SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Toby Keith’s music boomed over the speakers as Senator Joni Ernst, carrying an energy drink, a bunch of bikers in this town near the Nebraska border worked, shook hands and hugged.
Human-sized Trump signs stood in the parking lot of the Harley-Davidson store under a light, almost cyan sky, but the voices of some of the Republican supporters, Ms. Ernst, were grim. One number was on her mind: $ 100 million.
So many allies of her Democratic rival, businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, are pumping into the most expensive Senate race Iowa has ever seen. Attack ads that bombard the radio waves ̵
Six years after taking office as perhaps the most prominent member of a vaunted class that regained Republican control of the Senate, Ms. Ernst, 50, is in a tough re-election campaign that symbolizes her party’s struggle to maintain the Senate majority with a weakened President Trump at the top of the map.
Ms. Ernst, who has hugged the President tightly despite his declining prestige, has left Ms. Greenfield behind in every poll and in a recent New York Times poll in Siena for the past few months, as many Iowans viewed her negatively than those who did had a positive. The poll highlighted a bitter reality for the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress: Mr Trump’s problems, especially with female voters, are causing real harm to Republicans as the vote progresses.
The party has a 53-47 lead in the Senate, but up to eight of its incumbents are at risk of losing in hotly contested races. This includes other stars of the 2014 class who were once considered 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 viewed as a key candidate who will move up or down with her party and with Mr. Trump. Almost no one believes that Republicans can keep control of the Senate if Ms. Ernst loses.
The president won Iowa by more than 9 percentage points in 2016, but he’s now lagging behind, or statistically tied, polls by former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic candidate.
While Ms. Ernst has occasionally broken up with the president – for example, she opposed Mr Trump’s tariffs and supported the removal of the names of Confederate military leaders from military bases – she has hugged him more often.
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At the Harley-Davidson event in Sioux City, Ms. Ernst, who gave a speech at the Republican National Convention earlier this year and was once considered a potential runner-up for Mr. Trump, urged her supporters to “draw a red line in the sand against the interference.” into liberalism by supporting the president and repeating his campaign message.
Later, speaking to reporters, Ms. Ernst said she didn’t think Mr. Trump’s declining popularity in Iowa would hurt her, arguing that he could still win over the suburban women who turned against him. But she hastened to add that she was running “my own campaign” and even suggested that a number of Iowans could cross the party lines to vote for both Mr Biden and her.
“There may be problems that people don’t agree with the president about, but they will support me,” said Ms. Ernst. “So it really is up to these Iowans to make that decision, but I hope they realize that I was born and raised in Iowa and that Iowans are the people I care about.”
Karen M. Kedrowski, professor of political science at Iowa State University and director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics, said in some parts of the state that Mr. Trump had become “toxic” which could affect Republicans who had not distanced enough from him.
“Your fate is linked,” said Ms. Kedrowski about Ms. Ernst and Mr. Trump. “The Trump administration is so dissatisfied that it harms the Republicans when they vote.”
Ms. Ernst entered the Senate on a brisk “Make ‘Em Squeal” ad, pledging to cut wasteful spending, just as she had castrated pigs on her family farm. She soon became the only woman on Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership team and spoke out powerfully about survival from rape and domestic violence.
But for Ms. Ernst, Ms. Greenfield poses a much steeper challenge than Bruce Braley, a former Congressman whom she easily defeated by more than 8 percentage points six years ago.
With a biography that resonates with Iowans, Ms. Greenfield has shown herself to be a disciplined ambassador who pounds Ms. Ernst on paperback issues such as health care while emphasizing her own background as a military mother and “shabby farmer child” raised in the nearby south is Minnesota.
She wears flannel shirts in her television commercials. Logs of firewood sit outside her house in Des Moines. Ms. Greenfield says she’s hacking. “I grew up pretty shabby, I have to tell you,” she likes to say.
Her roots on the farm were revealed during a televised debate Thursday night when she correctly answered a question about the price of corn in the state, while Ms. Ernst was surprised by a follow-up on the price of soybeans.
