Who’s brave enough to run against Joni Ernst?
The first-term senator should be a top target for Democrats nationally, but she begins the 2020 cycle with an all-time high approval rating. The Des Moines Register found Ernst had a 57% job approval last week, a noticeable jump from the 43% to 51% rating she’s hovered around for most of her time in office.
Democrats worry that if she survives her first reelection, the 48-year-old Ernst could settle into a very long tenure in the Senate, especially in a state that historically likes its incumbents. Former Governor Tom Vilsack, her best-known potential opponent, ruled out a run on Friday.
However, plenty of other possibilities remain for Democrats. If there was one thing the 2018 election showed, the party’s bench in Iowa is a little deeper than originally thought. The DSCC has already reached out to many of them while Vilsack considered his future. The issue that many ambitious Democrats are considering is one of timing: there will be an open Senate seat in 2022 when Chuck Grassley retires, in theory an easier prospect.
Starting Line scoured the rumor mill in recent weeks. Here’s what we’ve found on the Senate race.
DSCC Courts Cindy Axne
Sources tell Starting Line that the DSCC’s first choice was Vilsack, but that newly-elected Congresswoman Cindy Axne of West Des Moines was a close second. The DSCC has reached out to her multiple times in hopes of persuading her to take on Ernst.
The thinking goes that Senator Chuck Schumer prefers the Jacky Rosen model. She’s the newly-elected Democratic senator from Nevada who ousted Republican incumbent Dean Heller last year after serving just one term in the U.S. House. The idea is that a first-term congresswoman has just enough stature and connections to undertake a Senate run, while few enough votes to avoid damaging attacks.
Axne just spent a massive sum of money in the state’s largest media market during her 2018 race, and her name ID ought to remain high from that effort. She also pulled off one of the most impressive wins of the cycle in Iowa; her opponent David Young won by 14 points in the previous election, had a moderate persona (if not voting record), and was well-known as an extremely hard-working incumbent. It just turned out Axne could out-work anyone.
Still, Axne’s profile – a suburban businesswoman – is perfectly suited to her 3rd District’s Des Moines metro, moreso than a statewide race. And for any Iowa Democrat who just started a new job, there’s the consideration of looking like you’re immediately trying to jump to something else.
Theresa Greenfield Considers It
Many Democrats have told Starting Line that Theresa Greenfield, who ran for a time in a primary with Axne, has been talking with people for months about a Senate run. Greenfield was waiting on Vilsack’s decision, and with him taking a pass, that clears one major obstacle.
Greenfield would start out in a strong position for the same reasons she did in the 3rd District race before a nominating petition problem bounced her from the race. She comes from a farming background, understands union issues well, and runs a business in the Des Moines metro. Running against someone like Ernst who has such a strong appeal in rural Iowa is difficult, but Greenfield could credibly stack up her own bio against Ernst on that front.
Eddie Mauro’s PAC
One more name from last year’s 3rd District primary to watch: Eddie Mauro, the Des Moines businessman and high school baseball coach. He just launched his own PAC this week to put some pressure on Ernst while the Democratic field develops. But his Midwest Victory PAC could also be a way to keep his own name in the game; it’s also aimed at helping out a lot of state legislative Democratic candidates.
Mauro ran unsuccessfully in the 3rd District primary in 2018 and a local legislative primary before that. He’s been more than willing to put his own money into those races, and could likely kick-start any campaign with some initial self-funding.
J.D. Scholten Stays Busy As He Decides
The man who nearly beat Steve King last year said at an event on Saturday night that he’s still not sure what his future plans hold, but that he hinted he’s perfectly eager to place his name on the ballot again. The question is whether that’s for a rematch with King (who seems to be improving his prospects in a Republican primary) or a battle with Ernst.
If Scholten does eventually decide to take on Ernst, he couldn’t be spending his current time any better. He’s running Joe Sanberg’s Working Hero Iowa program that’s focused on fighting poverty with the Earned Income Tax Credit. Thanks to that, Scholten is still giving speeches, hosting presidential candidates, and getting himself in front of the national press, just like any official candidate would do. Plus, he’s taking that policy message to the kind of rural and blue-collar counties that Democrats need to win back.
Beating Ernst or King will likely take a lot of help from national small donors. Scholten is doing exactly what he needs to to keep those fires burning and stay relevant in the news. Also, remember: he didn’t launch his 4th District campaign until late July of 2017.
Liz Mathis Takes A Meeting
Sources tell Starting Line that Mathis took at trip to D.C. recently to sit down with the DSCC and discuss the possibility of challenging Ernst. The senator from the Cedar Rapids suburbs has been mentioned for just about every Iowa higher office run in the past decade, though she’s passed on each.
This time might be different (well, maybe). Democrats probably won’t be back in the Iowa Senate majority anytime soon, so some members may look elsewhere for service. Mathis has made a name for herself on healthcare issues, and she remains very well-known in Eastern Iowa from her time as a TV anchor.
Rob Sand Takes Some Shots, But Stays Focused On Auditor’s Work
Newly-elected State Auditor Rob Sand doesn’t mind making frequent criticisms of Ernst on Twitter and while at events. He called out her enabling of Trump’s bad trade policies at an Ames event on Saturday. Many in Iowa believe he’ll run for another office at some point, so those critiques get some people wondering every now and then.
But Sand suggested not reading anything more into it, telling Starting Line, “You don’t need to be planning a run against someone to point out how they are failing Iowans.”
by Pat Rynard