PARKERSBURG, Iowa — In the span of 10 minutes, Sen. Joni Ernst was confronted with her reelection dilemma.
At a town hall meeting at Aplington-Parkersburg High School earlier this month, a woman stood up and encouraged the Iowa Republican to support President Donald Trump in his ongoing trade dispute with China. Less than 10 minutes later, another woman said she was ashamed of Trump’s immigration policies, and called on the senator to speak out.
“When there is an issue I don’t agree with, I do speak out,” Ernst responded. She later added, “There’s only one person in this country that I can control, and that’s me.”
This is the conundrum facing Ernst and other GOP senators running for reelection in 2020 — when to break with the president and when to support him.
With Republicans currently controlling the Senate 53-47, Democrats need a net gain of four seats to take over — or three if they win the White House, in which case a Democratic vice president would be the tie-breaking vote. While other states might be riper Senate targets, winning in states like Iowa would help Democrats cement their majority. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Iowa Senate race Likely Republican.
Trump carried Iowa by 9 points in 2016, but President Barack Obama won the state twice, and Democrats see an opportunity with an ongoing trade war and slipping presidential approval numbers. And it wasn’t that long ago that a Democrat represented Iowa in the Senate. Ernst replaced longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin in 2015 after he retired.
“That Senate seat’s Tom Harkin’s seat, and we need to have it back,” said former Democratic Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in 2016.
Trump’s approval rating in Iowa was at 42 percent in February, according to the Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, which political operatives consider the gold standard for the state. Ernst had a 57 percent approval rating, her highest yet.
Ernst said in a recent interview in Des Moines that she has a good relationship with Trump despite disagreeing with him on some issues, and that she talks with the president every couple of weeks.
She particularly opposes Trump’s tariff policy, saying Iowa farmers are hurting after China retaliated with tariffs on some of the state’s major exports, including soybeans and pork. She also joined a group of GOP senators who pushed back on the administration’s plans to withdraw American troops from Syria.
And when Trump tweeted that four minority Democratic congresswomen, all U.S. citizens, should “go back” to the countries they came from, Ernst acknowledged that was racist.
“He made those statements, and I don’t appreciate them,” she said when asked to explain her support for a president whose statements she concedes were racist.
“But look at what he’s doing for economy, look at what he’s doing for our country,” Ernst said. “People are much better off today than they were during the stagnant Obama administration.”
Kirk Bragg, a Democrat from Clive who attended this month’s Iowa State Fair, was not optimistic about her party’s chances of defeating Ernst. She pointed out how Ernst had broken with Trump at points, noting the senator’s opposition to his proposed ban on transgender military personnel. Ernst, who served in the Iraq War and was a member of the Army Reserve and Iowa National Guard, is the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate.
“I’ll have to admit, I think she’s a good person, and I think she’s got more political courage than the others,” said Bragg, a 64-year-old social worker and teacher.
Bragg said he still won’t support Ernst because she “still votes like a Republican 95 percent of the time.” Ernst has largely stuck with the president, supporting Trump’s priorities 98 percent of the time, according to CQ Vote Watch.
Republicans are counting on the senator to appeal to independent and GOP voters who might not like the president, particularly suburban women.
“Joni Ernst is going to have her own set of coattails,” state GOP Chairman Jeff Kauffman said.
But Democrats are confident that Ernst’s connection to Trump and Washington Republicans — she’s the only woman in Senate GOP leadership — will come back to haunt her.
“She famously ran in 2014, on a promise to make folks squeal in Washington. But [Iowans] see she’s just a part of the problem,” said Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price, referencing an attention-grabbing campaign ad in which Ernst likened her experience castrating pigs with cutting government spending.
“They’re seeing her stand shoulder to shoulder with Mitch McConnell, they’re seeing her stand shoulder to shoulder with Donald Trump,” Price said.
Tying Ernst to Trump is a balancing act for Democrats too, given his appeal in rural areas, where Democrats need to improve their margins to win statewide.
Real estate executive Theresa Greenfield, one of several Democrats seeking the Senate nomination, tied Ernst to McConnell, the Senate majority leader, instead of Trump in her speech at the Adair County Democratic Party potluck in Greenfield earlier this month.
“I’m running to do the job in the Senate,” she told CQ Roll Call at the potluck, explaining her focus on McConnell rather than Trump.
“I’ll let the American people and Iowans decide who’s going to be the next president,” added Greenfield, who has been endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The Iowa Senate candidates are currently being overshadowed by the presidential race, as the 20-plus Democratic hopefuls barnstorm the state ahead of its caucuses in February.
Several Iowans interviewed at the state fair and other events this month admitted they were not paying much attention to the Senate contest. Attention could shift after the February caucuses conclude, and meanwhile Democrats are utilizing the frequent political events to build support and name recognition among caucusgoers and party activists.
Ernst cast the race as a choice between socialism and freedom in her campaign kickoff in June, criticizing liberal policies such as “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, which are backed by several Democratic presidential candidates.
Three of the Democrats vying to take her on — Greenfield, retired Navy admiral Mike Franken, who launched his campaign Monday, and community organizer and insurance broker Eddie Mauro — don’t support Medicare for All. A fourth candidate, lawyer Kimberly Graham, supports the proposal.
Whoever wins the Democratic nomination — Ernst expects it will be Greenfield — the incumbent plans to tie them to presidential candidates’ liberal policies.
Informed that Greenfield supports a public option and allowing people keep their private insurance, Ernst said, “She needs to be out there talking about it, or I’m going to talk about it in the way I want to frame it.”
Ready for a fight
Democrats see health care as a winning issue in 2020, as it was last cycle. Greenfield and Franken both cited Ernst’s votes for bills that would have repealed the 2010 health care law as evidence that she does not stand up for Iowans.
And Democratic groups have already begun engaging in the race.
The super PAC Iowa Forward has reserved around $1 million in television airtime, and has already launched two television ads knocking Ernst for her health care votes. Republican outside groups — including One Nation, a nonprofit linked to the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund — are also spending in the race.
For her part, Ernst has been gearing up for a competitive race. She kept her campaign operating in the off years and by the end of 2019 she will have held a town hall in each of the 99 Iowa counties. At the Iowa Pork Producers Association’s tent at the state fair, the motorcycle-riding senator said her reelection fight was going to be “full throttle,” just like her first race in 2014.
“No matter who else is on the ballot, no matter what it might look like in other states, I am going to run hard, hard, hard to make sure that I keep this seat for Iowa,” she said.
Jason Dick contributed to this report.