Who’s Laughing Now, Joni?

Who’s Laughing Now, Joni?

By Pat Rynard

September 22, 2020

It’s the Democratic presidential candidate Joni Ernst thought she was undermining, it’s just not playing out the way she’d hoped.

In a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released this morning, Joe Biden is tied with Donald Trump in Iowa, both garnering 47% of the vote. It’s a stunning reversal of Democrats’ fortunes in the Hawkeye state after Trump’s nine-point victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

With Biden performing stronger than expected in Iowa, Democratic candidates at all levels in the state are expected to benefit. That includes Theresa Greenfield, the businesswoman running to deny Ernst a second term.

Back in January, Ernst viewed Biden’s candidacy much differently, and was working with Senate Republicans to damage his electoral hopes in the primary and general.

“Okay, Iowa caucuses, folks, Iowa caucuses, are this next Monday evening. And I’m really interested to see how this discussion today informs and influences the Iowa caucus voters,” Ernst said in a sarcastic manner at a Senate Republican press conference. “Those Democratic caucus-goers. Will they be supporting Vice President Biden at this point? Not so certain about that.”

It may seem like several lifetimes ago at this point, but what Ernst was referring to at the time was Republicans’ attempts to turn Trump’s withholding of foreign aid from U.S. ally Ukraine into an attack on Biden and his family. Rather than face the very serious, illegal situation of Trump pressuring a foreign power to investigate his political rival, Republicans gleefully embraced the situation to smear Hunter Biden.

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They felt that would weaken Biden, the Democratic candidate Trump seemed to fear the most, right before the Iowa Caucus and the rest of the primary process.

Of course, most Republican senators were trying to not make the partisan play here so obvious, couching their comments on concerns about the Biden family’s foreign business dealings. Ernst, however, just couldn’t keep her smug glee to herself, bragging to the nation her party’s clever plan to ignore Trump’s national security threats for partisan gain.

That moment blew up in Ernst’s face. The backlash online was fierce, and it drew national news as Ernst had given away Republicans’ plans. You can even measure how big it was. The last week of January remains today the biggest spike in Google searches for Ernst this year.

Who's Laughing Now, Joni?

Moreover, it didn’t work. Republicans’ underhanded efforts have now failed at both goals: Biden is the nominee, and a strong one at that.

That could mean a defeat for Ernst in 42 days.

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Since the start of the 2020 cycle, it’s been largely assumed in political circles that Democrats couldn’t oust Ernst if the presidential race favored Trump as much as last time. Many figured that the Senate race could diverge at most five points either way from the top-of-ticket contest. Partisan voting trends were too baked in at this point and Ernst was a good enough campaigner, that a Democrat simply couldn’t make up that much ground even if they ran a perfect campaign.

But this scenario, with Biden tied with Trump? That’s game on.

And Greenfield is leading Ernst by three points in the latest Register poll, 45% to 42%, the same margin she held back in June. Also concerning for Ernst is that she’s trailing Trump’s approval rating in Iowa. Ernst garners a 38% approval, while Trump is at 43%.

Other numbers show real problems for Ernst’s strategy to fend off Greenfield, which rely on casting Democrats as far-left extremists. That has largely failed, thanks in part to Biden.

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No matter how many TV ads Republicans run where images of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez flash on screen next to Biden and Greenfield, Iowa voters just aren’t buying that either Democrat represents a far-left “socialist” agenda. That was always going to be a much harder sell with Biden as the nominee. Just 34% of likely voters say that Greenfield is “too liberal” in latest Register poll.

Without that scare tactic, what does Ernst have? The poll also had 56% of Iowans saying that Ernst “hasn’t done enough” in the Senate. That’s a result from Mitch McConnell’s Senate focusing only on judges and political power, instead of getting some actual accomplishments for their members to run on.

The gender breakdown doesn’t get any better for Republicans.

Women should be Ernst’s strength. Instead, thanks to her fierce loyalty to a sexist president, they may be her undoing.

Back in 2014, a CBS exit poll had Ernst splitting the vote of Iowa women with Bruce Braley, 49% to 49%. Now, Greenfield leads by 20 points among women, 53% to 33%. In the presidential race, Biden also leads Trump among women by 20, 57% to 37%.

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There, too, Trump has been a hindrance.

Aside from Trump’s obvious problems with women, his policy actions have sidetracked Ernst’s messaging efforts. Thanks to the Trump Administration’s constant undermining of Iowa farmers and the ethanol industry, Ernst and Greenfield spent much of late summer sparring over the issue. While Ernst was able to tout some progress on biofuels this month, what the controversy essentially did was tie Ernst down in simply holding onto her rural, farming base of support, rather than shore up her weaknesses or go on the offense elsewhere.

Republicans, including Ernst, are in absolute free-fall with suburban women. While Iowa doesn’t have as many suburbs as other states, it’s still an important bloc of voters that Ernst could carry in 2014 when the suburbs were still red. She’ll likely get wiped out there now, despite a personal background that could be effective in winning women back over.

None of this is going well for Ernst, who is very quickly running out of time as early voting nears. Iowa’s Senate race is just one of two states rated as “toss-up” in the latest Crystal Ball rankings, and it’s lining up to be the key state that determines party control of the chamber. That means plenty more ad spending is on its way for both sides, but with few accomplishments to show in her six years, her and Trump’s attacks failing, and an unexpectedly close presidential race in Iowa, Ernst has few options to turn her reelection effort around.

Ernst may have thought that Biden’s struggles in January were all a big joke, but the way things are going, Iowa voters could have the last laugh as they send their senator packing in November.


by Pat Rynard
Posted 9/22/20

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

  • Pat Rynard

    Pat Rynard founded Iowa Starting Line in 2015. He is now Courier Newsroom's National Political Editor, where he oversees political reporters across the country. He still keeps a close eye on Iowa politics, his dog's name is Frank, and football season is his favorite time of year.

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