2017, when the late Arizona Republican John McCain cast the decisive “no” vote on a bill to repeal the health care law.
Democrats have criticized Republican candidates nationwide — including Ernst — for those votes, saying an ACA repeal would leave millions of Americans without access to health insurance in the midst of a global pandemic. Democrats also note that Republicans have continually voted to repeal the health care law without their own plan to replace it. That has put Republicans like Ernst on the defense when talking about protections for individuals with pre-existing health conditions.
Ernst argues that while the Affordable Care Act expanded access to health insurance, it did not sufficiently reduce health care costs.
“There’s no doubt that Obamacare provided access to insurance. What it did not do was control the cost of health care,” Ernst said, referring to the nickname the program earned after being passed under Democratic President Barack Obama in 2010. “And so while people are being covered by insurance, oftentimes they don't even use those insurance opportunities because their co-pays or their deductibles are so high.”
Republicans have had a hand in that, however. They led a repeal of the law’s mandate that all eligible U.S. adults purchase health insurance or pay a fine, or tax. That revenue was intended to support the program, and was lost when Republicans repealed the mandate.
Ernst counters that Democrats are not to be trusted on health care, either. Although Greenfield does not support a Medicare-for-all program like the ones proposed by U.S. Senators and former Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Ernst argues Greenfield’s support for the addition of a public health insurance option hastens a slippery slope to Medicare-for-all.
“What we’ll see is a gradual chipping away at this. ‘Let’s implement this one step, and then next we implement the next step,’ and pretty soon you are in an all-out, Medicare-for-all situation, government takeover of health care,” Ernst said.
Ernst said she supports efforts to lower the cost of prescription drugs and adding transparency in health care costs.
“While I’m grateful that people have access to insurance, that’s not the entire solution. And certainly moving to a government takeover of health care is not the solution, either,” Ernst said. “I do believe we have to go back to the drawing board.”
AN EXPENSIVE RACE
The importance of Iowa’s U.S. Senate race has reached well beyond the state’s borders. It is one of a few real toss-up Senate races across the country, and thus will play a significant role in determining whether Republicans hold onto their majority, or if Democrats flip enough seats to regain the majority.
Because of that, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised by Ernst and Greenfield, and hundreds of millions more have poured into the race from political parties and advocacy groups.
Iowa’s has become the second-most expensive U.S. Senate race in the nation, according to the nonprofit and nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Nearly $147 million has been spent in Iowa, according to the Center, second only to North Carolina’s $192 million and more than double the next-highest, Arizona at $74 million.
Ernst is among the many Republican Senate candidates across the country who have been outraised by their Democratic opponent. Ernst has raised $23.7 million this campaign, while Greenfield — who also had to win a competitive Democratic primary — has raised $47.5 million and set records along the way.
Ernst’s allies have decried the national spending on the race, and outside spending has indeed favored Greenfield, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Groups supporting Greenfield have spent nearly $81 million, while groups supporting Ernst have spent nearly $64 million, according to the Center.
Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, noted the Iowa race’s outsized importance — and the millions of dollars that have followed — while campaigning for Ernst in Iowa this past week. In an apparent effort to stress to Republican voters their need to turn out, Haley emphasized the outcome in Iowa will influence which party sets the agenda in the U.S. Senate for at least the next two years.
“This is the difference between whether Republicans have the majority or Democrats have the majority. It’s all on Iowa,” Haley said during a fundraiser in West Des Moines. “There’s a lot at stake. That’s why there’s a lot of money flowing in. It’s a difference between two worlds. … All eyes are on Iowa because it is the 51st vote (in the Senate).”
Kim Reynolds, Iowa’s Republican governor, is a longtime friend of Ernst’s whose political path is similar. Reynolds served as a local elected official — she was Clarke County treasurer — and then in the Iowa Senate before being tapped as Terry Branstad’s running mate for governor in 2010.
Reynolds said she sees in Ernst values and perspective instilled by years of service in local government.
Ernst, who was raised on a farm in Montgomery County in southwest Iowa, served as the county’s auditor and then in the Iowa Senate. This was after a 23-year career in the military.
“Just to see how all of these different levels of government work together, and how very, very important it is that they collaborate and coordinate,” Reynolds said while campaigning for Ernst prior to one of the race’s debates. “Because every time that you don’t, it’s just an added cost to taxpayers to provide the services if we’re not working together. It’s a duplication of effort, and our taxpayers are the ones that are paying the price for that.”
Ernst said one of the things that she has learned over the past six years is how different government works in the U.S. Senate, compared to how it works at the local and state level.
“One thing I have learned is that D.C. politics is very different than working at the Iowa Legislature,” Ernst said. “The time that I spent in our state senate was very rewarding. We could work together quite easily to get things done in a short amount of time. … The big difference: it takes a long time to get things done at the United States Senate.”
One thing that may influence voter choices is the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. Ernst and other Republicans supported the delay of an election-year nomination to the high court in 2016, the final year of Obama’s second term, but have worked furiously to approve Barrett’s nomination before the November 3 election.
Republicans have argued the circumstance are different because the federal government was under split control in 2016 — with a Democrat in the White House and Republican majorities in the Senate — while Republicans control all three this year.
The open question that remains is whether voters accept that argument, and whether the issue motivates any remaining undecided voters in Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.
Ernst proudly touts her work imploring the Trump administration to fully enforce the federal ethanol mandate, which helps drive demand for corn. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency had made extensive use of waivers for big oil companies to circumvent the mandate, reducing demand for ethanol.
Ernst consistently prodded Trump and his administration to limit the EPA’s distribution of waivers. Although Democrats counter that Ernst also voted to confirm both EPA directors appointed during Trump’s four-year term.
In this campaign, Ernst has portrayed herself as willing to work across the political aisle. The Georgetown University analysis that she cites scored her 39th among all U.S. Senators who have served over the past 25 years.
By comparison, her fellow Iowa Republican in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Grassley, is ranked 14th in the Georgetown analysis. Ranked near Ernst are Alabama Democrat Doug Jones and former Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel. Joe Biden, the former U.S. Senator from Delaware and U.S. Vice President, and now the Democrats’ nominee for president, is ranked 47th.
“I take great pride in that and I’m very thankful to have developed those strong relationships in order to get things over the finish line,” Ernst said.
Early voting is well underway in Iowa. Election Day is Tuesday, November 3.
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