Theresa Greenfield, 56, grew up on a farm that went under during the 1980s farm crisis, lost her first husband in an industrial accident and later ran a family-owned real estate firm in Des Moines.
Greenfield’s story is one that Democratic strategists normally only dream about. But when the front-runner for Iowa’s Democratic Senate nomination tells her tale of rural roots, perseverance and business savvy, she is also keen to emphasize the social solidarity that made it all possible.
Greenfield reminds voters that when husband Rodney Wirtjes, an electrical lineman, was electrocuted in June 1988, his union ― the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers ― was there for her. The union’s health care benefits ensured that she and their kids were covered, its members shoveled her driveway that winter, and union officials informed her about Social Security’s survivors benefits for widows with small children. Greenfield’s first son was 18 months old at the time and she was pregnant with her second child.
“You don’t get rich on Social Security, but you’re not supposed to,” Greenfield told HuffPost. “It’s an earned benefit for hardworking families so they can get back on their feet and people don’t go into poverty, and that’s exactly what it did for me.”
The candidate has a cheerful, plain-spoken way of talking, even when it’s a subject that inspires sadness or anger.
“When it comes to Social Security, it’s one of those fights that I’ll carry in my heart,” she said, sounding excited by the prospect of a brawl to protect the social insurance program.
Social Security is at the heart of Greenfield’s kitchen-table-focused pitch to Iowans, over 1 in 5 of whom receive its benefits. Greenfield is vying to unseat Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, 49, who is seeking a second term and has made comments suggesting she is open to cutting benefits.
“If voters really value Social Security, they will elect a leader who values Social Security,” Greenfield said.
“In times like these, where people’s economic situation is uncertain and feels very perilous, a message on retirement security ― whether that be Social Security or Medicare ― is very potent.”
Democrats have been running as guardians of Social Security virtually from the moment the party created the program in 1935. But the issue tends to be most effective for Democrats when they can point to a clear, looming threat to the program’s benefits like in the 2006 midterm elections. Now, Democrats believe that Republicans have made just enough noise to give credence to claims that the GOP is targeting the program again.
The economic havoc wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and governments’ response to it is likely to make running on Social Security that much more effective, according to Tyler Law, a Democratic consultant who was previously a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“In times like these, where people’s economic situation is uncertain and feels very perilous, a message on retirement security ― whether that be Social Security or Medicare ― is very potent,” he said.
To get her shot at Ernst, Greenfield first needs to dispatch three Democratic rivals in the June 2 primary: businessman Eddie Mauro, retired Navy Adm. Mike Franken and progressive attorney Kimberly Graham.
Most Iowa politics watchers believe Greenfield has already locked up the nomination, however. Thanks in part to the early endorsement of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, she has nearly $3 million more in cash than Mauro, her closest competitor. She is also backed by virtually all of the state’s prominent elected Democrats, labor unions and reproductive rights groups.
Referring to the support she received from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers after her first husband’s death, Greenfield said that unions have “given me a hand up and I’m going to have their back as the next senator here in Iowa.”
Turning Iowa Blue
In Democrats’ discussions of how to retake the Senate, Iowa doesn’t quite rank in the top tier of possible pickups like Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina.
But it’s a solid runner-up alongside states like Montana.
“Iowa is a really strong offensive opportunity for us,” said Stewart Boss, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is the official campaign arm of Senate Democrats. “It could be a critical path to the majority.”
Given some recent losses, it’s easy to forget that Iowa, where Democratic presidential candidates recently spent months courting caucus-goers, was once a state where Democrats were regularly competitive in statewide and national races.
President Barack Obama won Iowa twice. Then, in 2016, Donald Trump took the state by nearly 10 percentage points ― part of an electoral streak that won over historically Democratic voters across the industrial Midwest.
But unlike in Ohio, where Trump had been victorious by a similar margin, Democrats had enormous success in Iowa House races during the 2018 midterm elections. The party flipped two House seats and nearly defeated Republican Rep. Steve King in the state’s most conservative district. And while Democrats narrowly lost the governorship, they took control of the state auditor’s office.
Suburban voters, who have been shifting away from Republicans under Trump, powered Democrats’ surge in Iowa two years ago. The party also recouped some of its traditional blue-collar constituency in manufacturing communities along the Mississippi River.
