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Trump looms over Ernst's tough reelection fight in Iowa

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstWaPo reporter says GOP has less incentive to go big on COVID-19 relief GOP chairman: Defense bill to include renaming Confederate bases, but not Section 230 repeal Iowa losses underscore Democrats' struggles with attracting rural voters MORE (R-Iowa) is facing a formidable challenge in her first reelection bid from Democrat Theresa Greenfield, with outside groups fueling the tight race with exorbitant amounts of cash.

A New York Times-Siena College survey released Wednesday showed Ernst up just one point over Greenfield, while a number of other polls have shown Greenfield up.

Ernst has had to reckon with the reality of President TrumpDonald John TrumpAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week Conservative policy director calls Section 230 repeal an 'existential threat' for tech MORE at the top of the ticket, in a state where there are signs the president is falling behind his Democratic rival Joe BidenJoe BidenAppeals court OKs White House diverting military funding to border wall construction Federal student loan payment suspension extended another month Pentagon: Tentative meeting between spy agencies, Biden transition set for early next week MORE.

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She has also faced challenges of her own in the state. The senator, who grew up on a farm, made headlines earlier this week when she misstated the price of soybeans in the state.

The Democratic Party’s national apparatus has capitalized on Ernst’s vulnerabilities. The race is the second-most expensive Senate race in U.S. history, illustrating the importance of the seat to both parties in their battle for the majority.

$113 million in advertising bookings is being spent by outside groups in the Senate race, with $59 million behind Greenfield and $54 million behind Ernst, according to Advertising Analytics.

On the fundraising front, Greenfield, like other Senate Democratic challengers, has outraised her Republican opponent by a wide margin. Greenfield brought in a record $28.7 million in the third quarter of 2020, while Ernst brought in $7.2 million.

Both candidates have accused each other of having ties to special interests, while touting their own experiences growing up on farms in an effort to appeal to voters in a state dominated by agriculture.

Greenfield’s campaign describes her as someone who “grew up as a scrappy farm kid,” referencing her experience during the 1980s farm crisis. The real estate executive previously ran for Congress in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District primary.

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“When [Ernst] got to Washington, she changed and she puts her corporate PAC donors and Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOn The Money: Unemployment gains lower than expected | Jobs report lights fire under coronavirus relief talks GOP senators back Christian school's push for COVID-19 carve-out Bipartisan governors call on Congress to pass coronavirus relief package MORE first even when it hurts Iowans,” said Sam Newton, Greenfield’s communications director. “Iowans are holding Ernst accountable.”

Ernst, who also grew up on a farm, billed herself in 2014 as an outside candidate set on reforming Washington, famously pledging in a campaign ad to “cut pork” and “make ‘em squeal” in Washington. Ernst has also touted her experience in the Army National Guard, and has spoken out about her experience as a sexual assault survivor.

The incumbent senator is still invoking her roots on the campaign trail, while also taking a cue from national Republicans by painting her Democratic rival as too liberal and extreme.

“Coastal liberals are pouring $100 million into the state to back their handpicked candidate, Theresa Greenfield, because they know she’d be a reliable vote to kill American jobs, hurt Iowa farmers, and raise taxes on hardworking small businesses and families,” said Brendan Conley, Ernst’s campaign communication director. “Theresa Greenfield is perfect for California, but she’s far too liberal for Iowa.”

It’s unclear how Trump, a figure Ernst is closely tied to, will impact the senator’s political fate in November. Trump is lagging in the state, which he won by roughly 9 points four years ago.

The New York Times-Siena College survey released this week showed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden leading by 3 points, within the poll’s 3.9-percent margin of error.

Ernst has been an enthusiastic supporter of the president and a reliable vote for Senate Republicans. However, she has occasionally broken with Trump throughout his presidency. The senator was critical of Trump’s tariffs on Chinese exports last year and expressed support for renaming Confederate military bases, acknowledging she received pushback from members of her party on the issue.

Ernst’s campaign says the senator is running her own campaign, calling her an independent voice for Iowa. 

Republicans say Trump’s presence on the ballot won’t necessarily be a death knell for Ernst’s campaign, saying it will likely drive turnout from the party.

“I think he is an asset to her,” said one Republican strategist.

Republicans also point to high in-person early voting turnout in Iowa, as well as the large number of independent and Republican-leaning voters who have yet to vote this year as a positive sign for their candidates.

“All of those are pretty good indicators and pretty good signs that we’re probably performing pretty well right now, and the opportunity to continue to perform and perform at a better rate is still in front of us,” said GOP strategist David Polyansky, who worked as a top adviser to Ernst during her 2014 Senate campaign.

Some experts also point to the history of Iowa voters splitting their tickets, warning not to put too much stock into the top of the ticket.

The midterm elections in Iowa two years ago saw voters splitting their tickets between a number of Democratic congressional candidates, including now-Reps. Abby FinkenauerAbby Lea FinkenauerIowa losses underscore Democrats' struggles with attracting rural voters Here are the 17 GOP women newly elected to the House this year Incoming Iowa GOP lawmaker tests positive for coronavirus MORE (D) and Cindy AxneCindy AxneIowa losses underscore Democrats' struggles with attracting rural voters Democrats face increasing pressure to back smaller COVID-19 stimulus On The Money: Powell says 'concerning' rise in COVID-19 cases could hinder economic recovery | House Democrats withdraw appeal in case over Trump's New York tax returns | Initial jobless claims dip to 751,000 MORE (D) and the state’s incumbent Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.

The 2018 results could provide some reassurance to Ernst, who Democrats have frequently tried to tie to Trump. 

“Those independents split the ticket,” Hagel said. “Just because they vote one way in the presidential race doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to vote the same way in the other statewide races.”

Sean Bagniewski, the chair of the Polk County Democrats, said it’s also possible that ticket splitting won’t necessarily work to Ernst’s advantage.

“I think there will be Trump voters who vote for Theresa Greenfield because she is new, they like who she is, they know of her,” Bagniewski said. “For whatever reason, fair or unfair, there are a lot of folks in rural Iowa and really across Iowa who hold the trade war and ethanol standards against Joni Ernst, but they still won’t hold it against Donald Trump.”

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Ernst’s favorability rating reached a peak of 56 percent in February 2016, but a September Des Moines Register poll showed it at 44 percent. Forty-eight percent of voters said they viewed Trump favorably in a September presidential poll from the publication.

Bagniewski said turnout, which has already reached record levels in Iowa less than two weeks from election, will be one of the biggest factors in the race.

“It’s all turnout in all honesty, which it is everywhere in America right now,” he said.