Joni Ernst and Donald Trump could both be in trouble in Iowa

Republican Senator Joni Ernst was narrowly trailing her little-known Democratic challenger in a recent poll.
Greg Nash/Pool via Associated Press
Republican Senator Joni Ernst was narrowly trailing her little-known Democratic challenger in a recent poll.

Iowa was not on anyone’s bingo card of 2020 battlegrounds.

Donald Trump carried the state by 9 percentage points in 2016, and a year ago prominent Democrats in the state passed up the chance to challenge Senator Joni Ernst, a popular Republican seeking reelection.

But with the political ground shifting precariously under Trump amid multiple crises, Iowa is unexpectedly in play in the presidential and Senate races this year, moving Republicans to high alert. Democrats, who a few years ago were shrouded in despair that their party might never again appeal to white working-class voters, are energized.


A poll published by The Des Moines Register and Mediacom on Monday showed Trump with only a 1-point lead in the state over former vice president Joe Biden. The poll revealed a deep erosion of support for the president among white women without college degrees, voters who were key to his 2016 coalition across a swath of Midwestern swing states.

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The same survey showed that Ernst, a rising star in her party in her first term, was narrowly trailing her little-known Democratic challenger.

Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic Senate nominee who emerged from a primary on June 2, is running primarily on a biography with parallels to the one Ernst used to introduce herself to Iowans six years ago: Both grew up on farms, and both have made promises to show Washington their scrappy values of hard work and self-reliance.

But Greenfield is turning Ernst’s anti-establishment catchphrase against her rival.

“Senator Ernst told Iowans in 2014 she was going to be independent and different and she was going to ‘make ’em squeal,’ ” Greenfield said in an interview, echoing a television ad six years ago in which Ernst said she would take a knife to federal spending the way she castrated hogs on the farm. “The bottom line is nobody’s squealing except Iowans.”


Ernst declined an interview request. But her advisers noted that Greenfield, a businesswoman and political newcomer, was riding the crest of more than $7 million in positive TV ads by liberal outside groups.

“This is Greenfield’s high-water mark,” said David Kochel, a senior adviser to the Ernst campaign. He promised that the Democrat would soon face a barrage of negativity. “Forty percent of Iowans don’t have an opinion of Theresa Greenfield,” he said. “We’re here to help.”

In the Des Moines Register poll, Trump led Biden 44 percent to 43 percent among likely voters, the latest in a wave of national and state polls showing the president’s prospects for reelection at their most precarious all year.

Although the road to the White House in November will not hinge on Iowa, with its meager six electoral votes, the tightness of the race in the state is an ominous sign for Trump in other Midwestern battlegrounds such as Ohio and Wisconsin, which also have large electorates of older and rural voters, and white voters without college degrees.

Amid a pandemic that the president seeks to minimize, and widespread anti-police protests after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Trump’s approval has slipped 5 points in Iowa since March, to 45 percent. Only 37 percent approve of the way he has handled the protests. The president retains strong support from evangelical voters and white men. But white working-class women preferred Biden over Trump in the Register poll, 53 percent to 35 percent.


The 18-point gap strikingly reversed the president’s advantage from 2016, when he carried white women without college diplomas by 2 points in Iowa. He won the state after it twice voted for President Barack Obama.

Recognizing the threat, the president’s reelection campaign spent more than $400,000 on TV ads in the state in May and June, according to Advertising Analytics, a tracking firm.

Democrats’ top presidential super PAC, Priorities USA, rated Iowa this month as leaning toward Trump and outside the top-six battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida. But that might change. “While Iowa isn’t currently in our spending plans, it’s a state we’re keeping an eye on,” said strategist Josh Schwerin. “That it’s in play shows that Biden is on offense and will have multiple paths to 270,” he added, referring to the electoral votes needed for victory.

It’s a different story in the Senate race. Democratic outside groups have booked $24.1 million to support Greenfield with TV ads through Election Day, and Republican groups are close behind with $22.6 million on behalf of Ernst.

Democrats hoping to control the Senate need to net four seats in November (or three if they win the White House since the vice president has a tiebreaking vote). Their top targets are Republican incumbents in Colorado, Arizona, and Maine. Close behind are the incumbents in North Carolina and, increasingly, Iowa.

The Senate Majority PAC, the top outside Democratic group in Senate races, has lined up $13 million for TV ads in Iowa after Labor Day. It matches $12.5 million reserved by the leading Republican outside group, the Senate Leadership Fund.

“The idea that Iowa’s in play really shouldn’t surprise people,” said J.B. Poersch, president of the Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “It came to the table this way, since the intensity of the caucuses.”

The Iowa caucuses in February may have been a fiasco when it came to counting votes, as well as an embarrassment for Biden, who finished fourth. But a year of intense organizing by presidential hopefuls brought a bounty of new Democratic voters. Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans in the state by 9,000, a reversal from the 2018 midterm elections when Republicans had a 23,000-voter advantage.