In this election cycle, the contests for all four of the state’s House seats, including two where incumbent Democrats are running for reelection, are due to be competitive, potentially providing upstream momentum ― or “reverse coattails” ― for Greenfield.
“That movement is going to continue in 2020,” predicted Jeff Link, a Des Moines-based Democratic strategist. “That is really troubling for Ernst and it’s troubling for Trump.”
The Social Security Edge?
Greenfield, who has an Upper Midwest accent that hints at her roots across the border in Minnesota, said her experience with Social Security is an instant source of connection with prospective voters across Iowa. She estimates that at least one person at each of her more than 100 campaign events has told her that Social Security survivors benefits were a vital lifeline for them too when they lost a spouse or a parent.
“I get these stories truly almost everywhere I go across the state so I know that Social Security has been unifying in keeping them out of poverty and giving them that hand up,” she said.
Adopting the preservation of Social Security as a core priority is a no-brainer for Greenfield ― and not just because of her personal story. The New Deal program is also the subject of a major political flub by Ernst. The incumbent senator told constituents at a town hall meeting last September that members of Congress from both parties should discuss reforming Social Security “behind closed doors.”
Democrats immediately seized on her remarks as code for the kind of back-room “grand bargain” that was fashionable to push in the years immediately after the 2008 financial crisis but that has since fallen out of favor in both parties.
What’s more, Ernst had spoken favorably about partially or completely privatizing Social Security during her 2014 Senate run. At a primary debate in May 2014, she discussed the need to look at “transitioning our younger workers onto individual plans or individual savings accounts.” She was more explicit at a forum for seniors in September of that year, saying, “I have talked about privatizing Social Security as an option.”
A broad range of people on the ideological left and right have criticized proposals to allow Americans to invest their payroll tax contributions to Social Security on their own ― and thus, to privatize the program. These critics maintain that shifting the risk of market investments away from the government and onto individuals could jeopardize Americans’ retirement income by making it more dependent on swings in the stock market and the fees of fund managers. A 2005 proposal by President George W. Bush to partially privatize Social Security died amid political backlash, helping hand Congress to Democrats in the 2006 midterm elections.
Ernst’s campaign did not respond to detailed requests for comment. But in September, spokeswoman Kelsi Daniell told The Washington Post that the senator meant to highlight how even discussing changes to Social Security has become taboo.
“Just as Senator Ernst predicted, we can’t have honest conversations about solving problems anymore without liberals and their media allies trying to demonize it and create a faux controversy,” Daniell said in a statement to the Post. “Senator Ernst has always and will continue to stand up and fight to protect Social Security now and for generations to come.”
In keeping with an approach that is moderate by national standards, Greenfield has not signed on to some of the more ambitious Social Security expansion bills circulating in Congress. She is instead a supporter of the Swift Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) that would expand eligibility for survivors benefits, including for disabled widows and widowers. She also wants to protect Social Security Administration offices, which are especially valued in rural communities, from administrative budget cuts that have prompted dozens of office closures in the past decade.
“The wealthiest in this nation, the biggest corporations need to pay their fair share.”
As for plugging Social Security’s funding gap, which is due to force automatic benefit cuts in 2035 absent congressional action, Greenfield keeps her recommendations broad but progressive.
“The wealthiest in this nation, the biggest corporations need to pay their fair share,” she said.
The combination of Ernst’s comments and Greenfield’s connection to the program prompted Social Security Works PAC, which supports candidates committed to expanding Social Security, to make its first endorsement in a contested Democratic primary. Jon Bauman, president of the PAC and the former “Sha Na Na” singer known as Bowzer, joined Greenfield for a rally via video chat in late April. (Plans for a musical tour of the state to promote Greenfield are tentatively on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
“Theresa Greenfield has literally lived the value of Social Security survivors benefits,” Bauman told HuffPost. “She is able to connect with her voters in a way that you can’t without that personal story.”
Democrats contend that Republicans are now eyeing cutbacks to the popular program. In particular, they note that the Trump tax cuts contributed $2 trillion to the national debt and thereby created the fiscal conditions for Republicans to make their case for restricting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appeared to validate Democrats’ fears with his remarks in December 2017 calling for “entitlement reform” shortly after the tax cuts passed.
