Just under three years from now, Senator Joni Ernst will face the voters of Iowa again in 2020. If you had to make a bet, most at this point would guess Ernst cruises to a reelection victory. Many rank-and-file Democrats enjoy mocking her and can’t fathom why she’d be popular, but most serious people realize her political skills and how she’s positioned herself for the Iowa electorate.
She’s also had no major scandals in her term, her national profile has continued to rise and she’s beloved by the Republican base. She’s taken plenty of unpopular votes, but Democratic campaigns have yet to turn similar ones that Chuck Grassley, David Young and Rod Blum took into damaging vulnerabilities.
In a recent Morning Consult poll this week, Ernst stood at a 45% approval, 36% disapproval, with 19% unsure. That’s a decent spot for an incumbent to be in, but not an overwhelming advantage. For comparison’s sake, Chuck Grassley had a 50% approval and 35% disapproval.
Most concerning, there appears to be no longterm strategy for Iowa Democrats or their allied groups to start building the case against Ernst over the next three years. In conversations Starting Line had this week with a number of behind-the-scenes leaders, there seems to be no coordinated, thought-out game plan to drive up Ernst’s negatives.
Obviously, there are much more pressing campaigns to focus on at the moment, not the least of which is Governor Kim Reynolds’ race. And obviously, no one’s expecting the party or allied groups to expend significant time and resources in 2017 or 2018 to go after Ernst.
That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m concerned over is the lack of just a basic set of talking points that Democrats have compiled to hammer away repeatedly at specific weaknesses of Ernst over time. All that would take is a small handful of meetings, possibly a poll if there’s money available, a commitment by Democrats and allied groups to stick to certain themes and then carrying out that messaging against Ernst when opportunities arise.
Because, right now, does anyone know what the most effective line of attack on Ernst is? Should we tie her to Donald Trump in the hopes his presidency implodes, or is that too risky a strategy in a state that Trump won handily? Should we focus in on her part of the national healthcare failure, or is that issue too much of a mixed bag for Democrats and Republicans? Should we highlight her specific hypocritical votes on veteran issues, or is her credibility on that front simply too secure? Is she more potentially weak with blue collar swing voters or suburban moderates?
The answers to those questions won’t magically appear on their own. And using a scattershot, message-of-the-day approach to criticizing Ernst over the next three years won’t accomplish much.
Consider what happened in 2016 with Grassley. National Democrats got excited about the race when Grassley led the Merrick Garland obstruction and his approval ratings started to drop in Iowa. Those concerns from voters, however, were soft. Once Grassley unleashed a deluge of positive TV ads in the summer, his numbers quickly rebounded and he skated to reelection.
Democrats can clearly be forgiven for not laying out six years of groundwork to beat Grassley, who was never considered a real target for defeat by anyone before early 2016. However, a more relentless drumbeat about Grassley becoming a partisan hack might have primed voters to view the senior senator even more negatively once the judicial controversies arose.
Ernst is a different story. A first term senator, no matter how popular or skilled, should always face a difficult reelection. We know how much Iowa loves their incumbents, and there’s plenty of fear that if Ernst wins her first reelection, she could serve in the Senate for 50 years (she’s 47 now).
Or maybe not. She could very easily be the vice president right now had she not preemptively turned down any potential offer from Trump during the time last year when she was on the short list. It’s entirely possibly Ernst runs for president in the future. So, her 2020 reelection race could have much far-reaching consequences than just which party holds one of Iowa’s senate seats.
That’s why Democrats and their allies need to figure out now – well ahead of time – on which messages will be the most effective to shape the narrative around Ernst. It will help in the media, but it will also give guidance to Democratic activists in how they talk about her to their friends. When there’s a vacuum of effective messaging from the top, you end up with what we have now: the outright, sniveling arrogance of how many Democrats bash Ernst for bread bags and hog castration. That obviously only plays into rural and blue collar voters’ perceptions of Democrats as out-of-touch jerks who look down on people.
So, as everyone rightly organizes for this week’s municipal races, next year’s gubernatorial and congressional campaigns, make sure to keep Ernst in the back of your mind. Because if Democrats don’t fully engage on her until early 2020, the race will already be lost.
by Pat Rynard