In Iowa, as in Other Red States, Hopeful Democrats Failed to Make Gains

Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield lost to incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst by about 109,000 votes.

Republican U.S. Senator Joni Ernst chats with poll workers after casting her vote on November 2, 2020 in Red Oak, Iowa.
Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst chats with poll workers after casting her vote on Nov. 2, 2020, in Red Oak, Iowa. Photo: Steve Pope/Getty Images

In Sheldon, Iowa, a small town of about 5,000 residents, Dr. Ron Zoutendam put a large LED sign up in his front yard during the month leading up to the election. It featured a rotating series of political messages — such as “‘Right to life’ does not mean lies and hate” and “All lives matter. Therefore, black lives matter” — beneath a call to support Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s Democratic presidential ticket. The sign also rallied support for Democrats’ down-ballot candidates, J.D. Scholten for the House of Representatives and Theresa Greenfield for Senate.

Zoutendam, who is 88 years old, is an evangelical Christian and considers himself a longtime Republican. He told a N’West Iowa Review reporter that his faith would not allow him to support the current president and that he was throwing his support behind Biden specifically “because he’s not Donald Trump.”

In Iowa, Democrats poured a lot of energy and money into flipping the red state, but fell short.

Zoutendam is exactly the kind of voter Biden, Greenfield, and Democrats across Iowa were counting on in 2020: a conservative swing state resident who’s had a change of heart since 2016 and finds Biden’s message of unity appealing and his platform inoffensive enough to make switching sides bearable.

Along with the focused push underway from various get-out-the-vote groups to raise a higher turnout among under-represented rural populations, like young people and Latino communities, and a greater turnout from their deep blue urban centers, like Des Moines and Iowa City, Democrats counted on the unification of disparate demographics to reverse course from the 10-point loss they suffered in 2016.

Though the margins were slightly closer in 2020 and voter turnout at a record high, voters like Zoutendam weren’t enough for either Biden or Greenfield to break through. Greenfield lost to Republican incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst by about 109,000 votes, with 99 percent of votes counted on Tuesday night, a 6.6-point loss. In the presidential race, Biden lost to Trump by just over 8 points, while Scholten lost his House race to Republican Randy Feenstra by about 24 points.

In Iowa, as in Texas and Ohio, Democrats poured a lot of energy and money into flipping the red state, but fell short.

At around midnight, Greenfield, speaking in a room sparsely filled with just media and some support staff, said she had called Ernst to concede the race and that she was proud of the race she had won. “We always knew this race was going to be one of the closest in the country,” she said. “We knew it was going to be a donnybrook. And it was.” A few blocks away, Ernst celebrated her win in a room full of supporters, along with staff and media — the approaches of the two parties to the pandemic made visible in their respective loss and triumph.

Greenfield’s loss to Ernst came despite outfundraising her 4 to 1 in the third quarter. Ernst arrived in the 2014 midterms, going from relative anonymity to a win on a wave of grassroots conservative indignation, Koch money, and viral advertising featuring pig castration. She was supposed to be untouchable. As her star rose in a political party that came to be dominated by Trump, though, it seemed to waver in the polls as the election drew closer. A last-minute surge, along with an assist from the president, brought her back.

Ernst is a deeply conservative Republican who spent most of the past year floating ideas about withdrawing federal aid from West Coast cities and downplaying the number of deaths due to the coronavirus pandemic, citing conspiracy theories.

Greenfield, for her part, is as conservative as Democrats come, a lifelong real estate executive with no prior political experience. She promised to expand the Affordable Care Act and supported a $15 minimum wage but hewed close to the center, with a promise to work with Republicans, and touted a business record that showed a commitment to the real estate world from which she came. She proved far more representative of the 26 percent of Iowa Democrats who supported Pete Buttigieg in the long-ago Iowa caucus than the 26 percent who supported Bernie Sanders (Biden garnered about 16 percent of that vote back in February).

Both campaigns flooded Iowa TV markets with ad dollars, mostly urging voters to not cast their ballots for the opposing candidate. With a total of $235 million spent, it was the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in Iowa history and the second-most expensive campaign in U.S. history. Ernst enjoyed the financial backing of Iowa’s corporate agriculture businesses and conservative PAC money, but Greenfield received huge donations from the pharmaceutical ($232 million) and real estate ($94 million) industries.

The candidates’ credentials in farm country became the contentious point of debate toward the end of the race. Though both received oil industry money, they fought over who supports Iowa’s ethanol industry more. Though Ernst received backing from the powerful conservative group Iowa Farm Bureau, she went viral late in the election after she couldn’t accurately name the price of soybeans, even after Greenfield flexed her familiarity with commodities markets by listing the price of corn to the decimal point.

National Republicans worked hard to hold their ground in Iowa, where they risked losing one of the most conservative members of the Senate and a possible reversal of 2016’s presidential election results. Trump flew into Des Moines in an attempt to fire up his base in mid-October, then touched down in Dubuque just days before the election, reminding them on each occasion of the billions of dollars he had allocated to farmers.

Terry Branstad, the former ambassador to China and immensely popular, longest-serving governor of Iowa, seemed to have resigned from his ambassador post with the explicit purpose of returning to the state in order to stump for Republicans ahead of Election Day. His successor, Gov. Kim Reynolds, has been campaigning seemingly full-time for the party, bragging about how she kept Iowa open during the pandemic and even generated a state surplus, all while the number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continue to pile up. (In the week leading up to the election, there was an average of 2,211 coronavirus cases per day in the state, according to a New York Times analysis.)

Ernst herself was present at many of these events and was also a central figure in the televised confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett — a great reminder to her base in Iowa and conservatives across the country of her political utility.

Ernst’s attacks sharpened in the waning days of the race, attempting to paint Greenfield as the far-right’s nightmare, someone who believes in systemic racism within police departments, and as a socialist — despite the fact that Greenfield has emphatically claimed she “does not support defunding the police.”

Progressive Democrats in Iowa saw Greenfield’s loss as an indication that the party is too devoted to corporate interests and too divorced from workers in rural communities.

“Iowans know that their problems require more than a status quo campaign with the same tired talking points on ethanol and free trade.”

An Iowa Democratic activist, who asked not to be named to be able to speak freely about intra-party disagreements, said Greenfield “went down because she took her cues from” former Democratic Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, who was President Barack Obama’s agriculture secretary and currently a dairy lobbyist. “Her decision to rely on Vilsack & Co. — who reek of the corporate-friendly policies that looted most of Iowa in the first place — was a huge mistake,” the party activist said. “Instead of focusing on challenging the power of multinational corporations that harm Iowa workers and farmers, she cozied up to the big ag industry.”

“This loss is another failure that reflects badly on the Democratic Party’s old guard,” the activist continued. “Iowans know that their problems require more than a status quo campaign with the same tired talking points on ethanol and free trade.”

Ernst’s victory came thanks to a deeply entrenched conservative base in Iowa, the base that gave Trump his victory in 2016, and further solidified Iowa’s position as a reliable red state. This particular election may prove to have been the Democrats’ last, best chance to prevent Ernst’s Senate seat — which was previously held by Democrat Tom Harkin from 1984 until his retirement in 2014 — from becoming fully locked in by the GOP. The state’s other Senate seat, held by Republican Chuck Grassley, has remained untouched since he entered the office in 1981.

Despite the money spent and polls that called the races a toss-up, Biden and Greenfield couldn’t win on the strength of simply not being Trump and Ernst.

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