Two women in Iowa are jockeying to position themselves as the Senate candidate with the best small-town credentials in order to win a state where the rural vote looms large.
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, whose infamous hog castrating ad in 2014 introduced her image as an Iowa farm girl, is being met by fellow farm kid Theresa Greenfield.
For Iowa Democrats, their candidates’ poor showings in rural counties have often been their undoing in recent statewide elections. As the nation’s political loyalties increasingly split along rural/urban lines, Republicans have run up large vote margins in the state’s less-populated counties. Democratic strategists often note they don’t necessarily need to outright win many of these rural counties, their candidates simply need to narrow the margins.
Greenfield’s return to the campaign trail this week was indicative of the focus she has placed on her rural roots and small business acumen. Her first in-person event on Tuesday was at Adel Family Fun Center, a small-town bowling alley staple in the community of less than 4,000.
Though Greenfield now lives in Des Moines, the U.S. Senate candidate has made it a point to visit rural communities throughout the campaign, emphasizing her upbringing on a farm on the Iowa-Minnesota border. She kicked off her campaign last summer with an ad centered on her hometown of Bricelyn, Minnesota, and has marketed herself as the “scrappy farm kid” who will unseat Ernst this fall.
Her father was a crop duster, but the family also raised hogs and planted row crops on the farm, outside a town of only 500. Her high school class had 24 graduates. During the farm crisis of the 1980s, Greenfield said, her father sold his crop dusting business and the family never farmed again.
Greenfield’s first TV spot of the general election cycle portrayed her life on the farm and how she worked low-wage jobs as a teenager to help her family and put herself through college after the tragic death of her first husband.
She took that message a step further in an ad about the job she took at Pizza Hut to pay her way through Iowa Lakes Community College in Estherville.
“I made just enough money to pay my tuition and get a beer on Friday night,” Greenfield says in the ad.
Her authenticity as a small-town Midwesterner comes across in recollections of “walking beans” as a young girl and working her way from humble beginnings to a successful businesswoman.
The ability to connect with persuadable voters outside Iowa’s cities and suburbs is crucial for a Democratic candidate, as in recent years her party lose by double-digit margins in sparsely populated counties.
During a swing through Western Iowa in early spring, Greenfield complimented the unique attributes of the region’s small towns.
“One of the things I’ve learned growing up in a small town is if you’ve been to one small town,” Greenfield said, “you’ve been to one small town.”
Kevin Middleswart, a farmer and former Warren County supervisor who assisted the campaigns of former Congressman Leonard Boswell and Gov. Tom Vilsack, said he has cautioned statewide Democratic candidates against relying heavily on a big city strategy.
When Bruce Braley competed in 2014 against Ernst for the open Senate seat, he won 14 of Iowa’s 99 counties. Democratic candidate Fred Hubbell earned support from 11 counties in his unsuccessful race against Gov. Kim Reynolds. Hillary Clinton carried just six Iowa counties in her match-up with Donald Trump in 2016.
The lack of a “rural strategy” has hurt Democrats in recent elections, Middleswart said.
“I think that Theresa has seen that, studied that, and can draw some wisdom from it,” he said. “She’s got to be her own candidate, but I think we need to define and counter some of the stories that they’re making up. The Republican Party is good at using the four-pronged approach of lie, deny, attack and repeat, like Trump.”
Issues facing the ethanol industry, particularly the small refinery exemptions EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has handed out to oil companies large and small, is one of those niche issues that is prominent in Iowa politics but largely unknown to the broader public.
Greenfield and Iowa Democrats have made it a point of criticizing Ernst for her support of Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, whose decision to issue an unprecedented number of refinery waivers has contributed to low corn prices and the closure of ethanol plants across the state.
“What we face in the next couple of months in the biofuels industry and for farmers and for our rural economy is just too important to let politics run things,” said Tim Gannon, a Jasper County farmer and former secretary of agriculture candidate. “We’ve got to have the right policy for our farmers and biofuels producers.”
Studies have shown a majority of farmland owners in Iowa are over 65 years old, a population that did not give high approval marks to Trump or Ernst in a new AARP poll. The survey of registered Iowa voters over the age of 50 found the president and Ernst each have a disapproval rating of 53%.
In addition to the ads blanketing TV and social media, Greenfield’s campaign placed ads in small-town newspapers, including in Buena Vista and Carroll counties, tying Ernst’s vote for Wheeler to the dramatic downturn in the ethanol industry.
A radio ad hit the airwaves in June, labeling Ernst’s infamous “make Washington squeal” promise as “hogwash.”
“This is personal to me,” Greenfield often says when discussing the hardships facing farmers today.
“Between some haphazard trade and what I call the ‘Ernst ethanol waivers,’ net farm income is down 75% since 2013 in Iowa and bankruptcy rates are at an eight-year high,” Greenfield said during a Zoom call focused on rural policy. “None of this should be happening again. We are in this position because of the decisions that are being made in Washington, D.C., and Sen. Ernst needs to be held accountable for it.”
Middleswart can’t understand how any of his fellow farmers could support President Trump again in light of the trade war and refinery waivers meant to undermine the Renewable Fuel Standard. Ernst, Middleswart said, despite her promises to the agriculture community, is just an extension of Trump’s failed policies.
“You have the likes of Joni Ernst, who, she gets to support and vote for the cronies and crooks that Trump appoints to his Cabinet, and then pats them on the back and tells them how good of a job they’re doing,” Middleswart told Starting Line after a 15-hour day on the farm. “And here we are sitting here watching the ethanol market just evaporate like pixie dust because of the [RFS waivers] that our EPA director has been granting over the course of the last three years.”
By Elizabeth Meyer
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