Politics

The Iowa Senate Race Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Close

Joni Ernst is a Republican star. What happened?

Ernst, seated, speaks into a mic during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing
Joni Ernst on Capitol Hill on Oct. 12. Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty Images

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For a while, it did not seem like Joni Ernst would have a tough time winning reelection. Iowa has trended red in recent years, and Ernst is a star in the Republican Party: She’s vice chair of the Republican Senate Conference and a close ally of Mitch McConnell. But now, with less than two weeks to go before Election Day, Ernst is neck and neck with her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, and political spending in the state has reached unprecedented heights.

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On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Andrew Batt, senior producer at Iowa PBS, to understand how we got here, what it says about Iowa politics, and whether it really matters that Ernst didn’t know the price of soybeans. This transcript of our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Can we talk about just how much money is pouring into this Senate race? I was looking at the numbers, and they seemed kind of bananas to me.

Andrew Batt: The numbers are astronomical. It’s hard to wrap your head around—this is the second-most-expensive Senate election, or overall election besides a presidential one, in American history. And if you know anything about Iowa, it’s not the most expensive state to buy ad time, to hire staff in.

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One reason Joni Ernst is feeling the pressure is her challenger, Theresa Greenfield, has outraised her—by as much as 4 to 1 in the third quarter of 2020, according to one report.

It’s an unbelievable amount of money, and 2020 is really going to be a test of a lot of things. What is the limit? Is there a limit for how effective money can be in an election? And is there a ceiling?

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Now, Joni Ernst having to fight so hard to keep her seat, it isn’t just surprising because she’s a Republican star. It’s that once you win a statewide seat in Iowa, you usually stick around.

Iowa has a history. Before Joni Ernst won her election in 2014, we had two senators that didn’t lose. Incumbency was a very strong thing in this state. Chuck Grassley won a Senate race in 1980. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, won a Senate race in 1984. And those were the Republican and Democratic senators in Iowa for 30 years. … So there’s the sense that Iowans that get this statewide race, they might be able to hold onto it as long as they want.

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So why did the Democrats think she might be vulnerable here?

I think 2020 is a lesson [for] either party that you never just cede something like a U.S. Senate race. I don’t know if a lot of Democrats thought she would be vulnerable, to be quite honest. Donald Trump won this state by 9 percentage points, more than he won the state of Texas in 2016. This is a state trending Republican. Joni Ernst is a star in the Republican Party. She’s a strong candidate. This wasn’t really viewed as a vulnerable race for Republicans two years ago.

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When did that change?

Late spring, early summer, of 2020, when Theresa Greenfield won this nomination in June. Most Republicans saw her as the presumptive nominee. She had the support of Chuck Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee way back in 2019, so she was a proverbial favorite in this race. But when you really saw that change was over the summer, with polling and when you started seeing more money come into this race.

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Let’s talk about who Theresa Greenfield is. She’s a Democrat. And she isn’t unlike Joni Ernst: She was not a politician before this race.

Right. She has never held elected office before. She did pursue the Democratic nomination for a U.S. congressional district in Iowa in 2018. It’s the one that includes our largest suburb of metro of Des Moines. Theresa Greenfield was in that primary. She was viewed as one of the candidates that could win the nomination and go on to win a U.S. congressional seat. But in the final days before the primary ballot was to be solidified in March of 2018, a report broke out that Theresa Greenfield’s campaign manager had forged signatures … to get on the ballot, and Theresa Greenfield was unaware of that. They had to scrap their list of signatures of Iowans and try and rebuild that within 24 to 48 hours. She was unsuccessful in her bid to do that, so her candidacy really kind of fell apart before she could even get on the primary ballot. That was her history as a candidate for the U.S. Senate race. …

She went from that, which is really a political embarrassment, to … a little over a year from that, she was able to rebuild behind the scenes to be the nominee in this race. So she was able to bounce back in there, and that journey since then has been to introduce herself to Iowans.

