Outside money pours into Iowa Senate primary, with more to come

Parties and super PACs have already reserved nearly $36 million in airtime

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed Theresa Greenfield in the Iowa Senate primary.  (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has endorsed Theresa Greenfield in the Iowa Senate primary. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted May 28, 2020 at 11:14am

Millions of dollars have already been spent in Iowa ahead of Tuesday’s Senate primary, mostly from outside groups bolstering Democrat Theresa Greenfield in her bid to take on Republican incumbent Joni Ernst.

And the spending so far is just a preview of what’s to come. 

Both parties’ Senate campaign committees and aligned super PACs have reserved a combined $35.6 million in airtime in the Hawkeye State for after the nominees are chosen, a sign that Iowa will be one of the top contests in the battle for the Senate. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Lean Republican.

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The flood of outside money won’t be new for Iowans who remember Ernst’s first race in 2014, when outside groups spent almost $63 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Nearly $6.7 million of the $9.7 million spent in the Senate primary so far has been to support Greenfield, a real estate executive endorsed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Greenfield also has endorsements from a long list of Iowa Democratic leaders and labor organizations.

Republicans and some of Greenfield’s opponents believe the outside spending is a sign that she is struggling to break through the primary field, which includes three other candidates: insurance broker Eddie Mauro, who has been self-funding his campaign; retired three-star Navy Adm. Mike Franken; and lawyer Kimberly Graham. If no candidate receives more than 35 percent of the primary vote Tuesday, the nominee will be decided at a party convention.

“The outside money, the institutional support clearly isn’t cutting it,” said Aaron Slutkin, a spokesman for Franken, who has been endorsed by The Des Moines Register.

Greenfield has the backing of EMILY’s List, whose independent expenditure arm, Women Vote!, launched a television ad attacking Franken for recently returning to Iowa. Franken and his allies criticized the ad as denigrating his military service. Women Vote! is spending $919,000 against the retired admiral, as well as $30,000 against Mauro, according to recent FEC filings.

“The men vying for the Iowa Senate seat are baselessly attacking Theresa Greenfield’s record as a successful businesswoman because they are afraid to run on their own records,” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Mairead Lynn said.

Greenfield’s opponents have criticized the outside involvement. Franken pressed her in a recent debate to renounce outside spending in the race. Greenfield responded: “I can’t control at this point in time what dark money groups do.” She noted that she supports overhauling campaign finance laws and does not accept corporate PAC money.

Despite the criticism from her opponents, the early spending from outside groups could help Greenfield if she wins the primary by boosting her name recognition and approval ratings before Republicans go on the attack.

Democratic groups similarly spent early in the North Carolina Democratic primary to bolster the DSCC’s pick, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham, in the race to take on GOP Sen. Thom Tillis. While Republicans cheered that Democrats were spending money that could have been used in the general election, some Democrats believe the early spending helped increase Cunningham’s name recognition. Recent polls have shown the North Carolina race is close, and some Democrats say early spending in Iowa could have the same impact on Greenfield.

Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with the DSCC that can accept and spend unlimited amounts as long as it does not coordinate efforts with campaigns, has spent nearly $6.7 million supporting Greenfield, mostly airing positive spots to highlight her background, which could dovetail to a general election message. Greenfield has often stressed protecting Medicare and Social Security, saying Social Security helped her family survive when her first husband, a phone lineman, was killed on the job.

“I think it speaks more to the fact that Iowa is a relatively inexpensive state for advertising,” Iowa Democratic consultant Jeff Link, who is not working with any of the candidates, said of the outside spending. “And when you can define yourself first, it’s a huge competitive advantage. I think that’s what’s driving it more than anything else.”

Link, who worked on former Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s Senate campaign against Ernst in 2014, said outside groups helped Ernst win her crowded primary that year. The earlier spending forced Braley to launch his first TV ad sooner than planned.

Link said introducing Greenfield to voters early in the election cycle is also important because Republicans will waste no time attacking her if she wins the nomination. The National Republican Senatorial Committee’s independent expenditure arm has reserved $2.6 million on Iowa television and radio stations and plans to start running ads on June 9.

And it’s not just the Senate race that could bring outside money to Iowa. All four of its House races are competitive. The state could also attract spending from the presidential campaigns, since Iowans twice supported former President Barack Obama before backing President Donald Trump by 9 points in 2016.

“It could be bonkers,” Link said.

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