U.S. Senate race sets $234 million record in Iowa

Outside groups spend most in Ernst vs. Greenfield race

DES MOINES — If not for an even pricier race in another state, Iowa’s 2020 U.S. Senate campaign would be the most expensive in U.S. history.

Roughly $234 million has been spent on the campaign that features Republican incumbent Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. That makes it the most expensive campaign in Iowa history, and the second-most expensive U.S. Senate race ever, behind this year’s $280 million race in North Carolina.

Those figures were calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog that tracks money in elections.

By comparison, just shy of $87 million was spent on Iowa’s competitive and open-seat U.S. Senate race in 2014, when Ernst was first elected — flipping the seat from Democratic to Republican. This year’s campaign has nearly tripled that, according to the center’s figures.

“It’s pretty significant that so much money has poured into the Iowa race,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of Iowa State University’s Catt Center for Women and Politics.

The record amount of money spent on Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, experts said, can be attributed to multiple factors: a competitive race between Ernst and Greenfield, a surge in political donations nationally and national implications of the race’s outcome.

It is competitive. Most polling has showed the Iowa race to be a virtual tossup. When averaging the 12 most recent polls on the race as collected by Real Clear Politics, dating to September, Greenfield averages 47.3 percent and Ernst 44.1 percent.


The incumbent is vulnerable. While Iowa voters often show loyalty to incumbent elected officials — like U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has served in the Senate for 40 years — those officials are most vulnerable after their first term in office, one expert said.

The last time Iowa voted out an incumbent U.S. senator was 1984: Democrat Tom Harkin defeated Republican incumbent Roger Jepsen, who had just completed his first term. Harkin then served in the Senate for 30 years before he retired and Ernst claimed the seat in 2014.

“In Iowa, we know senators are most vulnerable running for reelection after their first term,” said Donna Hoffman, a political-science professor at the University of Northern Iowa.

But perhaps most importantly, the implications of the race’s outcome spread well beyond Iowa’s borders.

Iowa’s U.S. Senate race could play a significant role in determining which party comes out of the election with an agenda-setting majority in the chamber. Going into the election, Republicans hold 53 seats and Democrats 47. And Iowa’s race is one of just roughly a handful that are tossup races that will help determine which party has more senators after the election.

“Frankly, there would not have been as much money thrown into the Ernst-Greenfield race if the U.S. Senate was not up for grabs as well,” Kedrowski said.

It was a message that Republican Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, delivered in Iowa recently while campaigning for Ernst.

“This is the difference between whether Republicans have the majority or Democrats have the majority. It’s all on Iowa,” Haley said. “There’s a lot at stake. That’s why there’s a lot of money flowing in. … All eyes are on Iowa because it is the 51st vote (in the Senate).”


Ernst and Greenfield have combined to raise more than $70 million for their campaigns, and they have spent more than $64 million, according to the latest figures from the center. But that’s just a slice of the campaign’s money pie.

Outside groups — the political party organizations, political advocacy organizations and others — have spent nearly $170 million on the Ernst-Greenfield race, according to the center.

All that spending from outside groups has benefited Greenfield more.

Federal campaign finance laws require political campaign spending to be designated as either supporting or opposing a candidate.

In Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, outside groups have spent more than $94 million benefiting Greenfield (by supporting Greenfield or opposing Ernst), compared with more than $74 million benefiting Ernst (by supporting Ernst or opposing Greenfield).

“There’s absolutely no doubt that these folks are going to spend their money where they think it’s going to make an impact. They’re not going to spend their money where they think it’s a lost cause,” Kedrowski said. “They are putting money in Iowa because Iowa’s up for grabs and they think they can either hold the seat (Republicans) or win the seat (Democrats). And all of this is heightened because it appears that Democrats have a very real possibility, nationally, of winning the Senate.”

Greenfield also has outraised Ernst, which is something of an anomaly: Typically incumbents fare better in fundraising than their challengers. But Greenfield has raised $47 million this cycle to Ernst’s $24 million.

In fact, Greenfield this year had a record-breaking fundraising quarter — federal campaign fundraising oversight is conducted in three-month cycles — when she raised nearly $29 million in the third quarter. That three-month haul was more than Ernst has raised the entire cycle.

Greenfield, along with other Democratic candidates across the country, was bolstered by a surge in donations after the death of liberal U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the subsequent, expedited confirmation of conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett.


“We had a lot more money flow into the Senate races after Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. That’s when you saw some of the eye-popping numbers in the third quarter,” Hoffman said.

Much of the spending, as Iowa TV viewers can attest, has been on political campaign ads. As much as $154 million has been spent on campaign ads for television, radio, newspapers, streaming services, websites and social media, according to federal campaign finance records.

“You are seeing, any time you access media, whether it’s TV, network or cable, or whether it’s some kind of streaming service you’re using, there are Ernst and Greenfield ads everywhere. I think those are getting almost to the saturation point,” Hoffman said. The campaigns “are very much trying to touch voters in multiple ways. … There’s a lot more avenues to spend the money that we’re getting.”

Fortunately for Iowa’s U.S. Senate campaigns, there is a record level of money available to spend on all those avenues.

“The goal of a political campaign at this point, when they’ve got money to spend, is how do they spend every last dollar,” Kedrowski said. “It’s an interesting challenge for these extraordinarily well-funded campaigns: How do you spend the money you have, when you have a lot of money to spend?”

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