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Iowa’s Joni Ernst ties her reelection prospects to Trump with speech at the RNC

She’s the only vulnerable Republican senator who’s speaking in primetime at the event.

In this screenshot from the RNC’s livestream of the 2020 Republican National Convention, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) addresses the virtual convention on August 26, 2020.
Republican National Committee/Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

Sen. Joni Ernst had to walk a fine line with her Republican National Convention speech on Wednesday. While she’s likely relying on President Donald Trump’s support to turn out the Republican base in her bid for reelection in November, she also runs the risk of appearing too close to him — and losing Iowans who haven’t been satisfied with his leadership.

In her remarks, however, Ernst made clear that she’s fully aligning herself with the president in the hope that his electoral fortunes will boost hers as well.

“Folks, this election is a choice between two very different paths,” Ernst argued in her speech. “Freedom, prosperity, and economic growth under a Trump-Pence administration. Or the Biden-Harris path, paved by liberal coastal elites and radical environmentalists.”

Ernst’s statement attempted to emphasize the areas where Trump has purportedly supported Iowan farmers during the pandemic, the resultant recession, and a recent, damaging derecho storm, framing him as the less limiting choice of the two presidential candidates. The remarks also followed in the GOP tradition of fearmongering about Democrats’ environmental proposals, while glossing over the significant economic damage that Trump’s policies have caused.

It’s unclear how this decision will play this fall; Ernst is one of several vulnerable Republicans facing a tough Senate race. Cook Political Report rates the Iowa seat as one of six that are toss-ups for Republicans in November.

Like several of her colleagues in states including Arizona, North Carolina, and Colorado, Ernst will need strong Republican backing to have a shot at staying in the Senate — which means tying herself to Trump to some degree. At the same time, Iowans increasingly disapprove of his leadership, which could blow back on Ernst if they associate her too closely with his presidency.

This pattern is apparent in a Morning Consult tracker: In January 2017, 40 percent of Iowans “disapproved” of Trump, and by February 2020, that figure had grown to 51 percent. (His approval rating has remained steadier in that same time frame, dipping slightly from 49 percent to 46 percent.) More recent polls have also placed the president’s disapproval ratings in the state at around 50 percent.

An uptick in dislike of the president in their home states is a dynamic that several other GOP lawmakers are facing, too, so much so that some have opted to distance themselves from Trump broadly. Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), for example, has declined to say whether she’ll vote for Trump for president. Perhaps due to this tension, Ernst has been the only swing seat Republican senator to give a keynote broadcast during primetime at the convention this week.

In her speech Wednesday, she seemed to see the potential gains of this move outweighing the risk.

Ernst’s remarks praised Trump’s work for farmers — while ignoring harm done

Ernst’s speech detailed how Trump’s policies, including a trade agreement with Japan and the support for year-round E-15 fuel sales, benefited Iowa farmers, while ignoring how policies like his trade war with China have been detrimental to them, decimating the price of crops and livestock. The trade war has led to substantial profit loss, the need for bailouts, and, in some cases, bankruptcies.

In an NPR report this February, an Iowan farmer spoke about how an influx of Environmental Protection Agency waivers that loosened requirements for oil refiners to mix ethanol into gasoline reduced demand for corn — further hurting already severely distressed bottom lines. The surge in these waivers has since been challenged in court, and the number in use is now expected to go down. Some damage, however, had already been done.

“When we were already getting knocked down from trade, the least the administration could have done was prop us up there and give us something that’s going to go year after year, you know,” Rob Ewoldt told NPR.

As Roll Call’s Bridget Bowman writes, Ernst’s speech was a direct appeal to rural voters — a core group that could help Trump win reelection. In 2016, 62 percent of rural voters supported the Republican candidate versus 50 percent of suburban voters, according to New York Times exit poll data.

Despite all the problems the Trump administration’s trade war and domestic policy have caused rural voters, both Ernst and Trump, it seems, are banking on this backing yet again.

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