Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst is in a fight for her political life, running neck and neck with Democrat Theresa Greenfield in a race that has drawn intense interest and a lot of money as Democrats seek to take control of the Senate.

Farm groups are trying to shore up support for Ernst. The Iowa Farm Bureau, Iowa Corn Growers Association and Iowa Cattlemen’s Association all have endorsed her, but it may not be enough in this rough-and-tumble election season, where the two campaigns have already spent about $48 million.

“These are some of the largest grassroots agricultural organizations in the entire state,” says Ernst communications director Brendan Conley. “Their endorsements for Joni speak volumes.”

And Iowa Ag Secretary Mike Naig says Ernst “has a proven record on the things that matter” such as renewable fuels and farm exports.

Greenfield communications director Izzi Levy counters by saying the Democratic candidate “is proud to be backed by countless farmers across Iowa” and that “recently she’s made stops at farms, co-ops, biofuels plants, and more to tout her ‘Fair Shot For Our Farmers’ plan,” which criticizes President Donald Trump’s trade policies and Ernst for taking corporate Political Action Committee money while promoting the use of ethanol in more types of fuels.

“Theresa’s message is resonating with Iowa farmers like Trent Hatlen, who “said he voted for Trump in 2016 and Ernst in 2014,” according to an Iowa Public Radio story. “But this time, he'll cast his ballot for Joe Biden and Greenfield.”

“We need to hold bad actors like the Chinese government accountable,” Greenfield says in the “fair shot” plan. “At the same time, our farmers cannot afford the current go-it-alone approach, which has put a target on their backs.”

Indeed, a big factor in the race is Trump, who won Iowa handily four years ago but is now in a virtual dead heat with former Vice President Joe Biden.

“One of the interesting things is how closely this race might be tied to the presidential race in the state,” says University of Northern Iowa political science professor Donna Hoffman, citing a CBS poll that showed former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump tied at 49% and Greenfield leading Ernst, 47% to 43%.

“If Trump is able to win in Iowa, that bodes well for Joni Ernst,” she said. “If he loses in Iowa, that bodes fairly poorly for the incumbent.” Ernst “has not sought to run away from the president,” which makes Hoffman suspect that “the fates of those two individuals will be pretty tied together.”

Retired Adm. Michael Franken, who ran against Greenfield for the Democratic nomination, predicts Greenfield will win and that Ernst “will lag Trump by three to six points. I believe things are trending negatively for Joni.”

Ernst and her campaign say there is plenty of enthusiasm for Ernst and that she is one of the more bipartisan senators, having battled Democrats and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on ethanol waivers and worked with Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York to get EPA to deny 54 “gap-year” waivers last month.

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“That was one of the best examples of Joni showing her independence, her bipartisanship and her willingness to go toe to toe with anybody,” Conley said.

Greenfield has continued to hammer away at the 85 waivers from the Renewable Fuel Standard granted by EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler and his predecessor, Scott Pruitt. Ernst, Greenfield said in a debate between the two candidates last month, has “sold out our farmers to big oil and put one of their people to head the EPA.”

Despite the subsequent denial of the “gap-year” waivers for 2011-2018, a move applauded by the renewable fuels industry, Levy says those 85 waivers resulted in 4 billion gallons of lost demand. The campaign has chided Ernst for supporting Wheeler’s confirmation, using comments from former Obama Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack to buttress the case.


Former Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack

Vilsack has said Ernst could have held up Wheeler’s confirmation until getting “an ironclad promise to support the Renewable Fuel Standard. … We had two EPA administrators that received a ‘yes’ vote from Ernst, that were basically handing out these waivers like it was Christmas candy."

As for the charge of being too close to Trump, Naig says, “You've got to be able to have a rapport that you can pick up the phone and that somebody on the other end will pick it up. And I think that's a good thing, the fact that she's been able to work with the administration.”

A debate last week featured a tough moment for Ernst, who appeared to flub a question about the price of soybeans, after Greenfield had accurately quoted the price of corn.

Ernst blamed technical glitches that marred the debate for not properly hearing the question, but the damage was done, said Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen, whose newspaper has endorsed Greenfield.

“Even people who don't know the price of corn and beans in Des Moines are going to say that she looked stupid or out of touch,” he said. “When you're down, every kick hurts worse, you know?”

Naig said he accepts Ernst’s explanation but also dismissed the matter as unimportant. “The whole thing is irrelevant,” he said. “This is not a trivia contest. It’s a debate.”

Farmers supporting Ernst say she has been a staunch supporter of the RFS. Kelly Nieuwenhuis, vice president of the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and president of the board of Siouxland Energy, a cooperative that owns and operates an ethanol plant in Sioux Center, acknowledges the damage done by the EPA waivers, but says Ernst has been a champion of the industry.

Ernst “has done everything in her power to bring the message,” he says. “And I think without her bringing that strong message, it might have been worse.” He notes that Ernst brought the issue of pending waivers up with Trump in August when the president was touring derecho-damaged areas in the state, and Trump said he would speak to Wheeler.

Kelly Nieuwenhuis

Kelly Nieuwenhuis

“He said he would go back to D.C. and make a call,” Nieuwenhuis says. “And he did.”

In a comment cited frequently by Ernst supporters, Trump told a crowd in Iowa last week, “Nobody called me more on ethanol than Joni and Chuck” Grassley.

On trade, Greenfield says in her “fair shot” plan that she supports “the U.S. building and leading a global coalition that holds bad actors accountable and compels countries like China to make changes that level the playing field for American businesses, workers and farmers. We must also work in a coalition to reform the World Trade Organization.”

Ernst points to increased purchases of corn and soybeans by China under the “phase one” trade deal, the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and progress on trade talks with Japan under the Trump administration.

She also criticized Trump’s approach in the latest debate, saying she had “never agreed with the president’s tariff policy.”

Ernst backers also tout her support of EPA’s Navigable Waters Protection Rule to replace the Obama-era “waters of the U.S.” rule that was staunchly opposed by the farm community.

Greenfield has not called for overturning the latest Clean Water Act rule. Levy says if elected, Greenfield “will take an independent look and keep what’s working and change what isn’t. As she outlines in her plan, she will prioritize financial incentives to promote conservation and ensure it’s a major economic opportunity for Iowans.”

The fundraising battle has been intense. Greenfield quadrupled Ernst’s take in the third quarter, raising $28.7 million to Ernst’s $7.2 million. The Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) says as of Sept. 30, Greenfield had outraised Ernst, picking up nearly $40 million to Ernst’s $21.6 million, and had a “cash on hand” advantage of about $9.5 million to $4.3 million.

Not surprisingly, the Democrat has outspent Ernst $30.5 million to $17.4 million, CRP says. Even before the latest lopsided fundraising haul, Greenfield was running three ads to every one of Ernst’s, Cullen said.

Both sides have criticized the other for campaign donations — Greenfield slamming Ernst for taking PAC donations that Greenfield has refused to accept, including money from the oil and gas industry, and Ernst hitting Greenfield for accepting money from the League of Conservation Voters Victory Fund.

Whether either side’s attacks will stick, however, is unclear. Given the amount of money in politics today, “I don't think anybody cares about that,” Franken says.

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