DES MOINES, Iowa – Four relatively unknown Iowa Democrats are competing in a primary Tuesday to take on Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, an endeavor viewed as a long shot when better-known prospects last year took a pass on running.
But Ernst's slip in approval and the rallying of Iowa and national Democrats, and especially their money, behind one of the four has the race receiving a second look.
For now, Ernst still is in a strong position heading into the fall. But as Democrats are increasingly bullish about their prospects in places such as Arizona and Colorado, the Iowa race is getting renewed attention as a potential battleground that could help the party regain the Senate majority.
“I can’t say she’s in a shaky position,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Iowa-based Selzer & Co., which conducted polling of the race. “But there were enough signals ... to suggest that the ground that she stands on is not exactly firm.”
Much of the focus heading into Tuesday's primary is on Theresa Greenfield, the 55-year-old president of a Des Moines real estate and development company. She has impressed leading Democrats in Iowa and Washington with a compelling life story, a childhood spent on a farm and, perhaps most notably, her skill at raising money.
Having raised more than $7 million since entering the race last year, Greenfield has taken in at least $5 million more than each of her three Democratic opponents.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, led by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, was quick to get behind Greenfield and by February had directed millions in super PAC spending against Ernst.
Since then, the group has spent $8.5 million promoting Greenfield and attacking Ernst, with help last year from an Iowa-based, anti-Ernst super PAC and some ad spending from former Democratic presidential candidate Tom Steyer’s group, Need to Impeach.
Although Ernst has raised more than $12 million in total, she had an edge of less than $2.5 million over Greenfield as of mid-May, a thin advantage for an incumbent member of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's leadership team.
Greenfield's fundraising prowess reflects a broad array of support among Iowa Democrats.
Among those rallying behind Greenfield are establishment figures such as centrist Christie Vilsack, a former Iowa first lady, and liberals including U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, as well as often-competing labor groups such as the Iowa Federation of Labor and the Iowa council of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
That's after better-known party figures — former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack and freshman Rep. Cindy Axne, for example — turned down overtures from party leaders to consider challenging Ernst.
Outwardly friendly, with a wholesome air, Greenfield talks of the farm where she grew up and a father whom she quotes saying, “There are no boy jobs, no girl jobs. There's just jobs that need to get done.”
Greenfield has taken moderate positions on key issues, including siding with those who would add a public option to the Affordable Care Act as opposed to scrapping the 2010 law for the more progressive “Medicare for All.”
Democrats including Greenfield have criticized Ernst, who ran on a message of reining in Washington special interests, for enabling them, chiefly by supporting the 2017 tax cut.
The attacks on Ernst may have left a mark, given results in a key survey this spring.
Ernst's approval dipped 10 percentage points from her career high over the past year to 47% in an early March Des Moines Register Iowa poll conducted by Selzer.
Still, 41% of likely voters said they would definitely vote to reelect her, a good bit more than the 31% who said they would definitely vote for someone else.
Ernst's campaign has sought to amplify Greenfield's liability as politically untested, though without spending on television advertising so far. In digital ads, Ernst's campaign has used debate footage of Greenfield's nonspecific answer to a foreign policy question to raise doubts about her preparedness.
Also noteworthy, the rugged profile Ernst projected in 2014 — made famous in an ad in which she recalled castrating hogs — has softened somewhat as the senator has talked in more personal terms about her life.
“A lot of things have happened in her life over the course of the last six years that she’s really had to talk about,” said senior Ernst adviser David Kochel, “which helps people understand more of who she is and what motivates her.”
Typically, on the weekend before a Tuesday election as pivotal as the Iowa primary, candidates and their legions of volunteers would pack into cars and fan out across neighborhoods to knock on doors. But many Iowans are still sheltering at home during the pandemic, forcing campaigns to get creative.
“Just because we’re staying home doesn’t mean we’re standing still,” said Sam Newton, communication director for Greenfield. “We would much rather be out face-to-face talking to voters and traveling the state. But I think we’ve adapted pretty quickly and, in this digital age, texting people, calling and reaching people via Zoom is very effective.”
To that end, Greenfield’s campaign has been conducting twice-weekly virtual training sessions with volunteers to get out the vote, focusing heavily on encouraging vote by mail.
As of a week ago, nearly 500,000 Iowa voters, about one-quarter of the state’s electorate, had requested absentee ballots, the highest number of absentee ballot requests for any Iowa election, primary or general.
In a sign of potential Democratic momentum in Iowa, a significant number of the ballot requests are from voters who have not voted in a primary since before 2010, when Republicans made wholesale gains.
The influx of primary-voting Democrats, including those who have been less active in recent cycles, could signal a resurgence of Iowa Democrats. Thousands of them stayed home in 2016, when Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 9 percentage points after Democrat Barack Obama carried the state twice.
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