SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Toby Keith’s music blaring from the speakers as Senator Joni Ernst, carrying an energy drink, worked a mob of bikers in this town near the Nebraska border, shaking hands and giving hugs .
Human-sized Trump signs stood in the parking lot of the Harley-Davidson store under a clear, almost cyan blue sky, but there was a note of sadness in the voices of some supporters of Ms. Ernst, a Republican. One number was in their minds: $ 100 million.
This is how the allies of her Democratic rival, businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, are embarking on the most expensive Senate race Iowa has ever seen. Attack commercials bombarding the airwaves – during college football games and on conservative radio broadcasts – portray the senator as a villain intent on taking away Social Security and medical benefits for residents.
Six years after taking office as perhaps the most prominent member of a vaunted class that has regained Republican control of the Senate, Ms Ernst, 50, finds herself in a difficult race for re-election which is iconic of his party’s struggle to keep him. the Senate majority with a weakened President Trump at the top of the ticket.
Ms Ernst, who hugged the president closely even as her status fell, followed Ms Greenfield in all polls last month and in a recent New York Times-Sienna poll, as many Iowa residents had an opinion negative of her. like those who had a positive one. The inquest underscored a bitter reality for the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress: Mr. Trump’s issues, especially with female voters, are causing real damage to Republicans on the ballot.
The party has a 53-to-47 advantage in the Senate, but up to eight of its incumbents stand to lose in hotly contested races. This includes other stars of the Class of 2014 who were once part of a promising new generation of Republicans, including Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Steve Daines of Montana, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and David Perdue of Georgia.
Ms Ernst is widely seen as an indicator candidate, who will rise or fall with her party and with Mr Trump. Hardly anyone believes Republicans can retain control of the Senate if Ms Ernst loses.
The president won Iowa by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, but he now lags or is statistically tied in state polls with former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee.
Although Ms Ernst has at times split from the president – she has opposed Mr Trump’s tariffs, for example, and supported removing the names of Confederate military leaders from military bases – she has embraced him more often.
At the Harley-Davidson event in Sioux City, Ms Ernst – who spoke at the Republican National Convention this year and was once seen as a potential candidate for Mr Trump – urged her supporters to draw a “red line. in the sand. Against the encroachment of liberalism by supporting the president, echoing his campaign message.
Later, speaking to reporters, Ms Ernst said she didn’t believe Mr Trump’s declining popularity in Iowa would hurt her, and argued that he could still win over the suburban women who turned against him. But she was quick to add that she was “running my own campaign” and even suggested that a number of Iowans could cross party lines to vote for both Mr Biden and her.
“There may be issues where people will disagree with the president, but they will support me,” Ms. Ernst said. “So it’s up to these Iowans to come out and make that decision, but I hope they recognize that Iowa is where I was born and raised and that the Iowans are the people who hold me down hold dear.
Karen M. Kedrowski, professor of political science at Iowa State University and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, said that in parts of the state, Mr. Trump had become “toxic Which could affect Republicans who had not strayed far enough from him.
“Their fate is intertwined,” Ms. Kedrowski said of Ms. Ernst and Mr. Trump. “There is such discontent with the Trump administration, it is spilling out to hurt Republicans.”
Ms Ernst entered the Senate with a “Make ‘Em Squeal” ad, promising to cut unnecessary expenses, just as she had castrated pigs on her family farm. She quickly became the only woman on Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership team and spoke out forcefully on the surviving rape and domestic violence.
But for Ms Ernst, Ms Greenfield presents a much steeper challenge than Bruce Braley, a gaff-prone former congressman who she easily beat by over 8 percentage points six years ago.
With a biography that resonates with the Iowans, Ms Greenfield has proven to be a disciplined messenger, hammering Ms Ernst on portfolio issues like healthcare, while also highlighting her own background as a military mother and ‘farm child. rambling ”who grew up in the neighboring south. Minnesota.
She wears flannel shirts in her TV commercials. Outside her house in Des Moines are logs of firewood, Mrs. Greenfield says she is cutting herself. “I grew up pretty disjointed, I have to tell you,” she likes to say.
