Government

Iowa Democratic leader on the road to attack Joni Ernst's on health care

But Republicans accuse him of distorting her record

Mark Smith (right), then the newly elected interim state chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks to reporters Feb.
Mark Smith (right), then the newly elected interim state chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, speaks to reporters Feb. 15 in Des Moines. Smith says he’s going on the road to inform Iowans about Republican Sen. Joni Ernst’s “disastrous” record on health care. (Erin Murphy/Gazette-Lee Des Moines Bureau)

DES MOINES — Health care will play a key role in the November elections and Iowa Democrats and Republicans spent Thursday staking out ground in the debate.

Iowa Democratic Party interim Chairman Mark Smith said he’s going on the road to make sure voters know that Democrats are the health care party.

“Health care is the No. 1 issue for voters this election,” Smith said.

So he’ll be traveling around the state to talk about Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s “disastrous” health care record and “the fact that the Democrats are serious about health care reform and that we are offering meaningful solutions.”

Local Democratic leaders and health care advocates will join Smith at a 10 a.m. news conference Friday at the Cedar Rapids Public Library and at 2 p.m. at the Davenport Public Library.

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann held a media call Thursday to defend Ernst’s health care record and accuse Democrats of teaming up with “liberal dark money groups” to spend millions attacking her.

“Mark Smith hasn’t even been on the job a month and he is already embracing a dark-money group that has spent millions of dollars to lie about Joni’s record,” Iowa GOP spokesman Aaron Britt said, referring to a social media post about a political organization hosting an event with Smith.

“Democrats running for Senate are embracing socialized medicine, while Joni is fighting to lower the cost of prescription drugs, protect those with preexisting conditions and make health care more accessible.”

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Smith participated in multiple events Thursday: one in Marshalltown hosted by Iowa Voices, a tax-exempt social welfare organization that has criticized Ernst; and another at the Iowa Capitol hosted by the Iowa Democratic Party.

Because of their tax-exempt status, groups like Iowa Voices are not required to disclose their donors. The state party said Smith attended the Iowa Voices event as a legislator, not as party chairman. The party was not a participant in the Iowa Voices event, a party spokesperson said.

In an interview, Smith said Ernst’s “dismal” health care record started when she served in the Iowa Senate. Smith, who represents Marshalltown in the Iowa House, said in Ernst’s first five years in office, she sided with special interests against the health interests of Iowans.

Smith cited Ernst’s opposition to bipartisan efforts to lower prescription drug prices and voting to “gut” protections for coverage of preexisting conditions, eliminate Iowa’s Medicaid expansion, slash Medicare and support measures restricting abortion rights.

“She voted against the compromise that we had on the Affordable Care Act and the program that extended that beyond 100 percent of poverty to her efforts in Washington that are not curbing the drug prices and not making affordable health care available to Iowans,” he said.

Smith said although Democrats have five “exceptional” candidates seeking the nomination to face Ernst in the general election, he is going on the road because the Democrats “need a chorus of those voices talking about these issues.”

Ernst’s votes have made her vulnerable “because she’s out of step with what everyday Iowans need and want,” Smith said, referring to polling that shows Ernst has one of the lowest approval ratings in the Senate.

Kaufmann asserted it is Democrats who are out of step with everyday Iowans after some of the presidential candidates who barnstormed the state this past year advocated for expanding the federal Affordable Care Act or transitioning to Medicare-for-all.

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“The fact that so many of the Democrats (including presidential party front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are) talking about a public option at the very least and Medicare-for-all at the most, yes, I think (health care) is going to be a major issue,” Kaufmann said on the call with Iowa reporters. “And that’s the main reason why we wanted to start correcting the record early on.”

In defending Ernst’s record on protecting individuals with preexisting health conditions, Kaufmann pointed to Ernst’s support for legislation offered by U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C. The bill prohibits health insurers from denying coverage and charging higher premiums to those individuals.

However, experts say the bill’s protections for individuals with preexisting conditions is not as robust as the Affordable Care Act, which includes subsidies for low-income patients to purchase insurance and more protections from price-gouging.

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