Sunday, August 09, 2020

Race of the Day- Iowa U.S. Senate

Iowa U.S. Senate

86 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent

2016 Presidential Result: Red State (Midwest)


Outlook: Tossup (D) 

In 2014, everything fell into place politically for Republican Joni Ernst. A State Senator with fairly low name recognition, she entered a crowded GOP primary for an open U.S. Senate seat. Other candidates had somewhat higher profiles, but she benefited as the only woman in the field and not only won, but breezed past her intra-party opposition. She still had to get past a Democrat who considered by many to be the heir to the seat long held by Democrat Tom Harkin. Ernst ran a much stronger campaign though than her opponent, including some memorable ads, while the Democrat dealt with numerous gaffes and claims of patronizing a female opponent. The end result was an eight point win for Ernst, amid a strong GOP year nationwide, in what was considered one of the best run campaigns of the cycle.

The freshman Senator, whom during her run was able to unite establishment, Evangelical, and Tea Party Republicans, was looked upon as a rising star as she began her tenure in the Senate. Privately though, the Army veteran was dealing with a difficult marriage. In divorce proceedings, she accused her husband, who was a good deal older, of mental and physical abuse.The spouses accused each other of infidelity and the Senator seemed to make a claim that she had been offered the 2016 Vice Presidential running mate slot by Donald Trump but turned it down due to her husband's jealously. In opening up publicly about her past, Ernst revealed that she had been raped in college. In 2018, a man was sentenced to prison for threatening to kill her.

As she seeks a second term, Ernst is finding a different political environment that existed in 2014. While Donald Trump captured Iowa somewhat easily in 2016, his personal divisiveness as well as policy positions related to to tariffs on farm products have made his standing in the Hawkeye State far more perilous. Ernst has not gone too far out of her way to embrace Trump, but like most of her Republican Senate colleagues, has done very little to criticize or oppose him. This has led to the possibility that many of those who did vote for her last time are now looking for a different option.

A four way Democrat primary in June produced the candidate that national Democrats wanted to put up against Ernst, at least after a couple of the state's newly elected female House members decided to stay put. Businesswoman Theresa Greenfield had attempted to run for Congress in 2018 but ran into issues with her campaign manager illegally forging petition signatures. The real estate executive ran then for the Senate this cycle and apparently has been more careful in whom she has hired for her campaign. She won 48 percent of the primary vote, exceeding expectations, much like Ernest had six years ago. A retired U.S. Navy Admiral and Senate aide finished second with 25 percent. Two additional candidates, who stressed their progressive identities, took 15 and 11 percent of the vote. At least hey were able to figure out a result as this primary occurred a few months after the botched Iowa Caucus on the Democrat side, which will likely mean that the state will no longer be the first Presidential voting contest in the nation moving forward.

I feel like this general election contest is very much up in the air, as is the Presidential vote this year in Iowa. It is tough to beat an incumbent, but Ernst is facing a less favorable electorate and likely an opponent who will not make the mistakes the last one did. By virtue of having never held political office, Greenfield does not have a voting record to attack. Like Ernst, she can point to a background of growing on under modest circumstances on a farm. Greenfield has also been successful in raising campaign cash for this race.

My hunch is that there will not be a ton of ticket-splitters this year in Iowa. In addition to this Senate race, most of the state's House races are also expected to go down to the wire. I think whomever wins the Electoral Votes of Iowa will probably be the same party that wins this Senate election. Recent polls are showing a close race for both main events. The most recent Des Moines Regiser poll which is considered the "gold standard" in Iowa had Greenfield ahead by 3, while the most recent poll, conducted by Monmouth has Ernst ahead by a scant point. The incumbent seems to be running very slightly behind Trump's support in that poll. 

Right now, I think you can flip a coin on this race. We will have a better sense the closer we get to Election Day. I am just left with the overall impression though that Trump is in very serious trouble, even in Iowa, and the byproduct could be that those who remained loyal politically to him like Ernst will go down with him.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far:

5 D (2 Safe, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup) 
6 R (2 Safe, 1 Likely, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:

40 Democrats (35 holdovers, 2 Safe, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)
36 Republicans (30 holdovers, 2 Safe, 1 Likely, 2 Lean, 1 Tossup)


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