Like Joni Ernst, she’s trying to introduce herself as a real Iowan, someone familiar with farm life, but then also someone familiar with how government works. She’s been telling the story of being widowed in her 20s and how that created this dependence on benefits from the government and what that means to her.

Yeah, that’s been probably her most signature biographical story. Her first husband died in an accident. He was a union worker, and she was able to survive, as she describes, on Social Security benefits. So she uses that as … a strong Democratic message of government programs were able to help her get through this period of time. And then she pivots to talk about how important it will be for her to protect programs like Social Security and health care.

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Is a vote for Greenfield a vote against Ernst, or is it a vote for this candidate?

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I think it’s a little bit of both. A lot of folks that have dove into the polls are seeing a couple different issues. They’re seeing that at least up until this week, a lot of the public polling in Iowa since Labor Day has shown a very tight toss-up race at the presidential level, but also a very interesting drop-off for Joni Ernst’s numbers. It’s not necessarily showing the exact same numbers for Joe Biden and Donald Trump and then Theresa Greenfield and Joni Ernst. You’re seeing a slight drop-off in numbers for Joni Ernst, as if there will be a split ticket out here. A common refrain among journalists is, can you find the Donald Trump/Theresa Greenfield voters? There may not be ones that talk about it very often, but there appears to be some drop-off in those that are very strong in for Donald Trump and that, for whatever reason, are not telling pollsters they’re also for Joni Ernst.

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And these polling differences, it’s pretty much within the margin of error. It’s really hard to tell who’s ahead, who’s not.

Right. I think the takeaway from all of that is that Iowa does not appear to be what happened in 2016, which is a blowout win for Donald Trump and a Republican wave across the state. It appears to be a much tighter race at the top level and in the Senate race.

When these two women met up for a debate earlier this month, it ended up with some pretty viral moments. Joni Ernst was in D.C. Theresa Greenfield was in Iowa. What did this debate look like?

The moment in this hour-and-a-half debate that a lot of your listeners may have seen was when the candidates were asked specifically about prices for two of our major commodities, corn and soybeans. Theresa Greenfield answered it pretty quickly. She seemed pretty happy to get the question. Joni Ernst was asked about soybeans, and she appeared to be a little confused. There was some cross-talk. She answers with an amount that is not accurate, and the moderator gave her another chance.

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Just kind of an awkward interaction, one of many in that debate, but it became something that the Greenfield campaign said, Here it is. She doesn’t know the price of this commodity. It’s similar to a president not knowing the price of milk, as the old adage is. So they’re trying to use that as the out-of-touch point of view. The Ernst campaign came out the next day and said, This is silly. The Iowa Farm Bureau, corn growers, all these groups, are endorsing us. We are the candidate of farm country. And the clip went viral.

Was this meaningful in Iowa?

I think it’s more meaningful for those that want to write the story at the end of this campaign. This is not a tight race because someone either pinpointed the price of corn and soybeans or didn’t in a debate in the final weeks. The dynamic of this race and why it is tight is for all the other factors we’ve talked about.

Republicans, and maybe Democrats too, didn’t think that this race would be competitive for a long time. Why? Do you think it was just a misunderstanding of where the race was at this particular moment?

I think it’s part of those assumptions that get made about a snapshot in time. This was a purple state that at the presidential level has voted for a Democrat, before Trump, in every election except for 2004. They voted for Michael Dukakis in ’88, Clinton twice, Al Gore narrowly in 2000. And then George W. Bush won the state by only a few thousand votes in 2004, a very close election. And then Barack Obama’s story starts here in Iowa, and he wins this state resoundingly, not once but twice. And all amongst this, you’ve got a state that is voting for a Democratic senator, a Republican senator, it’s split their governor each way. So it’s got a purple background, but in the last six years, it’s shifted red across the board—Joni Ernst’s win in 2014, Donald Trump’s really big win across the state in 2016. And in our statehouse, what they call the trifecta, the Iowa House, the Iowa Senate, and the governorship, were all red. Unified control. So I think it’s not necessarily a misread that Iowa has trended Republican. It’s the misread that it will always stay that way.

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