U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, running her first reelection race since going to Washington, D.C., is kicking off the new year as one of America’s most unpopular senators.
Morning Consult’s latest Senator Approval Rankings, unveiled Thursday, show Ernst with only a 37% approval rating among Iowa voters. According to the survey, 42% of Iowans disapprove of her as a senator.
Only Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky polled worse than Ernst. They all are up for reelection in November, with Collins facing a particularly challenging reelection race.
“A half-decade of siding with Mitch McConnell and corporate special interests in Washington while breaking promises to Iowans is coming back to haunt Senator Ernst,” said Jeremy Busch, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, in a statement.
A deeper dive into the data shows Ernst steadily losing ground in the state.
According to Morning Consult surveys, her highest approval rating came early in 2017 when she sat at 47%. Her approval rating has continued to tick down from there, hitting its lowest point in the fourth quarter (Oct. 1 to Dec. 31) of 2019, at 37%.
Her disapproval ratings also was lowest in 2017, fluctuating between 35% and 37%. 2019 brought her highest disapproval ratings, ranging from 37% at the beginning of the year to 42% at its conclusion.
Her net approval rating dropped 5 percentage points since the end of September, and she is underwater with Independents by 11 points.
By comparison, Ernst’s Senate colleague from Iowa, Sen. Chuck Grassley, also has seen his approval rating trend downward over the last three years. He began 2017 with a 56% approval rating, but now is down to 43% at the end of 2019.
Unlike Ernst, Grassley is not up for reelection this year.
2019 produced a string of negative headlines for Ernst, likely contributing to her low polling numbers. Another factor could be her allegiance to President Donald Trump, who in December’s Morning Consult survey has a -9 net approval rating in Iowa. Since Trump took office, his net approval in Iowa has dropped by 18 percentage points, despite winning the state in 2016 by 9.4 points.
Ernst kicked-off her 2020 reelection campaign in June with her annual Roast and Ride, and by September, had made the rounds in the national news cycle by telling constituents at a town hall meeting that lawmakers should “sit down behind closed doors” to discuss possible changes to Social Security.
In October, following a Morning Consult article that labeled her one of “2020’s most vulnerable Senate Republicans,” American Bridge launched a digital ad and texting campaign aimed at senior citizens. The ads focused on Ernst’s Social Security comments, and Social Security Works followed suit, bringing in a popular singer-turned-activist to help fundraise against Ernst.
At the same time, Need to Impeach ran ads against her because she did not support the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
And at the start of December, the Associated Press unveiled its findings that Ernst’s Senate campaign appeared to have coordinated with a “dark money” group to raise money, and that the 501(c)(4) organization’s mission may be too focused on specifically Ernst’s reelection.
A senior advisor to Ernst denied the AP’s findings, but as Starting Line soon found out, the allegation in that article was not the first time Ernst had skirted campaign finance law.
In 2017, Ernst’s 2014 campaign paid the largest civil penalty ever levied by the Federal Election Commission against an Iowa politician. The FEC found Ernst’s first campaign for Senate broke the law by “knowingly accepting excessive and prohibited contributions, and by failing to timely refund excessive and prohibited contributions.”
The FEC findings resulted in a $14,500 fine.
Ernst currently has four Democrats campaigning to face her in the general election: Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield; Des Moines businessman and philanthropist Eddie Mauro; Indianola attorney Kimberly Graham; and Michael Franken, a retired navy admiral from Northwest Iowa.
With the Iowa caucuses only 17 days away, politics in the state largely have been dominated by the presidential contest for the last two years. But that will change once candidates leave the state Feb. 4. Expect the Senate’s Democratic contenders to ramp up their public appearances early in the spring ahead of the June 2 primary.
So far, Greenfield has shown the greatest ability to fundraise in the Democratic field, out-performing Ernst in Q3. Greenfield’s campaign has reported a $1.6 million fundraising haul for Q4. On Wednesday, Ernst’s campaign reported raising almost $1.7 million during the same period.
By Elizabeth Meyer