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Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to reporters after the Senate Republican luncheon on September 9.
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How Joni Ernst went from future Republican star to an incumbent on the ropes in 2020

Donald Trump could bring down Sen. Joni Ernst in the Iowa Senate race.

Dylan Scott covers health care for Vox. He has reported on health policy for more than 10 years, writing for Governing magazine, Talking Points Memo and STAT before joining Vox in 2017.

When Joni Ernst was first elected to the US Senate in 2014, it seemed like she had come to Capitol Hill to stay.

She earned a spot in Senate Republican leadership in her first term and even landed on the vice presidential shortlist in 2016. Many thought she’d be the latest in a long tradition of Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin, powerful senators who outstripped the size of their state.

Ernst, a military veteran, had won her race by 9 percentage points, powered by a Republican wave election year and an unforgettable ad in which she promised to castrate the corrupt “pigs” in Washington. Two years later, Donald Trump won the state by the same margin. Iowa seemed to be getting more solidly Republican.

But now, less than a month from Election Day 2020, something has clearly shifted. Ernst has trailed Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield by roughly 5 points in recent polls. And Trump is running behind his 2016 numbers in Iowa, with former Vice President Joe Biden holding a slim advantage in the polls.

Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield in Greenfield, Iowa, on August 11, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

“She’s had six years, and she’s forgotten Iowans,” Greenfield, a business leader who has never held elected office, told Vox of Ernst in a phone interview. “She has sold out Iowans for her big corporate donors.” It’s an argument that has some resonance; polls show most Iowa voters say that Ernst hasn’t done enough to help the state in her first term.

Ernst has a few problems; the state’s suburbs are growing, and like suburbs everywhere, those voters don’t like Trump. She also voted to repeal Obamacare in 2017 (Iowa is a Medicaid expansion state) and has been saddled with the effects of Trump’s ethanol policies on the state’s farmers. And in the past few months, Covid-19 cases have been rising in the state.

Ernst has been emphasizing her work on issues like domestic violence and sexual assault in the military, while leaning on support from Iowa’s senior senator, Chuck Grassley, and her Iowa bona fides. Fundamentally, Ernst needs to pull ahead of Trump, rather than run behind him, and she is running out of time to do it.

Both the presidential and Senate races should be close in Iowa this year. But it is still a stark reversal from 2014 and 2016, a sign of Republicans’ struggles in the Midwest that could doom their Senate majority and Trump in 2020.

Iowa is stubbornly competitive despite recent Republican success

Ernst’s sizable 2014 win seemed to portend a more permanent rightward shift in Iowa, and Trump’s convincing 2016 victory appeared to confirm it. This is a state that’s 91 percent white. The percentage of people with a bachelor’s degree is below the national average, while the share of Iowans who identify as evangelical Christians is higher than it is in the US as a whole. Those are demographics most favorable to Republicans in the Trump era.

The problem for Ernst, and Trump, is that the parts of the state that are more urban and suburban are where the population is growing — and where voters are defecting from the Republicans.

The easiest way to understand Iowa politics is to look at each of its four congressional districts. Because the state has a nonpartisan redistricting commission, the four districts form a pretty neat squared grid.

A map outlining Iowa’s four congressional districts.
Iowa’s four congressional districts offer a road map for winning a statewide Senate race.

The First District covers the northeastern part of the state, including the cities of Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, and Waterloo. About two-thirds of the population lives in or near the cities; the other third lives in rural communities. The Second District covers the southeastern part of the state, including Iowa’s third-largest city, Davenport. Like the First District, it’s about two-thirds urban and one-third rural.

These are the battlegrounds. Barack Obama won the First District by 13 points over Mitt Romney, but Ernst eked out a victory in 2014, and Trump won it by 3 points against Hillary Clinton. Then in 2018, the district swung back toward Democrats. Abby Finkenauer was elected to the US House, reclaiming the seat for her party after two terms in Republican hands, and the Democratic candidate for governor, Fred Hubbell, also won the First District by a single point, a 4-point swing from the Trump-Clinton race.

The Second District has mirrored the movement in the First, going from a big Obama win in 2012 to small Ernst and Trump triumphs in 2014 and 2016, respectively, and then a rebound for Democrats in 2018.

One Democratic strategist told me that a mixture of Obama-Trump working-class voters who have soured on Trump and suburban voters (especially women) who have abandoned Republicans has boosted the Democrats in these areas. That likely explains Ernst’s struggle to rebuild her 2014 coalition. She won her first race with 52 percent of the vote, but she’s pulling less than 43 percent on average in the 2020 polls.