“You grew up on a farm,” Ron Steele, a Waterloo news anchor who moderated the debate, told Ms. Ernst. “You should know that.”
While Ms. Ernst was riding her motorcycle across the state last weekend, Ms. Greenfield was at the Smith Family Farm in Buffalo Center near the northern Iowa border, stepping through fresh pig manure and beating insects off her neck while she talked about health care .
“It’s totally biased, but she’s a farm girl,” said Jody Smith, 65, a farmer, explaining why she chose to support Ms. Greenfield. “I know she learned to work hard. It can hold its own against anyone in Washington. “
Ms. Greenfield drove a cautious race and presented herself as a centrist. She does not denigrate Mr. Trump’s supporters and criticizes the Democratic Party for not focusing enough on community colleges.
She also has her own compelling story of overcoming personal tragedies. Her first husband died in an industrial accident when she was 24 years old and pregnant with their second child. The family survived on social security contributions.
“Becoming a young widow changed my life,” she said. “I had no way of paying the bills.”
With a unified Democratic message from party leaders in Washington, Ms. Greenfield has continued to focus on the health care issue and Ms. Ernst repeated in her votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and her adoption of a false allegation based on a conspiracy hit theory that the death toll at Coronavirus was increased.
Political action committees affiliated with New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer and minority leader have pumped tens of millions of dollars into the race targeting Ms. Ernst.
“Senator Ernst cannot be trusted in health care,” says Ms. Greenfield, naming it the main theme of the race.
Ms. Ernst tried to answer. When Mr Schumer recently forced a vote to prevent the Trump administration from arguing over the repeal of the health bill, Ms. Ernst dropped out with her party to vote with the Democrats. And she repeatedly apologized for her comment on questioning the coronavirus death toll.
“I am so sorry that my words may have offended you,” Ms. Ernst said in a recent debate in front of health workers. “They are enormous workers. They are important workers. “
In an effort to save the seat, the Republican Senate campaign has started running its own charges of attack against Ms. Greenfield’s business record, accusing her of “poor workmanship” and “breach of contract” – property developer disputes.
Ms. Ernst has also highlighted Ms. Greenfield’s failed foray into politics in 2018 when she briefly ran for Congress but ended her offer after her former campaign manager admitted to forging signatures on petition papers.
Some Iowans said they were shut down by the flood of negative reports against Ms. Ernst.
“The things that are advertised against her make me beat them,” said Denny Gergen, 69, a grain and soybean farmer from northwest Iowa and one of the bikers who supported Ms. Ernst. “Yeah, I know, hey, it’s politics, but it’ll just get dirty.”
Ms. Ernst saw hope in Mr. Trump’s appointment of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court and argued that the affirmation battle would stimulate the Conservatives and get them to the election to support them. She returned to Washington from campaigning to attend the hearings, where she stressed Judge Barrett’s status as a powerful Conservative woman.
However, Ms. Ernst also tried to use a moderate tone when speaking about the ramifications of raising Judge Barrett to the Supreme Court, pointing out that she had once maintained a protest buffer zone around abortion clinics.
“I think the likelihood that Roe v. Wade will be knocked over is very slim,” said Ms. Ernst, referring to the landmark decision that established federal abortion rights. “I don’t see that.”
In Iowa, Ms. Ernst issued a message on her motorcycle tour that echoed Mr. Trump’s when she warned voters of a bleak future should Ms. Greenfield defeat her and the Democrats take control of the Senate. A Democratic victory, she said during a stay in Des Moines, would mean a takeover of the United States by “extreme liberal interests”, “extreme environmentalists” and “extreme abortionists”.
“All of these things lead us down an ugly road to socialism,” said Ms. Ernst.
Then she told the bikers to hang every word on them to prepare for the ride. “We will show the state of Iowa that we are still behind President Trump,” she said. “We stand and will hold that red line in the United States Senate.”
With that, Ms. Ernst pulled her hair back in a ponytail, jumped on her Harley, turned the engine on and started, led a small army of bikers east of town, American flags waved from their motorcycles, many adorned in bold letters: “TRUMP. “