During unprecedented circumstances, separated by sheets of plexiglass in front of an empty auditorium, Monday night Iowa’s four Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate gathered — six feet apart — for a debate.
It was the first televised gathering of all the Senate candidates competing for a chance to take on Sen. Joni Ernst in the fall. Two weeks from today, voters will decide which Democrat they believe is best suited to take on the freshman senator, who ascended to a leadership role four years into her six-year term.
Though Ernst is narrowly favored to win reelection, a March poll from the Des Moines Register showed the senator’s approval rating underwater at 47%, down 10 points from February 2019.
Off the top of the hour-long debate, moderated by “Iowa Press” host David Yepsen and Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson, the candidates were asked why they were best positioned to defeat Ernst in November.
Kimberly Graham, an Indianola attorney, likened her approach to that of former Sen. Tom Harkin, noting his willingness to campaign “everywhere and listen to everyone.”
“I believe that Iowans are going to give any candidate a chance that they believe is doing this for the right reasons, that is there for them and that is going to always put people over profits,” Graham said.
Western Iowa native and retired Navy Admiral Michael Franken pointed to his rural roots and long military career, arguing his combination of personal and professional experience make him the perfect foil for Ernst, who in her initial run for Senate also touted her military service and rural upbringing.
Des Moines businessman Eddie Mauro used the opportunity to talk about a lack of leadership in the GOP-controlled Senate, telling voters he was ready to help “lead this health and economic recovery” caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
If elected, Mauro said he would “address our shared challenges with the courage, the compassion, the urgency and the progressive vision that we need in this moment in time.”
And Theresa Greenfield, the former president of a Des Moines real estate company, said her upbringing on a farm in Minnesota and becoming a widow at a young age showed her the importance of advocating for working people and the policies that help improve their lives.
“I’m running for hardworking families,” Greenfield said. “I carry their fight in my heart.”
Though the debate largely was policy-focused, the moderators gave candidates a chance to address potential pitfalls of their individual candidacies and to respond when an opponent leveled an accusation against them.
Of the four candidates, Mauro has taken the most aggressive approach when it comes to criticizing his opponents. Franken, Mauro said, was better suited to run for office in Virginia, where he spent part of his Navy career, because he only recently returned to Iowa after living around the world. Greenfield, he said, is the hand-picked candidate of establishment Democrats, not a grassroots favorite.
“We’ve had 15,000 contributions from Iowans in all 99 counties,” Greenfield said, in response to a question about her backing from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “I stay focused on building a strong grassroots team here to win here for Iowans because I’m putting Iowa first.”
The moderators zipped through a number of policy questions during the debate ranging from trade and the ethanol industry to health care, college tuition and illegal immigration.
Graham unquestionably supports a “Medicare for All” health insurance system in the United States, while Franken, Mauro and Greenfield first want to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and implement a public option.
“We ought to make this a birthright of Americans and for the working class in America,” Franken said, noting all insurance should cover mental, dental and physical health care services.
Tonight at 7 p.m., KCCI will air its pre-recorded debate with the four candidates. The debate also will air on KWWL (Waterloo/Cedar Rapids), KTIV (Sioux City), KETV (Council Bluffs) and WGEM (Southeast Iowa). At 4 p.m. Thursday, the candidates return to a live debate format hosted by WHO in Des Moines.
By Elizabeth Meyer
Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.