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Republican Joni Ernst wins reelection in Iowa’s crucial Senate race

Republican Joni Ernst wins reelection in one of the most important races in determining control of the US Senate.

Joni Ernst has delivered a victory for Republicans in Iowa.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Republican Joni Ernst has beaten Democrat Theresa Greenfield in the Iowa Senate race, a huge victory for Republicans in one of the most important match-ups in determining control of the US Senate.

Prior to the campaign, Ernst seemed like a prohibitive favorite: a skilled incumbent who had won by big margins in 2014 and was well-positioned to take advantage of her state’s white, blue-collar, and heavily rural population. Yet the Trump-era surge in Democratic support among suburban voters, the Covid-19 pandemic, and Greenfield’s effective campaign combined to make the race tight.

Both parties poured money into the race, turning it into the most expensive Senate campaign in Iowa history. The stakes were very high: “almost no one believes Republicans can hold onto control of the Senate if Ms. Ernst loses,” the New York Times reported in mid-October.

Now Ernst’s victory is secure.

Ernst overcame a debate stumble to win a victory

For the entire home stretch of the 2020 election, the Ernst-Greenfield race had been tight.

Between August and October, FiveThirtyEight gave Ernst slightly better than 50 percent odds to win. But in early October, Greenfield’s numbers started to pick up — and she became the slight favorite in what was still a close contest. Coronavirus numbers in Iowa surged in October; by the end of the month, it had the sixth-highest per capita case count in the entire country.

In some respects, the Iowa campaign was a microcosm of the national campaign. Like Biden, Greenfield ran as a relatively moderate Democrat who tried to capitalize on coronavirus failures and Ernst’s pro-Trump voting record (preelection polls showed Trump’s approval rating underwater with Iowa voters). She attacked Ernst for questioning the accuracy of the coronavirus death count, something Ernst apologized for, and for voting to repeal Obamacare.

“Ernst has been a good soldier on the Republican side, and Greenfield has used that against her,” Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Iowa State University, told Vox.

And Ernst didn’t always help herself. In perhaps the single most notable moment of the campaign, she failed to properly identify the price of soybeans during a debate — while Greenfield nailed a question on the price of corn. This played into yet another Greenfield attack line, which was that Ernst was a creature of the national Republican Party and out of touch with the issues that matter to Iowans.

But that doesn’t seem to have been enough to offset Ernst’s advantages. Demographically, Iowa is a favorable state for the Trump-era Republican Party — over 90 percent white, with a larger-than-average percentage of voters without a four-year college degree. Ernst broke with Trump on some key issues of local import, like tariffs that hurt Iowan farmers, and used that to try to establish distance from the White House while building her local bona fides.

In the end, it seems like some confluence of these factors was enough for Ernst to hang on to her seat. Republicans will be able to count on Ernst’s vote in the Senate for six more years, a significant stretch in a notoriously swingy state.

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