Her farming roots were exposed in a televised debate Thursday night when she correctly answered a question about the price of corn in the state, while Ms Ernst was baffled by a follow-up on the price of soybeans.
“You grew up on a farm,” said Ernst Ron Steele, a Waterloo news anchor who was a moderator of the debate. “You should know that.”
As Ms Ernst rode her motorcycle across the state last weekend, Ms Greenfield was at the Smith Family Farm in Buffalo Center, near the northern Iowa border, crossing fresh pork manure and keep insects away from her neck while talking about health care.
“It’s a total misconception, but she’s a farmer,” said Jody Smith, 65, a farmer, explaining why she decided to support Ms Greenfield. “I know she learned to work hard. She can stand up to anyone in Washington. “
Ms Greenfield led a cautious race, posing as a centrist. She does not denigrate Mr. Trump’s supporters and criticize the Democratic Party for not focusing enough on community colleges.
She also has her own fascinating story of overcoming personal tragedy. Her first husband died in a work accident when she was 24 and pregnant with their second child. The family survived on social security benefits.
“Becoming a young widow has changed my life,” she says. “I had no way of paying the bills.”
With a unified Democratic message from party leaders in Washington, Ms Greenfield remained focused on the health care issue, repeatedly hitting Ms Ernst during her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its acceptance of a false allegation arising from a conspiracy. theory that the death toll from coronavirus was inflated.
Political action committees linked to New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer and the Minority Leader have pumped tens of millions of dollars into the race, targeting Ms Ernst.
“Senator Ernst cannot be trusted when it comes to health care,” said Greenfield, calling him the main issue in the race.
Mrs Ernst was quick to answer. When Mr Schumer forced a recent vote to prevent the Trump administration from arguing to overturn the health care law, Ms Ernst broke with her party to vote with the Democrats. And she has repeatedly apologized for her comment questioning the coronavirus death toll.
“I’m sorry that my words offended you,” Ernst said in a recent debate, addressing healthcare workers. “You are great workers. You are essential workers. “
In an attempt to save the seat, the Republican Senate campaign wing began running its own ads attacking Ms Greenfield’s business case, accusing her of ‘poor execution’ and ‘disruption of contract ”- charges the disputes of the real estate developer.
Ms Ernst also pointed to Ms Greenfield’s failed foray into politics in 2018, when she briefly ran for Congress, but ended her candidacy after her former campaign manager admitted to forging signatures on petition documents.
Some Iowans said they were put off by the flood of negative ads against Ms Ernst.
“The things that are advertised against her, it makes me want to slap them,” said Denny Gergen, 69, a grain and soybean farmer in Northwest Iowa and one of the bikers who took to the field. turned out to support Ms. Ernst. “Yeah, I know, hey, it’s politics but it’s just getting dirty.
Ms Ernst saw hope in Mr Trump’s appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, saying the confirmation fight would energize the Tories and lead them to the polls in support of her. She returned to Washington from the election campaign to participate in the hearings, where she highlighted Judge Barrett’s status as a powerful Conservative woman.
But Ms Ernst also tried to take a moderate tone when considering the consequences of Justice Barrett’s elevation to the Supreme Court, pointing out that she had once maintained a buffer zone of protest around abortion clinics.
“I think the likelihood of Roe v. Wade is very minimal, ”Ms. Ernst said, referring to the landmark ruling that established federal abortion rights. “I don’t see this happening.”
In Iowa, during her motorcycle tour, Ms Ernst posted a message that echoed Mr Trump’s, warning voters of a bleak future if Ms Greenfield defeated her and Democrats took control of the Senate. A Democratic victory, she said during a stop in Des Moines, would mean a takeover of the United States by “extreme liberal interests”, “extreme environmentalists” and “extreme abortionists.”
“All of these things are leading us down a lousy path to socialism,” Ernst said.
Then she told the bikers hanging on to every word to get ready to ride. “We are going to show the State of Iowa that we still support President Trump,” she said. “We are and will hold this red line in the United States Senate.”
With that, Ms Ernst pulled her hair up into a ponytail, hopped on her Harley, cranked the engine and took off, leading a small army of bikers east of town, with American flags fluttering in the sky. rear of their motorcycles, many of them adorned in bold: “TRUMP”.