Dems Fight to Challenge Iowa's Ernst 06/01 06:41
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) -- Four relatively unknown Iowa Democrats are
competing in a primary Tuesday to take on Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, an
endeavor viewed as a long shot when better-known prospects last year took a
pass on running.
But Ernst's slip in approval and the rallying of Iowa and national
Democrats, and especially their money, behind one of the four has the race
receiving a second look.
For now, Ernst still is in a strong position heading into the fall. But as
Democrats are increasingly bullish about their prospects in places such as
Arizona and Colorado, the Iowa race is getting renewed attention as a potential
battleground that could help the party regain the Senate majority.
"I can't say she's in a shaky position," said J. Ann Selzer, president of
Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted polling of the race. "But there were
enough signals ... to suggest that the ground that she stands on is not exactly
Much of the focus heading into Tuesday's primary is on Theresa Greenfield,
the 55-year-old president of a Des Moines real estate and development company.
She has impressed leading Democrats in Iowa and Washington with a compelling
life story, a childhood spent on a farm and, perhaps most notably, her skill at
Having raised more than $7 million since entering the race last year,
Greenfield has taken in at least $5 million more than each of her three
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Senate Minority Leader
Chuck Schumer of New York, was quick to get behind Greenfield and by February
had directed millions in super PAC spending against Ernst.
Since then, the group has spent $8.5 million promoting Greenfield and
attacking Ernst, with help last year from an Iowa-based, anti-Ernst super PAC
and some ad spending from former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer's
group, Need to Impeach.
Although Ernst has raised more than $12 million in total, she had an edge of
less than $2.5 million over Greenfield as of mid-May, a thin advantage for an
incumbent member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership team.
Greenfield's fundraising prowess reflects a broad array of support among
Among those rallying behind Greenfield are establishment figures such as
centrist Christie Vilsack, a former Iowa first lady, and liberals including
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, as well as often-competing labor groups such as the
Iowa Federation of Labor and the Iowa council of the American Federation of
State, County and Municipal Employees.
That's after better-known party figures former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and
freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, for example turned down overtures from party
leaders to consider challenging Ernst.
Outwardly friendly, with a wholesome air, Greenfield talks of the farm where
she grew up and a father whom she quotes saying, "There are no boy jobs, no
girl jobs. There's just jobs that need to get done."
Greenfield has taken moderate positions on key issues, including siding with
those who would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act as opposed to
scrapping the 2010 law for the more progressive "Medicare for All."
Democrats including Greenfield have criticized Ernst, who ran on a message
of reining in Washington special interests, for enabling them, chiefly by
supporting the 2017 tax cut.
The attacks on Ernst may have left a mark, given results in a key survey
Ernst's approval dipped 10 percentage points from her career high over the
past year to 47% in an early March Des Moines Register Iowa poll conducted by
Still, 41% of likely voters said they would definitely vote to reelect her,
a good bit more than the 31% who said they would definitely vote for someone
Ernst's campaign has sought to amplify Greenfield's liability as politically
untested, though without spending on television advertising so far. In digital
ads, Ernst's campaign has used debate footage of Greenfield's nonspecific
answer to a foreign policy question to raise doubts about her preparedness.
Also noteworthy, the rugged profile Ernst projected in 2014 made famous
in an ad in which she recalled castrating hogs has softened somewhat as the
senator has talked in more personal terms about her life.
"A lot of things have happened in her life over the course of the last six
years that she's really had to talk about," said senior Ernst adviser David
Kochel, "which helps people understand more of who she is and what motivates
Typically, on the weekend before a Tuesday election as pivotal as the Iowa
primary, candidates and their legions of volunteers would pack into cars and
fan out across neighborhoods to knock on doors. But many Iowans are still
sheltering at home during the pandemic, forcing campaigns to get creative.
"Just because we're staying home doesn't mean we're standing still," said
Sam Newton, communication director for Greenfield. "We would much rather be out
face-to-face talking to voters and traveling the state. But I think we've
adapted pretty quickly and, in this digital age, texting people, calling and
reaching people via Zoom is very effective."
To that end, Greenfield's campaign has been conducting twice-weekly virtual
training sessions with volunteers to get out the vote, focusing heavily on
encouraging vote by mail.
As of a week ago, nearly 500,000 Iowa voters, about one-quarter of the
state's electorate, had requested absentee ballots, the highest number of
absentee ballot requests for any Iowa election, primary or general.
In a sign of potential Democratic momentum in Iowa, a significant number of
the ballot requests are from voters who have not voted in a primary since
before 2010, when Republicans made wholesale gains.
The influx of primary-voting Democrats, including those who have been less
active in recent cycles, could signal a resurgence of Iowa Democrats. Thousands
of them stayed home in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary
Clinton by more than 9 percentage points after Democrat Barack Obama carried
the state twice.