DES MOINES — Republican Joni Ernst, the first woman elected to the U.S. Senate in Iowa, on Tuesday became the first woman re-elected to that federal post after surviving a scare by edging out Democrat Theresa Greenfield in a hard-fought and expensive 2020 political slugfest.
With 99 percent of 1,661 precincts reporting, Ernst, 50, a retired soldier who previously served as a county auditor and state senator, polled 51.7 percent of the vote en route to a second six-year U.S. Senate term. Greenfield, 57, a Des Moines businesswoman making her first bid for statewide elective office, had garnered 45.3 percent in unofficial results.
Greenfield forged an early lead by capturing a strong share of Iowa’s record absentee balloting – due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic – but Ernst was able to close the gap with a strong showing, especially in rural counties, as GOP enthusiasm surged late in the volatile race.
“Thanks Iowa very much. God bless you all. I appreciate it,” Ernst told her victory rally with a hoarse, scratching voice.
“We did it six years ago; we did it again,” she said. “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 also thanked Greenfield for a spirited race and called on Iowans to unify.
Greenfield said the result was not what she planned but she thanked her supporters, staff, volunteers and contributors for helping her wage a strong, grassroots campaign.
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“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.”
Ernst emerged victorious in a hotly contested race with national implications for both parties that drew record spending levels by stressing her rural roots and conservative positions while charging Democrats – with the help of Iowa campaign stops by President Trump and others – would push the country too far left, raise taxes and impose socialistic policies that would stifle economic growth.
Republicans and their allies fought to avoid a crushing defeat in a key toss-up race by investing heavily in attack ads designed to “demonize” Greenfield and to suppress the turnout, according to political experts, while Democrats leveled attacks against Ernst for failing to keep campaign promises and allying too closely with President Trump and his COVID-19 response.
For her part, Ernstátouted her work on Iowa-specific issues like the federal ethanol mandate --- a beloved program in Iowa’s agricultural sector --- and federal assistance in the wake of this summer’s derecho.
Ernst, a pro-life conservative, said she has worked in bipartisan fashion in the Senate while also ensuring her Republican base that she has supported Trump – who considered her as a 2016 running mate -- and top conservative causes like repealing the federal Affordable Care Act and approving another conservative justice to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Viewed as a critical cog in both major political parties’ plan to hold control of the U.S. Senate for the next two years, the Iowa race was the second most expensive in U.S. history and by far the most expensive in Iowa electoral annals with more than $234 million spent by the campaigns, political parties, political advocacy organizations and others interested in influencing Tuesday’s outcome based on figures calculated by the Center for Responsive Politics -- a nonprofit and nonpartisan watchdog organization that tracks money in elections.
By contrast, campaign spending in Ernst’s 2014 race with Democrat Bruce Braley totaled about $87 million.
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Going into the election, Republicans held 53 seats and Democrats 47. The six-year Senate position pays $174,000 annually with health-care, pension and free parking benefits and allowances.
Iowa’s 2020 Senate race was a hotly contested battle from the get-go once Greenfield emerged victorious in a four-way Democratic primary. Poll results see-sawed as the candidates debated and crisscrossed the state although Ernst and her GOP allies spent more time at face-to-face event while Greenfield employed more Zoom encounters during a political season that was transformed by the COVID-19 epidemic.
The record amount of money spent on Iowa’s U.S. Senate race, which began when the first ad aired in February 2018, experts said, could be attributed to multiple factors: a competitive race between Ernst and Greenfield, a surge in political donations nationally, and national implications on the race’s outcome.
Pledging to “put hardworking Iowans first,” Greenfield made health care and the GOP coronavirus response a major focus of her campaign, saying she would expand Obamacare by offering a public option and protect Medicare and Social Security while noting Ernst’s support for scrapping Obamacare and raising concerns the GOP incumbent would privatize entitlements many Iowan’s paid into and depend on.
Greenfield backed up her commitment with a strong personal story of having weathered a tough period as a young single mother after her husband died in a workplace accident thanks in part to Social Security survivor benefits – an experience that she said would guide her effort to protect working people and seniors in gridlock-plagued Washington D.C.
A relative political newcomer, Greenfield also scored support from independents by pledging to work across the political aisle to break the partisan gridlock on issues like infrastructure funding and immigration reform while casting Ernst as someone who promised to “make ‘em squeal” but became a beltway insider putting GOP priorities ahead of the needs of Iowans.
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