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The lone vulnerable senator at the GOP convention

Sen. Joni Ernst’s fate may be tied to President Donald Trump’s in Iowa

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst addresses the Republican National Convention on Wednesday in a video recorded in Des Moines.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst addresses the Republican National Convention on Wednesday in a video recorded in Des Moines. (Courtesy the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention/Getty Images)

Surrounded by bales of hay with a tractor in the background, Sen. Joni Ernst took a turn in the national spotlight Wednesday to make her case for reelecting President Donald Trump.

“Folks, this election is a choice between two very different paths,” the Iowa Republican said in her address to the GOP convention, which was prerecorded in Des Moines.

“Freedom, prosperity and economic growth, under a Trump-Pence administration,” Ernst said. “Or the Biden-Harris path, paved by liberal coastal elites and radical environmentalists. An America where farmers are punished, jobs are destroyed and taxes crush the middle class.”

During her four-minute speech, Ernst praised the president’s response to a recent derecho, or massive wind storm often described as a “land hurricane,” that devastated Iowa. She also referenced her own relationship with Trump, saying, “For years, I’ve worked closely with the president for farmers in Iowa and across the country.”

While Ernst is among several of the president’s allies in Congress featured during this week’s convention, she is also the only vulnerable GOP senator to make a prime-time appearance. Several other senators have been featured in a program streamed online before the convention.

Her decision to highlight Iowa farmers underscores the importance of rural voters when it comes to winning statewide. And Ernst’s speech provided a sharp contrast to last week’s Democratic convention, where Iowa Rep. Cindy Axne interviewed a farmer struggling under Trump’s trade policies.

For Ernst, increasing her margins in rural Iowa could mitigate losses elsewhere in the suburbs, where Democrats have made gains among voters rejecting Trump. 

“The rural vote is critical,” said one GOP strategist with knowledge about Ernst’s race against Democratic real estate executive Theresa Greenfield.

Ernst’s appearance at the convention also shows how much her fate, and that of other vulnerable Republicans, is tied to Trump’s reelection.

“This isn’t just about Theresa and Joni,” former Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky said.

In 2016, every competitive Senate race result reflected the outcome at the top of the ticket. Republicans held on to Senate seats in states such as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, where Trump was successful. But they lost Senate seats in states that backed Hillary Clinton, including New Hampshire and Illinois. 

This year, Republicans are trying to keep their Senate majority by defending several states Trump won in 2016. But his poll numbers have been slipping in those states, including Iowa, as the coronavirus pandemic, an economic downturn and nationwide protests against racism and police brutality have rocked the country. Trump carried Iowa by 9 points in 2016, but this year, public polling shows him in a close race with the Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden.

Tied to Trump

Even though Republicans acknowledge that Trump is unlikely to carry Iowa by 9 points again, they aren’t concerned that Ernst is taking a political risk by appearing at the convention and tying herself to the president.

“If Donald Trump convinces Iowans that it’s to their best interest, and our state’s best interest to serve another four years, I believe it will make the case even stronger for Mariannette Miller-Meeks for two years and Joni Ernst for six years,” Iowa GOP chairman Jeff Kaufmann said during a Sunday press call, also referencing the party’s nominee in the open 2nd District.

But Democrats saw Ernst’s appearance as yet another example that she has become a creature of Washington, after pledging to take on politicians and “make ’em squeal,” as she said in a memorable ad from her 2014 race in which she discussed castrating pigs.

Ernst, the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate, has supported GOP leaders’ priorities 97 percent of the time since joining the Senate in 2015, according to CQ Vote Watch. The average Republican senator backed leadership’s priorities 95 percent of the time.

Ernst has supported Trump’s priorities 97 percent of the time, which is the presidential support score for the average GOP senator. But she has broken with Trump on some issues, including his proposed ban on transgender military personnel.

A few hours before Ernst addressed the GOP convention, Greenfield released a video saying that Ernst was speaking at the convention “to Mitch McConnell and to the party leaders who she put first.”

Greenfield notably did not mention Trump by name, instead tying Ernst to the Senate majority leader. She has consistently focused on McConnell instead of Trump, explaining in an interview last year, “I’m running to do the job in the Senate. I’ll let  let the American people and Iowans decide who’s going to be the next president.” 

That choice could be a reflection on the competitive presidential race in Iowa, which twice backed Barack Obama for president before flipping to Trump in 2016. But Iowa Democrats are confident that Biden will carry the state in November.

“We very much intend to turn Iowa blue,” Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Mark Smith told reporters Wednesday.

Iowa Democrats point to gains in 2018 as proof the state can swing back in their direction. Axne and Rep. Abby Finkenauer flipped two GOP-held House seats that Trump had carried two years earlier. In a potential sign that Trump’s support is waning in her Des Moines-based 3rd District, Axne directly criticized him during last week’s convention.

“I’m not so sure that the president understands that — when he thinks about business, I don’t think he thinks about farmers as a business,” she said.

Alone in the spotlight

Of the 11 Republican senators in races that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as competitive, Ernst was the only one featured in the party’s prime-time programming. Ernst, who is in a Toss-up race, spoke at the end of the convention’s first hour, just before national networks began to broadcast the final hour.

Kevin McLaughlin, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, cautioned against reading too much into other vulnerable senators not appearing during prime time, noting that this was “a different type of convention.”

“I think that all of our folks are committed to working on a unified ticket,” McLaughlin said during a Wednesday morning event with Politico. “There’s no question about that.”

Other vulnerable senators and Senate candidates made brief appearances in “candidate spotlights” during the pre-convention program broadcast on the GOP convention’s social media pages. But it’s not clear how many people this programming will reach. Just around 3,000 people were watching live on YouTube, for example, when Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally appeared for a brief video Wednesday night.

Mirroring Greenfield’s attacks on McConnell, McSally took aim at the Democrats’ Senate leader.

“We must keep the Senate out of the hands of Chuck Schumer and the radical liberal politicians who would destroy the very foundation of our republic,” McSally said. “Together, I know we can win and usher in the great American comeback.”

Senate candidates including John James, an Army veteran taking on Michigan Democrat Gary Peters; meteorologist Mark Ronchetti, who is running for the open New Mexico Senate seat; and former Rep. Jason Lewis, who his challenging Minnesota DFL Sen. Tina Smith, were featured in the convention’s candidate spotlights.

Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia and Cory Gardner of Colorado also made brief video appearances during the online program. Loeffler’s GOP opponent, Rep. Doug Collins, appeared in a candidate spotlight as well, but did not mention that he is challenging Loeffler in the special election.

Other GOP senators in tough races, including Montana’s Steve Daines, are holding events in their states around the convention. Daines is hosting an event at a drive-in movie theater that will show of Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night. North Carolina’s Thom Tillis will watch Trump’s speech in person at the White House.

The NRSC’s McLaughlin was confident Wednesday that despite these tough races ahead, Senate Republicans would hold on to their majority.

“There’s no doubt that Republicans will control the Senate,” he said.

Kate Ackley and Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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