Democrats target Ernst in bid to expand Senate map

Bonnie Cash

Democrats are pouring resources into efforts to flip Sen. Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) seat and expand their electoral map in November, believing that Iowa has the potential to help decide the fate of the Senate majority.

For now, the Senate race in Iowa remains less competitive than the contests in states like Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine. But Democrats say there are signs that Ernst’s reelection chances aren’t as rock solid as they once appeared to be.

A Des Moines Register–Mediacom Iowa poll released last month showed Ernst’s approval rating at 47 percent, down 10 points from where it was a year ago.

Her top Democratic rival, Theresa Greenfield, has largely kept pace with Ernst in fundraising and narrowly surpassed her in the second half of 2019.

And the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election handicapper, shifted the race in Democrats’ direction last month, moving it from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”

In a sign of how important the Iowa Senate seat is to both parties, the two top Republican and Democratic super PACs involved in Senate races booked a combined $25.7 million in fall ad reservations in Iowa late last month, their second-largest fall advertising investment after North Carolina.

The Senate Majority PAC, the top Democratic super PAC backing Senate candidates, has already spent more than $3 million on ads boosting Greenfield in Iowa. The group announced late last month that it had booked another $13.1 million in fall advertising in the state as part of a nearly $70 million buy across five Senate battlegrounds.

Meanwhile, the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), booked $12.6 million in fall television ads in Iowa, a sign that Republicans see the race as competitive.

The early ad reservations aren’t unusual. Campaigns and outside groups often book slots months in advance in order to lock in better rates, especially in a busy election cycle that includes a high-profile presidential contest and a handful of competitive House races.

But the size of the ad reservations — well over $10 million apiece — are notable, given Iowa’s relatively cheap media markets. But political operatives in the state say that the expensive bookings show the seriousness with which both sides view Iowa in the battle for the Senate.

“In terms of the Senate majority, the path runs through Iowa,” Sam Newton, the communications director for Greenfield’s campaign, said. “That’s why you’ve seen McConnell’s super PAC commit to spend so much money here.”

The race is still far from a lock for Democrats. Ernst ended 2019 with more than twice as much cash on hand as any of her Democratic challengers. Public head-to-head polls of the race haven’t been conducted for months, but one from the Democratic-leaning firm Public Policy Polling released in December showed Greenfield trailing Ernst by 7 points.

And the Des Moines Register survey from March found that each of the five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to take on Ernst in November remains unknown to at least 70 percent of Iowans. The Senate Majority PAC’s first ad in the state, released in February, was geared toward simply introducing Greenfield to voters as a businesswoman with farm roots.

That same poll found that a plurality of likely voters in Iowa — 41 percent — said they would vote to reelect Ernst. A little less than one-third said they would definitely vote for someone new.

But Democrats say there are signs that Iowa’s political terrain is moving in their favor.

In the 2018 midterm elections, for instance, Democratic Reps. Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne flipped two Republican-held House seats in the state.

And in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses in February, turnout in the counties around Des Moines increased, even as participation went down in more rural areas of the state, fueling Democratic hopes that the suburban energy that helped drive House victories in 2018 could bolster their Senate chances in 2020.

“There’s a lot of opportunity that if this race is run smart and correct it could pay off for Democrats,” said Jeremy Busch, the director of campaign communications for the Iowa Democratic Party, which remains neutral in the primary. “More voters than ever are willing to consider the Democratic platform.” 

Still, statewide races in Iowa have favored Republicans in recent years. President Trump carried the state by roughly 9 points in 2016. That same year, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R) won reelection by about 24 points. And even as Democrats won a majority in Iowa’s House delegation in 2018, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) won her first full term in office.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Iowa Republican Party said that Ernst “remains in a strong position to win reelection in November” and rebuked Democrats’ spending in the state. 

“While Democrats and dark money groups have already spent millions distorting Sen. Ernst’s record, the fact is Ernst remains in a strong position to win reelection in November,” the spokesperson said.
“She has worked hard for Iowans over the past six years, visiting every county every year, and holding 35 town halls last year alone. Meanwhile, [Senate Minority Leader Charles] Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) handpicked candidate Theresa Greenfield holds few open events and sells access to Iowans, rendering her unknown after 10 months of campaigning.”

Democrats need a net gain of three or four seats to capture control of the Senate, depending on which party wins the White House in November. Their path to the majority largely runs through Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine, where vulnerable Republicans are facing the challenges of their political lives.

But one of the party’s senators, Doug Jones, is in serious danger in Alabama. And a failure to flip seats in any one of their four key target states could effectively cut off Democrats’ chances of reclaiming a Senate majority in 2020 unless they’re able to expand their electoral map.

“Right now, they’re having to pitch a perfect game,” one GOP operative familiar with Senate races said. “They need more options and the next best hope — and it’s very logical — would be Iowa. But that is a very difficult proposition.”

–Updated at 4:00 p.m.

Tags Abby Finkenauer Chuck Grassley Cindy Axne Donald Trump doug jones Joni Ernst joni ernst theresa greenfield iowa senate race republicans democrats Mitch McConnell
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