5 Democrats compete for chance in U.S. Senate

Democrats hope to reclaim seat lost to Ernst in 2014

Democratic Senate candidate Kimberly Graham
Democratic Senate candidate Kimberly Graham

DES MOINES — Joni Ernst’s election victory six years ago gave Iowa a pair of Republican U.S. senators for the first time since the mid-1980s.

Iowa Democrats had a chance to restore political balance in 2016, but Patty Judge was unable to unseat longtime U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Democrats get their second chance this year as Ernst faces reelection for the first time.

There are five Democrats officially running in a primary race that will decide which of them runs for the seat in the November general election. Ernst faces Republican Paul Rieck of Garber in the primary, but elections records do not show him raising any campaign funds since filing some 15 months ago.

Iowa’s primary election is June 2.

Ernst is seen as a slight favorite — but not a dramatic one — to hold onto the seat, according to national forecasters. Most rate the race as “leans Republican,” while one rates it “likely Republican.”

Democrats’ chances of winning back the seat rest with one of five potential challengers:


Age: 62

Resides: Sioux City

Profession: veteran

Family: married, two children

Franken is a 37-year U.S. Navy veteran. He retired a three-star admiral after working in military and legislative affairs, personally briefing the U.S. defense secretary and serving as a military fellow to the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, according to Franken’s campaign.


Franken also commissioned the U.S.S. Winston S. Churchill and commanded an international task force of ships, according to his campaign.

His campaign said it will focus on addressing climate change in a way that benefits Iowa farmers, ensuring all Americans have access to the kind of health care available to military members and tackling political corruption.

Franken raised $334,000 in 2019.


Age: 55

Resides: Des Moines

Profession: lawyer

Family: single, one child

As a lawyer, Graham works in court as an advocate for abused or neglected kids. A graduate of Drake University Law School, she previously worked as a flight attendant and union organizer.

Graham has been appealing to the Sen. Bernie Sanders wing of the Democratic primary electorate. She often could be spotted at Sanders’ events during the run-up to Iowa’s February caucuses.

On her campaign website, Graham calls for universal, single-payer health care and a government “by the people, for the people,” and laments “preventable deaths due to the greed of big pharma and the corporate health care industry,” a climate in crisis, and for the livelihoods of farmers who have been impacted by international trade negotiations.

Graham has pledged to accept only individual donations and none from corporate political action committees. She raised $32,000 in the first portion of 2019 but has not yet filed a report for the final three months of 2019. The Federal Elections Commission sent her campaign a notice of a need to file.


Age: 56

Resides: Des Moines

Profession: small business leader

Family: married, four children

Greenfield is a familiar name in Iowa Democratic politics. She ran in the 2018 3rd District Congressional primary but dropped out when it was revealed one of her campaign staffers falsified signatures on her nominating petition.

Democrat Cindy Axne won the primary instead and is now finishing her first two-year term in the U.S. House.


Greenfield grew up on a farm in Minnesota, near the Iowa-Minnesota border. Her first husband was killed in an accident at his job as an electrical worker. She has led the Iowa division of Rottlund Homes and served as president of Colby Interests, a Des Moines real estate and development company.

Based on fundraising and endorsements, Greenfield may be the favorite early in this Democratic primary.

Through the end of the year, Greenfield had raised $3.4 million, far and away the most among the Democratic candidates when subtracting self-funding.

And she has been endorsed by a number of influential Democrats. She is being supported by the campaign arm of Democratic leadership in the U.S. Senate, and in Iowa has been endorsed by retiring Democratic 2nd District Rep. Dave Loebsack and freshman 1st District Rep. Abby Finkenauer.

Greenfield also has been endorsed by a number of influential political organizations, including the state’s largest public employee labor union, EMILY’s List, NARAL and End Citizens United.


Age: 57

Resides: Des Moines

Profession: small business owner

Family: married, two children

A lifelong Iowan, Mauro started his career as a teacher but then began a small property and casualty insurance business. He is a co-founder of A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy, on organizing group for community causes. For example, the group lobbied for state mental health care reform and allowing immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to obtain driver’s licenses.

His campaign’s website says Mauro has participated in community service, activism and organizing, and fought for social, economic and environmental justice.

Mauro has shown a willingness to put his own resources into his campaign. In 2019, he poured $1.5 million into his campaign.


Age: 63

Resides: Des Moines

Profession: fencing contractor


Woods, a contractor who works with chain link and cedar fencing, grew up on a hog farm in Mount Vernon. He joined the U.S. Navy after high school, completing two tours of duty aboard the U.S.S. Chicago, a guided missile cruiser, in the western Pacific Ocean. He graduated from the University of Iowa and worked as a newspaper and television reporter for 16 years.

Though he didn’t make his candidacy official until mid-December, Woods said he’s been “actively campaigning” since June because he didn’t see a “sense of urgency and passion” from other Democrats in the race.

His big issues are climate change and health care. He’s for a health care public option but said he would be open to a Medicare for All-style plan if it was the most politically expedient. But above all else, he’s running to put in place policies to combat climate change.

“For the sake of those coming generations, we need to tackle our climate crisis now,” Woods said. “Because if we don’t — and we need to tackle it with all sense of urgency — the next generation and the one after that, they’re going to see some really bad things.”

Amie Rivers of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier contributed to this report.

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