“Suburban women have said, ‘To hell with this’ and voted up and down the ticket for us,” the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said. “We’ve also picked up some men outside of suburbia who wanted to see a federal check on Trump. I think that’s part of the trend we’re seeing in the Senate race.”

Sen. Joni Ernst addresses the virtual Republican National Convention on August 26.
Republican National Committee/Getty Images

A Republican operative told me that Ernst has to stanch the bleeding and stay competitive in the First and Second districts in order to have a shot at reelection. If the race is within a few points, as it has been the past few cycles, she will have a chance. But if the Democratic margin grows, it’ll be a struggle.

The Third District, home to Des Moines and the southwestern corner of the state, has flipped toward Democrats under Trump. Obama barely won the Third in 2012, and Ernst saw a commanding 8-point margin in 2014. But then Republican support started to erode: Trump won the district by just 3 points in 2016, and Hubbell beat Kim Reynolds by 3 points in 2018, an 11-point swing toward Democrats since Ernst’s 2014 victory.

Or, to look at it through the lens of its US House races: Republican Rep. David Young won reelection by 13 points in 2016, before losing to Democrat Cindy Axne by 2 points in 2018. This is a serious trouble spot for Ernst and Trump in 2020, according to the GOP strategist, given those recent electoral trends.

“You’ve gotta narrow the window. You’re going to lose, but you want to lose less,” the strategist said. “Joni and the president are down or tied [in the polls] because they haven’t closed the gap enough in the Third.”

The Fourth District, covering the more rural northwestern region of Iowa, is the friendliest territory for Republicans. But the margins still matter: Obama lost the Fourth by “just” 8 points on his way to a win in 2012. But Trump blew Clinton out, with a 27-point victory, and won the state easily.

If Biden and Greenfield can narrow that gap in the Fourth, it would bode well for their chances of flipping the state back to Democrats. A recent Des Moines Register poll found a generic Democrat beating a generic Republican by comfortable margins in the First, Second, and Third districts, while the Republican was running just 5 points ahead in the Fourth.

That translated to a 48-44 lead for Democrats statewide, a good indicator of how a relatively weak performance in the Fourth would doom Republicans if they struggle in other parts of the state.

“Gotta run up the margins,” the Republican operative said of the Fourth.

Ernst is trying to recapture her 2014 magic, but Trump is making that hard

Trump dominates the political climate in Iowa, and that’s where Ernst’s struggles begin.

Trump won Iowa with 51 percent of the vote, but he’s lost some support during his first term. A recent Quinnipiac University poll showed the president has a 46 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval rating. Trump’s average support against Biden in the polls is also 46 percent, according to RealClearPolitics.

Timothy Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa, pinned Trump’s troubles on less engaged, less partisan voters. They may not have liked Trump’s style, but they voted for him in 2016 anyway as a political outsider running against Hillary Clinton. But between Trump’s record of trying to roll back the Affordable Care Act and the economy’s downturn during the Covid-19 pandemic, those voters, who are most preoccupied with “pocketbook” issues, may be looking for a change from Trump.

“If the pandemic hadn’t hit, the economy would have been a real selling point,” Hagle told me. “Then, boom, the economy tanked. Not everybody has been helped. A lot of businesses are hurting.”

And because Ernst had only two years in the Senate before Trump took over Washington, her record is largely his. She voted to repeal Obamacare and in favor of the Republican tax bill. She’s been a reliable vote for Trump’s agenda, and that will be a problem for her if Iowa voters don’t like the president.

President Trump greets Sen. Joni Ernst after she introduced him during a visit to a renewable energy ethanol facility in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on June 11, 2019.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Last month’s Des Moines Register poll found that most Iowans, 56 percent, thought Ernst had not done enough for the state in her first term; 33 percent said she had. Voters were evenly divided on whether she was too close to Trump (37 percent), or whether she gets it about right (43 percent). Her overall job approval rating has been middling.

“You’re a young new US senator. You have a majority in the Senate, you have the House. Then the president comes in, and the ability to stand out and be unique is pretty hard,” the GOP operative told me. “It’s difficult to find your voice.”

The incumbent senator might have also been undermined by Trump’s and Reynolds’s handling of Covid-19. Iowa voters say they disapprove of the job both the president and their governor are doing, recent polls found.

