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National Democrats take sides in Iowa Senate primary

DSCC and EMILY’s List back Theresa Greenfield in race to take on GOP Sen. Joni Ernst

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is running for a second term in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, is running for a second term in 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Update 3:26 p.m. | National Democrats are taking sides in the primary to take on Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in Iowa, with two groups and a presidential candidate backing Theresa Greenfield, who was an early favorite for a House race last year. 

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights, both announced they were endorsing Greenfield in the race over two other Democrats who are running.

“Theresa Greenfield embodies Iowa values of hard work, resilience, and a commitment to doing what’s right,” DSCC Chairwoman Catherine Cortez Masto said in a statement. Twenty current and former Iowa Democratic officials announced Wednesday they were supporting Greenfield.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a 2020 presidential hopeful, also endorsed Greenfield on Thursday, according to Iowa Starting Line.

“We need more women at the table in Washington, and Theresa has a powerful story to tell,” the New York Democrat said.

Greenfield, who works in real estate, faces Eddie Mauro, who heads an insurance company and founded a community organization, and lawyer Kimberly Graham in the primary. Other Democrats are reportedly eyeing the race.

One of those Democrats is J.D. Scholten, who nearly defeated GOP Rep. Steve King in the largely Republican 4th District last fall. Scholten said in a Thursday phone interview that the DSCC’s endorsement of Greenfield would not deter him from running for Senate.

“It was just a little disappointing that they made the decision so quick,” he said.

Scholten said he spoke to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer on Friday and was told the committee would be backing Greenfield. He said Schumer and DSCC staffers did not explicitly ask him not to run for Senate, but added, “The tone was: They don’t need a primary.”

The former professional baseball player is currently deciding whether to challenge Ernst or run again in the 4th District, and he expects to make a decision in July. Scholten said he’ll be watching the second quarter fundraising reports, which are due July 15, to size up the Democrats currently running for Senate and the Republicans who are challenging King in a primary.

“Ultimately, no matter what I decide, there’s a good chance I’m going spend a lot of nights in a Walmart parking lot in my RV,” Scholten said, referencing an RV he bought for the 2018 election that allowed him to travel around the district.

Both Greenfield and Mauro ran unsuccessfully in the Democratic primary in Iowa’s 3rd District in 2018.

Greenfield was considered the front-runner in that race before her campaign manager admitted on the eve of the filing deadline that he had forged petition signatures. Greenfield scrambled to gather valid signatures to make the deadline, but fell short and did not qualify for the ballot. Cindy Axne went on to win that primary and unseat GOP Rep. David Young that fall. 

Greenfield launched her Senate run this week with a video referencing an eye-catching ad from 2014 in which Ernst, who grew up on a farm, said she would take her experience castrating hogs to Washington, D.C., and “make ’em squeal” by cutting government spending.

“Listen folks, she didn’t castrate anyone,” Greenfield says in her video. “She cast a vote to let the corporate lobbyists keep feasting like hogs at the trough.”

Asked for a comment on the high-profile support for his opponent, Mauro’s campaign pointed to his statement when Greenfield launched her bid: “Iowans want a spirited primary not influenced by Washington insiders or the establishment, and deserve new progressive leadership in the United States Senate with a record of taking action and leading on progressive issues.”

Mauro drew Republican criticism shortly after he entered the race late last month for commenting on Ernst’s mindset as a veteran. Ernst is the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, and served with the Iowa National Guard in Iraq after serving in the Army Reserves.

Mauro has said he respects her military service but said serving in the Senate requires a “different kind of courage.”

“When you serve in the military, you’re in line, you fall in line, people tell you what to do, you say, ‘Yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am,’ and you continue to do that,” Mauro told the Carroll Times Herald. “Absolutely, she’s taking those kind of orders as a U.S. senator from the Koch brothers, from Republicans.”

Democrats need to net three or four seats to flip the Senate (depending on the outcome of the presidential race since the vice president casts a tie-breaking vote in the chamber). Iowa is a key early primary state for Democratic presidential hopefuls, and it will also be key to the battle for congressional control in 2020. 

“While much of the attention has been focused on the state’s presidential primary, this Senate race is critically important to the people of Iowa,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said in a statement. 

Iowa is not the best Democratic pickup opportunity in the Senate this cycle. President Donald Trump won it by 9 points in 2016, while carrying all of its four House seats. And two other Republican senators are up for re-election next year in states that backed Hillary Clinton.

But the Hawkeye State is still a top target, with Democrats now holding three of its four House seats after picking up two last fall. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Senate race Likely Republican.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee was quick to tie Greenfield to Democratic presidential hopefuls, many of who support more liberal policies such as the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All.”

“Washington liberals and special interests have thrown their weight behind Greenfield because she supports the same radical policies as the presidential candidates crisscrossing the Hawkeye State,” NRSC spokesman Nathan Brand said in a statement.

The DSCC has taken sides in two other primaries this year. In New Mexico, it’s backing Rep. Ben Ray Luján, who’s being challenged by the state’s secretary of State, Maggie Toulouse Oliver. In Arizona, the committee endorsed former astronaut Mark Kelly, who is not facing significant opposition.

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