Sen. Joni Ernst in August released a TV ad focused on the Violence Against Women Act and how her personal experiences with sexual and domestic abuse made the fight to reauthorize the bill’s funding “ very personal.” Part of her closing ad talks about ensuring women don’t have to go through the domestic abuse she experienced. But what the ads decline to mention is Ernst’s failure to move a bipartisan bill on the matter through the Republican-controlled Senate.
Ernst was put in charge of crafting a VAWA reauthorization bill to avoid a lapse in critical funding for programs and resources helping abused women and children. In April 2019, Democrats in the House of Representatives — with support from 33 Republicans — advanced their bill, leaving it to Ernst and her Senate colleagues to compromise on a package that the president could sign.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein worked with Ernst to try and bring the two sides together, but in the fall of 2019, negotiations collapsed due in large part to Republicans’ refusal to support closing the so-called “boyfriend loophole,” which would prevent people convicted of stalking or dating violence from purchasing a gun. Only 13 of Ernst’s Republican colleagues signed onto the reauthorization bill she introduced last November. In 2020, there has been no movement on the legislation.
Now, in the midst of a challenging reelection contest, instead of running an ad touting the accomplishment of reauthorizing VAWA, all Ernst can put in the ad is a newspaper headline saying she “pushes” for legislation that never came to fruition.
While voters on the both sides of the aisle agree with Ernst “it is so important that we’re getting resources to those who need it the most,” when given the opportunity to close the deal on a piece of legislation with personal significance, and of great import to her constituents, Ernst was unable to deliver.
“Despite her claims the VAWA reauthorization was her number one priority in the Senate, Joni Ernst allowed VAWA reauthorization to lapse,” wrote Margi Stephen, of Cedar Rapids. “Ernst claims that partisan politics were to blame for her failure to produce a bill and bring forward legislation to vote to authorize the Violence Against Women Act.
“I’m someone who has lived in the reality of an abusive relationship,” Stephen continued. “So I get angry when I see Joni Ernst’s commercials claiming that she is an advocate for survivors. She should put people like us first, not her financial backers. When survivors like me needed her to act most, she let us down.”
As Bleeding Heartland’s Laura Belin points out, Ernst in her first term failed to garner the reputation of a “thorn in the side” of the Washington establishment, as Sen. Chuck Grassley did in the early 1980s, or deliver a significant accomplishment for the country, as Sen. Tom Harkin did in 1990 through the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“If Ernst had shown any real independence (like Grassley during his first term) or gotten a major law enacted (like Harkin), she would probably be outperforming her party’s president,” Belin wrote. “Representation is more than 99-county tours.”
Instead, Ernst’s closing pitch is a relentless attack on Theresa Greenfield’s business career, the money she’s raised and attempts to inflame social divisions by calling Democrats “extreme abortionists” and falsely accusing Greenfield of calling law enforcement officers racist. (In a recent debate, Ernst said she does not believe systemic racism exists in Iowa.)
“What we have seen on the left, that pathway that I described just a minute ago, that is a path that we do not wish to go down,” Ernst said earlier this month during a stop on her Ride Across Iowa. “And that is what folks like Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden and Theresa Greenfield want to take us on. Because they want to fundamentally and radically change who we are as a United States of America. But I am a fighter. Those values that they espouse are not Iowa values. And I will go toe to toe with anyone who tries to take our freedoms, our opportunities and our prosperity away from us.”
“She’s out there supporting a government takeover of health care,” Ernst falsely claimed about Greenfield during a September event in Crawford County. “She would much rather see bureaucrats stand between you and your physician, blocking the treatments that your physician thinks is best for you. … We don’t need a single-payer plan in the United States of America.” (Greenfield supports strengthening the Affordable Care Act and creating a public option for Americans to buy into, but not a single-payer system.)
Ernst purports to be a champion for biofuels, but she twice voted for EPA administrators working to give the fossil fuel and oil industries a leg up. Though Ernst will say she often talks with the president about Iowa’s ethanol industry and the struggles it’s facing, that did not stop his EPA from issuing an unprecedented 85 Renewable Fuel Standard waivers to oil refiners, including industry giants like Chevron and Exxon. Only in the 11th hour, with Ernst in danger of becoming a one-term senator, did Trump allow E15 to be sold through existing gas pumps, a move meant to bring the ethanol-blended gasoline to more consumers and try to boost Ernst politically.
At the same time she uses her upbringing on a farm as evidence she will best represent rural interests, Ernst has stood by President Trump as he engaged in trade disputes around the world, resulting in more than $23 billion in aid to farmers in a two-year period. The Washington Post reported last week a third of farm income this year is expected to come from direct government payments.
Lee County farmer Doug Seyb recently told Theresa Greenfield he has received “a lot of money” during Trump’s reign.
“I added up how much money Donald Trump has sent us in the last year trying to buy our votes to make up for the low soy bean price, hog price, and it’s a lot of money, and we’re just a small farm. If we could just have our markets back,” Seyb said, farmers would be better off.
With Senate Republicans’ majority in jeopardy and Ernst’s race likely a determining factor in the outcome, Iowans are letting their disappointment with Ernst be known, whether it be on specific issues or her unyielding support for President Trump. A Monmouth University Poll released last week found 37% of Iowa voters believe Ernst does not understand their day to day concerns, and 45% said she was “too supportive of the president.”
Lilly Steil, whose 23-year-old sister was shot to death by her boyfriend in May 2019, decried Ernst’s unwillingness to go against the NRA and her failure to bring Republicans together around VAWA reauthorization.
“Senator Ernst always says that she wants to protect victims of abuse, but her actions don’t back that up,” said Steil, of Des Moines, in a statement about the launch of RememberRoseanna.com. “A law like this [to close the boyfriend loophole] could have saved my sister’s life, and there are so many other women at risk if Senator Ernst refuses to act. When she’s thinking about this law, I hope Senator Ernst will think about the three little girls growing up today without their mother because the boyfriend loophole isn’t closed.”
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