Additionally, coronavirus cases are nearing their previous peak from August, and more Iowans are hospitalized with the virus than at any point in the outbreak. Reynolds has pointedly refused to issue a mask mandate and pushed ahead with reopening schools and businesses. Iowa’s college towns have been the site of notable outbreaks among students.

Ernst may not have helped either when she appeared to entertain conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 death count, comments that she tried to walk back at a debate with Greenfield.

“Between President Trump’s unpopularity and the criticisms of Governor Reynolds, that has all led to a pox on all their houses and dragged down Ernst,” Karen Kedrowski, a political science professor at Iowa State University, told me. “Ernst has been a good soldier on the Republican side, and Greenfield has used that against her.”

Sen. Joni Ernst before the start of the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the US Africa Command and US Southern Command on January 30.
Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images

The Ernst campaign points to the huge spending by outside Democratic groups — the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Senate Majority PAC have already spent more than $45 million combined — to explain the senator’s apparent weakness in the polls.

They believe a focus on her Iowa bona fides and the issues where she’s distinguished herself from her party (Ernst was ranked as one of the more bipartisan senators of the last 25 years in a Lugar Center analysis) can carry her to a victory.

“As I learned from my time in the Iowa Legislature, not much gets done unless you work with both Democrats and Republicans,” Ernst wrote in a recent Des Moines Register op-ed, which highlighted her opposition to some of the Trump EPA’s policies that she said would hurt Iowa farmers. “From fighting for relief for our farmers to helping our working families, more than 60 percent of my bills have bipartisan support.”

In the final weeks of the campaign, she’s running on her record on domestic violence (seeking more government assistance for victims during the pandemic) and on sexual assault in the military (she has authored bipartisan bills to reform how such crimes are investigated and prosecuted). Ernst is recently divorced from her husband, who she said had been abusive; she has also said she was raped in college.

She’s been appearing at events with Grassley, who has served in the Senate since 1981 and is the most popular politician in the state. The strategy is one reason some experts in Iowa believe Ernst could run ahead of Trump on Election Day, even though she is polling behind the president right now.

Either way, Ernst’s fate will be tied closely to Trump’s — and that could be an advantage for Democrats.

Greenfield is challenging Ernst’s record on health care and agriculture

Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield’s prospects are likely dependent, in large part, on how Joe Biden performs in Iowa because, as a political novice, she is still establishing herself with voters. She has sought to weave her personal story — about growing up on a farm, losing her first husband in her 20s, and later going into business to become a real estate developer — into a message aimed squarely at the voters with whom Republicans are already struggling.

She’s turned that personal story partly into a policy critique of Ernst by associating the senator with Republican plans to privatize Social Security. The program provided benefits for Greenfield when her husband died in a work-related accident when she was 24.

“I saw what a difference it made,” Greenfield said. “I will carry that with me all my life.”

She’s also focused on some Iowa-centric issues, like biofuel waivers, and tried to undercut Ernst’s image as a born-and-bred Iowan. Her campaign seized on a moment in the candidates’ most recent debate when the senator was asked about the price of soybeans and flubbed the answer.

The Greenfield campaign has accused Ernst of being too close with the oil industry to be a good ally for the ethanol industry, part of her message about the dangers of political corruption. The candidate told me her first priority as senator would be reversing Citizens United.

Like many Democrats in competitive states, Greenfield doesn’t spend as much time talking about Trump. In one recent tweet, she conspicuously named the renewable fuel standards waiver that she said is harmful for ethanol interests, mentioning Ernst and acting EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler — but not the president.

Just like her opponent is trying to do, Greenfield is striking a more moderate message on health care. She supports a public option, like Joe Biden, but not Medicare-for-all. It appears to be having the desired effect: The Des Moines Register poll found that 42 percent of Iowa voters thought Greenfield’s political views were “about right” for the state; 34 percent said she was too liberal.

Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield on August 11, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images
Judge Amy Coney Barrett meets with Sen. Joni Ernst at the US Capitol on October 1.
Caroline Brehman/Getty Images

Ernst has attacked Greenfield’s record as a developer, pointing (with questionable legitimacy) to layoffs and evictions at her company. Business interest groups have also tried to tar Greenfield with progressive policies like the Green New Deal.

So far, with big spending on both sides, Greenfield is holding on to a lead in the polling averages. The Senate election is probably going to be close, no matter what, because this is Iowa. But something about the Democrat’s message seems to be working.

“The thing people like about Joni Ernst, she was real and relatable,” the Democratic strategist said. “Greenfield has that in spades. ... Voters want to vote for somebody they think understands the life they’re leading.”

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