Republican Joni Ernst Holds On To Iowa Senate Seat In Key Race

Democrat Theresa Greenfield, a real estate developer with rural roots, fell short in a competitive 2020 election race.

Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, a first-term Republican, is projected to win her reelection bid, disappointing Democrats who had hoped to claw back ground in a heartland state that was once friendlier territory for the party.

According to the Associated Press, Ernst, 50, was projected to defeat Democrat Theresa Greenfield, 56, a real estate developer with a compelling personal story.

“Ernst decided early on that she was going to stick like glue to” President Donald Trump, “and he carried her over the line,” said Jeff Link, a Democratic strategist based in Des Moines.

The reelection of Republican Sen. Joni Ernst reflects President Donald Trump's enduring popularity in Iowa.
The reelection of Republican Sen. Joni Ernst reflects President Donald Trump's enduring popularity in Iowa.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Greenfield led in polls in September and into October ― though often by small margins. Several surveys tracked a surge for Ernst in the campaign’s closing days. The race emerged as one of the crucial ones in determining which party controls the Senate.

Ernst’s victory solidifies Iowa’s status as an increasingly hard place for Democrats to win statewide races, despite a trade war that has hurt the state’s all-important agricultural sector. Trump won the state by almost 10 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election after Democrat Barack Obama carried it en route to winning the White House in 2008 and reelection in 2012.

Republican Kim Reynolds, after filling a gubernatorial vacancy in 2017, won a full term to the office in 2018.

The loss of this cycle’s Senate race is all the more disappointing for Democrats because Greenfield, with her pronounced Midwestern accent and a cheerful demeanor, seemed to come from central casting.

She ran as a champion of Social Security and labor unions, which she said helped her and her young son survive after her first husband, a union electrician, died in a workplace accident in 1988. She was pregnant at the time with her second child. She remarried and had two more children.

Social Security loomed as a vulnerability for Ernst, who has said that changes to the program ― a politically explosive issue, especially among senior voters ― must be discussed “behind closed doors.” Ernst has also spoken favorably about privatizing Social Security.

Greenfield also sought to tie Ernst to elements of Trump’s agenda that have hurt the farm economy. She reminded voters of how the Trump administration’s trade war with China had devastated corn and soybean farmers who rely on China as an export market. And she attacked the administration’s distribution of waivers to oil refineries reducing their dependence on corn-based ethanol fuel.

During a televised debate between Ernst and Greenfield in late October, Greenfield appeared to one-up Ernst’s rural bona fides in one key exchange that gained national attention. Greenfield was able to state from memory the break-even price of a bushel of corn, while Ernst botched the break-even price of a bushel of soybeans.

The moment looked like it might be a game-changer, particularly since Ernst rode her upbringing on an Iowa hog farm to victory in 2014. In a famous TV ad during that successful Senate run, Ernst boasted that her childhood castrating pigs had prepared her to “cut pork,” or wasteful spending, in Washington.

Despite the debate stumble and Greenfield’s spirited challenge, rural Iowa’s attachment to Trump ― and by extension, Ernst ― proved too formidable for the Democrat.

Ernst, a military veteran, has a harrowing personal story of her own that likely endeared her to many Iowans. She revealed in January 2019 that she was a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of her then-husband and that she had been raped by another man as a college student. The senator felt forced to share her ordeal when her now ex-husband accused her in a divorce filing of carrying on an extramarital affair, which Ernst denies.

In recent decades, Iowans have also tended to stick with incumbent senators. The last time Iowa voters threw out an incumbent senator was 1984, when then-Rep. Tom Harkin (D) unseated GOP Sen. Roger Jepsen.

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