Four months later, Democrat Conor Lamb won a special election for a southwest Pennsylvania House district where Trump had won by almost 20 points in 2016. Lamb had seized on Ryan’s comments in a 30-second TV ad, saying that Ryan used the term “entitlement reform” to “talk about Social Security and Medicare as if it’s undeserved or it’s some form of welfare, but it’s not any of those things.”
National Democrats saw Lamb’s successful connection of the Trump tax cuts to the possibility of future Social Security reductions as a test run for the 2018 midterms, when dozens of other Democrats would wield similar arguments to help the party take control of the House.
And while Trump promised as a candidate that he would protect Social Security from cuts, he told a CNBC interviewer this January that “at some point” he would “look” at making unspecified changes to Social Security and Medicare. Now some White House economic officials are floating the idea of allowing Americans to get as much as $5,000 in stimulus money that they would pay for by delaying their eligibility for Social Security benefits.
Social Security Works, the nonprofit arm of the PAC that Bauman runs, called the plan “cruel and ridiculous” in a Monday tweet.
“Social Security is not a piggy bank,” the group said.
Holding Together A Tenuous Coalition
Iowa Democrats are increasingly concentrated in metropolitan Des Moines and a handful of other cities. The party’s two previous candidates for the governorship and Senate were partly hobbled by a sense that they were out of touch with the state’s vast rural regions.
Greenfield, a current Des Moines resident and successful businesswoman, nonetheless expresses a passion for rural issues that she credits to her upbringing as the daughter of a farmer and crop duster.
“So many small towns, like the one I grew up by and all of them in that area, they’re really struggling and they’ve been hollowed out,” she said.
Greenfield worries about the twin pressures on Iowa farmers of a trade war that has obstructed their access to Chinese markets and the Trump administration’s efforts to relax rules requiring oil refineries to use corn-based ethanol and other biofuels to make gasoline. Reversing both policies would be a top priority for her in Congress.
Asked whether tougher enforcement of antitrust laws against giant agriculture companies, which a new movement of experts and activists blames for squeezing family farms, is part of her agenda, Greenfield said it was a longer-term priority.
“We’ve got to level that playing field and make sure that we rebuild those markets for our farmers so they can compete and they have choices too for their inputs, their sales,” she said. “But right now, honestly, the number one thing I hear from them is, ‘We need our markets back,’ so they can just start turning a profit and then can go on to have some of these other fights that they want to have.”
Greenfield is not exactly an heir to the prairie populism of Iowa legend Tom Harkin, the last Democrat to represent the Hawkeye State in the Senate. When asked why she thinks farmers and other working families have seen key living costs go up for the past three decades even as their incomes have stagnated, Greenfield did not have a diagnosis. “I’m not going to sit here and guess why or who or how,” she said.
And Greenfield is unafraid to break with the activist left’s newer touchstones. She prefers a public health care option to “Medicare for All” and dismisses the Green New Deal as a non-starter.
That could matter in a state where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) won the popular vote in the Democratic caucuses in February.
“National Democrats really just haven’t been able to generate any enthusiasm behind their candidate.”
National Republicans hope that intra-party resentment at the Democratic establishment’s effort to anoint Greenfield over a more progressive contender like Kimberly Graham makes it harder for her to generate the turnout she needs in November.
The GOP points to Greenfield’s reliance on the support of Democratic leadership PACs that accept corporate donations, despite her refusal to accept corporate funds directly. Iowa Voices, an independent Democratic group that has looser disclosure requirements, has also managed to pour untold sums into ripping Ernst on television.
“National Democrats really just haven’t been able to generate any enthusiasm behind their candidate,” said Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “They’re spending a lot of special interest money to try to push Theresa Greenfield on Iowa voters.”
Thus far, though, there’s little evidence that Iowa’s most progressive voters are prepared to abandon the Democratic Party if Greenfield is the nominee.
Bob Morrison, a retired union machinist in the industrial town of Burlington, was active in Sanders’ 2020 bid and now supports Graham. But Greenfield’s ties to organized labor have inspired him to feel warmly toward her as well.
“I like Theresa,” he said. “I know she’s very strong on labor because of her husband.”