Sen. Joni Ernst has five final days to turn things around.
While Ernst is closing on TV with a longer positive spot, the senator herself has been largely obsessed with her opponent Theresa Greenfield on the campaign trail, her stump speech for the past month focused on attacks, fundraising disparities and the national Senate scene. That’s replaced the more typical closing pitch of a list of an incumbent’s accomplishments and their vision of what they hope to achieve in their next term.
Though few thought she’d be in this position a year, Ernst’s political career is now hanging on by a thread, one that once soared so high she was under serious consideration to be Donald Trump’s running mate. Most of the polls in September and October showed her Democratic opponent Theresa Greenfield with a narrow lead, but three in the past week have Ernst up one or two points, while another had Greenfield up six.
While Democratic early vote numbers look good — registered Democrats have already cast 80% of their total vote from 2016 — nearly everyone behind the scenes in Iowa politics expects this race to come down to the wire.
Ernst was off the campaign trail for the better part of two weeks, spent in D.C. for Republicans’ successful effort to get Amy Coney Barrett on the Supreme Court. She returned to the Midwest on Tuesday for a Trump rally in Omaha, Nebraska before spending the final days criss-crossing Iowa in her campaign bus.
It’s a chance for Ernst to close the deal and eke out a win, especially considering how the past month has gone for her. Everyone is familiar with Ernst’s viral gaffe in the final Senate debate on Iowa corn and soybean prices, but she’s also seemed oddly distracted in her day-to-day events and rallies.
She opens up nearly all of her events with a long section on fundraising totals, telling people to look through her opponent’s FEC filings.
“I know you’ve probably seen five, six Greenfield ads to every one Joni Ernst ad,” Ernst said at a Story County Republican event in early October. “She right now she is the benefactor of nearly $100 million of outside money. A heck of a lot more than I’m receiving … Always remember, she is the world’s biggest hypocrite. Because what she’s pointing the finger at me for, exponentially more times over she’s doing much more.”
The massive ad spending — the Iowa race is the second-most expensive Senate contest in U.S. history — is certainly a major factor in the analysis of the race. But you don’t typically see candidates dive into the details like a pundit in the ways Ernst has.
“Sen. Lindsey Graham, his opponent in South Carolina brought in about $57 million in three months,” Ernst said in Monticello, Iowa in mid-October. “In three months. And Lindsey is not raising nearly that much money either. So you can see, even in a red, red state like South Carolina, we have significant forces working against us.”
Last night, she name-checked the North Carolina race, the only one with higher spending than Iowa.
“Second only to Thom Tillis’ race in North Carolina. Why North Carolina? It also is a purple state,” Ernst said in Bondurant. “These states will determine whether we have a Chuck Schumer majority or whether we retain a Republican majority.”
Notably, though, Ernst has not explained what she would do as a senator to limit the influence of money in politics — she’s just complained that her opponent has raised more than she has this time.
“You know I’ve had so many people say, ‘Joni, you’ve got to put more ads up!'” she noted in Monticello. “I would love to! Folks, I would love to. The problem is, we do not have the type of money that is coming in for the Democrats.”
Ernst’s “Ride Across Iowa” tour in mid-October (the COVID replacement to her annual Roast and Ride) was the perfect opportunity to garner free press coverage across the state to tout her accomplishments or vision for a second term. Yet, there too, she mostly focused on grievances and attacks on the other side.
“The path that my liberal opponent, and Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, all of those big special interest groups, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, you name it. The path that they want to take America on is a path of government takeover of health care … It is the idea of extreme environmental policy. All of these ideas are that pathway towards socialism,” Ernst said in Cedar Rapids. “Again, the path that we are on is very simple. It is economic prosperity, it is freedom, and it is opportunity.”
At other times, Ernst has expressed her frustration at missteps during the campaign, blasting debate moderator Ron Steele of KWWL for how he asked the question about soybean prices.
The night after that final debate, a member of the audience in Monticello directly asked Ernst what the price of soybeans was.
“Well, $10.50 is the break-even on beans. I know,” she said, referring to what Steele told her in the debate (though he actually said $10.05). “So last night, we had this glitch thing going on, and Theresa Greenfield was talking about corn, and she never fully answered the question, she answered what the price of corn was, but she didn’t answer the break-even. So I thought they were asking me, what is the break-even of corn, and I said, ‘I would guess around $5.50.’ I don’t really know, it depends on the input. And then the guy was so snide and snotty and said, ‘you are supposed to be a farm kid, you should know this, and you were dollars off. It was $10.50.’ And I said, ‘that is not right, I don’t believe that, that can’t be true. That’s not the break-even price for corn.'”
“But it was not a great debate because we had so many technical difficulties,” Ernst added. “Most of the time we couldn’t hear the question, we couldn’t hear people answering. I was glad to do it, but now I understand why the president didn’t want to do a virtual debate. I don’t know that I will ever do one of those again. Too many technical difficulties.”
At the same event, Ernst got much more specific on some of the Democratic ads run against her, pushing back on several in particular.
“Biggest lie ever,” she said of the ads claiming she’d privatize Social Security. “I made comments a number of years ago in a public forum, visiting with folks from AARP. And if you listen to the entire conversation, I’m talking about you have to put Republicans and Democrats together, sit them down and tell them you’re going to work this out and get it done.”
And in more than one occasion, Ernst has disputed the ads that criticize her for buying a “luxury condo” in D.C. after saying in 2013 she wouldn’t purchase a big house when she moved out there.
“Yeah, it’s a one-bedroom, one-bathroom, combined eating/kitchen area,” she said in Monticello. “And then somebody wrote in one of the write-ups that there was a concierge. I wish I knew there was a concierge there because I could sure use some help! There is no concierge, it is no luxury condo. It is a tiny little efficiency condo in Washington D.C. It’s a nice place to crash, I call it my FOP, my forward operating place.”
She’s also more than once cited a drug-related murder near her condo as evidence she didn’t live in a fancy neighborhood — her delivery of that fact in Monticello turned into a perhaps unintentional punch line with the audience laughing afterward.
“In front of my building a little over a year ago there was a man who was actually shot and killed because of a drug deal, so it’s a developing neighborhood, is what I call it,” Ernst said. “I guarantee you, if Ms. Greenfield were elected, she would not be living in my neighborhood.”
There have been some positive-oriented parts of Ernst’s stump speech. In some stops, she’ll talk about a study where she was rated the most bipartisan senator. Sometimes Ernst cites her military background and coming out as a survivor of sexual assault.
Almost never, however, has Ernst gone into much detail of what she hopes to accomplish in a second term. At most her talks about the future and the choice in the race is limited to stopping what the left supposedly wants to do.
Ernst finally talked more about accomplishments at her kickoff to her final RV tour in her hometown of Red Oak on Wednesday morning. Interestingly enough, she largely focused on what President Donald Trump had done.
“Unprecedented growth through the past four years of our economy … That’s our Trump Administration – he’s tackled trade deals that no one else thought could be done,” Ernst said. “It took a leader like President Trump to say we are tired of being taken advantage of here in our great United States. It took someone to break out of that status quo.”
by Pat Rynard
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