Sen. Joni Ernst is feeling the October heat, with the potential path to the Senate majority – and the White House – suddenly experiencing an unexpected Iowa detour.
“Folks, is it a tough election cycle or what?” said Ernst, a freshman Republican, not sugarcoating her challenge in a weekend speech here. “It is a tough, tough, tough year, but you know what? I’m going to finish first!”
Yet her reelection is not entirely in her control, a reality that several of her Republican colleagues across the country are also facing as the party’s fortunes are inextricably linked to President Donald Trump, with control of the Senate at stake.
It wasn’t so long ago that Ernst seemed insulated from the political headwinds facing Republicans, particularly in a state the President won four years ago by 9 percentage points. Her Democratic challenger is Theresa Greenfield, who has never held elective office.
But Trump is now heading to Iowa on Wednesday for his first visit of the general election season, with several polls showing him locked in a tight race with Joe Biden.
“That’s the real terror of this all: Trump takes down the whole ticket, the whole Republican side of the Senate,” said Mark McAllister, a Republican who voted for Trump four years ago but has no plans of doing so again.
“There are some good things,” McAllister said of the last four years, pointing to the economy before the pandemic. “But overall, I am disgusted with him.”
Republican officials in Iowa are nervously watching the suburbs here, just as their counterparts are doing across the nation, as the President’s shaky support threatens the Republican Senate majority. Trump campaign signs dot the fall landscape, but blue “Republicans for Biden” signs also offer an ominous warning for the final three weeks of the campaign.
The same story is unfolding in Iowa as in many battlegrounds: Independents, women and seniors are turning away from Trump, amid dissatisfaction over his handling of coronavirus and his broader conduct in office. Yet it’s resonating even more now than earlier this year, with hospitalizations for Covid-19 rising to an all-time high and cases nearing the 100,000 mark.
Former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who returned home here last week after serving as the US ambassador to China for the last four years, said criticism of the President was unfounded.
“The virus is not the President’s fault,” Branstad told CNN. “President Trump finished strong in 2016 and I think he’s going to finish strong here again.”
While the President has considerable support in broad swaths of the state, particularly rural Iowa, that rosy view is not universally held by Republican officials, several of whom said they were alarmed at the President’s precarious political standing in the state.
“The bottom isn’t falling out, but we can certainly see it,” a top Republican in Iowa, who regularly speaks to the President’s campaign, told CNN. “I don’t know how far it will go.”
Ernst, whose Republican star has steadily risen since being elected to the Senate in 2014, could be collateral damage. She campaigned on a pledge to be an independent voice, promising in a memorable TV ad, surrounded by pigs, to cut pork barrel spending and “make ‘em squeal.”
“She was a kick-butt candidate, who was going to take names once she got to Washington,” said Cindy DePond, stopping to chat late last week after casting her early vote. “She did not make them squeal. We didn’t see any of that from her.”
In a weekend campaign stop here, as Ernst rode her Harley-Davidson motorcycle across Iowa, she briefly talked to reporters and dismissed the notion that the President was complicating her race.
“No,” she said. “I’m running my own race.”
Asked about her standing among suburban voters, she said: “I’ve met with suburban women. They are really concerned about law and order. That’s an issue that draws them closer to the President.”
It’s a central question of the race that only the election can answer: Is the law-and-order message turning out – or turning off – voters?
Greenfield, the Democratic nominee in the Senate race, believes health care and preserving Social Security benefits are the top issues facing voters.
“Health care is number one,” Greenfield said in an interview. “Whether it’s cost or folks getting gouged for prescription drugs, whether it’s rural health care or mental health care, that’s one of the key things people are talking about – certainly during Covid that has elevated the conversation.”
She has been among the candidates in her party logging record-setting fundraising, including $29 million in the last three months, in another sign of the Democratic fervor at the prospect of taking control of the Senate.
Ernst seized upon that point, saying “Iowans cannot be bought,” at her campaign rally, suggesting out-of-state money is flooding into help her rival. Yet the reality is that Republicans – including the Trump campaign, which pulled its advertising in Iowa – are being outspent.
For her part, Greenfield said Ernst hasn’t lived up to her pledge to be an independent voice for Iowans.
“She went to Washington, she joined party leadership and she votes with (Senate Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell and party leaders 97% of the time,” Greenfield said in an interview. “That doesn’t sound very independent to me.”
With a competitive Senate race, along with four closely watched House contests, Iowa is awash in political advertising. A flood of outside groups are also weighing in, featuring images of Greenfield morphing into House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and billboards with pictures of Bernie Sanders and a message: “Bernie: Joe Biden’s socialist comrade.”
At the center of it all is the presidential campaign, which is now locked in a tight race. Trump’s standing may lift – or sink – the Republican ticket here, but the fact that he is defending his Iowa terrain at all is a far bigger sign of trouble in other battleground states.
Four years ago, Trump won 93 of the state’s 99 counties, including 31 that twice voted for President Barack Obama. Iowa had more so-called pivot counties than any state in the country.
Jasper County, once home to the Maytag company, is one of them.
Michelle Smith, the county’s Democratic chairwoman, said many too many Democrats were not inspired to vote four years ago for Hillary Clinton, which she said wouldn’t happen this time.
“The people I know who didn’t vote are going to vote for Joe Biden this time because they realize by not voting what we’ve had to do ensure the last 3 1/2 years,” Smith said. “At the end of the day, I really do think it is either a vote for or against Trump.”
But signs of Trump strength are plentiful across Jasper County, which is about 40 miles east of Des Moines. Conversations with Republicans here suggest far less concern about the controversy of the day back in Washington – many of them self-inflicted, voters are quick to point out – but the President whose results they believe in.
“We’re so far into it now, people either like him or they don’t,” said Thad Nearmyer, the Republican county chairman. “If you already like him, you’re pretty much locked in.”
Yet even with early voting underway and Election Day three weeks away, some voters are still not entirely sure what to do.
Mark Hallam, who holds a nonpartisan seat on the Newton City Council, counts himself in that group. He said the economic downturn, in the wake of coronavirus, could change some minds and make the president and Ernst more vulnerable, but he doubts the president’s conduct will suddenly sway anyone.
“Trump is something of an enigma to me,” Hallam said. “I enjoy some of his theatrics, while others I’m put off by, because it’s my not personal style. But it is who Donald Trump is.”