DES MOINES — Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst cashed in on President Donald Trump’s red-wave “tsunami” Tuesday across Iowa and likely boosted her political stock in the nation’s capital.
Ernst, 50, a first-term senator from Red Oak, claimed reelection to a new six-year term by capturing all but eight of Iowa’s 99 counties and 51.8 percent of Tuesday’s record turnout to fend off a challenge from self-described “scrappy farm kid” Democrat Theresa Greenfield, who finished at 45.2 percent.
“Iowa is a red state,” declared Ernst ally Gov. Kim Reynolds at a victory celebration where the raspy-voiced senator thanked her supporters, pledged to work for all Iowans and called on Americans to work to heal the nation’s “wounds” of partisan division.
“We did it six years ago; we did it again,” said Ernst. “Six years ago on election night many of you asked what was my favorite part of the campaign and I told you that winning actually felt pretty darn good, and tonight it does feel even better so thank you.”
Ernst emerged victorious in a bruising, expensive and hotly contested race with national implications for both parties by stressing her rural roots and conservative positions, while capitalizing on Republican momentum bolstered by Trump campaign rallies in Iowa, former governor and ambassador Terry Branstad’s return to the campaign trail, and GOP door-knocking and get-out-the-vote efforts that outpaced underperforming Iowa Democrats.
During her acceptance speech, Ernst tried to tone down the partisan rhetoric and polarization that was breaking along urban-rural lines by telling Iowans “this has been a very difficult year and a very challenging election for all of us. People on both sides feel divided. Emotions and those wounds are very, very raw. But the election is over and it’s time to start the healing. We need to turn down the rhetoric and start listening once again.
“We are all Americans and there is much more that unites us than divides us,” she added. “The challenges that we face — whether it’s from COVID to the economic recovery that is yet ahead of us — they are too great for any of us to do alone.”
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That message was in stark contrast to the slow-developing and potentially ugly climax of the divisive presidential battle between former Democratic Vice President Joe Biden and Trump, who was aided by Iowa’s six electoral votes after he won all but six of Iowa’s counties. Trump won about 53 percent of Iowa’s vote compared with Biden’s about 45 percent.
“In a way, she won this by wrapping her arms tightly around Donald Trump and that certainly helped her,” Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said of Ernst’s win over Greenfield.
“I don’t know if Republicans over-performed, but they may have performed to their full strength, while Democrats currently underperformed,” Goldford noted. “Ernst didn’t win going away. Anytime you win with less than 55 percent of the vote, it really was a competitive election.”
Goldford said Iowa — which has “become so polarized and so tribal” — moved from being a “purple state with a red hue” to an increasingly red state that favors Republicans. Having two Republicans in the U.S. Senate gives Iowa some political clout, but winning reelection doesn’t necessarily automatically elevate Ernst’s stature on the national stage depending on how the unresolved races turn out for president and U.S. Senate. A narrow Senate margin does boost the importance of individual members, Goldford noted.
“If the Republican majority is reduced, then it would mean that any individual Republican might have a bit more leverage for any close votes,” said University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle. “Then again, unless there’s another close vote on something like another Supreme Court vacancy, it might not matter as we may be stuck with gridlock again.”
University of Northern Iowa political scientist Chris Larimer said he expected Ernst’s role within the party “will continue to increase and that may be reflected in new committee assignments or leadership roles on current committees.”
Ernst’s role in getting Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice through a fast-track process helped energize the GOP base and change the dynamic of Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, said Prudence Roberson of the Susan B. Anthony List, an organization that supports politicians opposed to abortion rights. Ernst is a member of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
“We believe that the pro-life issue really turned out the key margin of voters for Sen. Ernst, especially seeing her efforts to confirm Justice Barrett to the Supreme Court,” said Robertson. “We believe that the activities around that and her heroism on the issue really led her victory.”
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Des Moines Democrat Kevin McCarthy, a former Iowa House majority leader, told a radio audience Wednesday that Republicans tapped into economic angst among Iowans, especially in rural areas and former Democratic strongholds, and that translated into victories up and down the ballot in the “tsunami that was the Trump victory last night.”
Notwithstanding Trump’s tweets, McCarthy said, “there’s a sense that he is out there kind of as an anti-establishment flamethrower to those who bow at the altar of Wall Street and the coastal elite.”
“Iowa currently is a tough place to be a Democrat,” he said. “Iowa right now is a red state. It is not a purple state. Right now it’s a red state and the Republicans deserve credit.”
In her concession speech late Tuesday, Greenfield, 57, a Des Moines businesswoman making her first bid for statewide elective office, said the outcome was not what she planned but she thanked her supporters, staff, volunteers and contributors for helping her wage a strong campaign.
“I hope you’re all proud of what we accomplished. I know I certainly am,” she said.
“We knew it was going to be a donnybrook and it was,” Greenfield. “This was never really about me or just one person, this was about standing up and fighting for what you believe in and following your dream and I followed it and despite the tough times we’re facing and the results tonight, I am still hopeful.”
Greenfield captured a strong share of Iowa’s record absentee balloting — due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic — but Ernst overcame the gap with a strong showing, especially in rural counties, as GOP enthusiasm surged late in the race.
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