Ernst, Greenfield clash in first debate

Polls: Close race could determine Senate control


JOHNSTON — The intensity of the exchange regularly matched the stakes during the first debate Monday for Iowa’s U.S. Senate race.

With the Nov. 3 election just five weeks away, Joni Ernst, a first-term incumbent Republican, and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield met at Iowa PBS studios for their first debate.

Three polls published a week ago showed Greenfield leading the race by narrow margins, all within the polls’ margins for error, and the race’s outcome could help decide whether Republicans or Democrats emerge with a U.S. Senate majority.

Those stakes must have been top of mind for Ernst and Greenfield, both of whom often ignored questions to make prepared points and spent time attempting to talk over one another — at one point drawing debate moderator David Yepsen to ask both if they believed they were acting like senators.

When Greenfield criticized Ernst for accepting millions of dollars in dark money donations — so labeled because they come from groups that are not required to reveal their donors — Ernst fired back that Greenfield did the same.

Greenfield has pledged to not take any donations from corporate political organizations. She has stayed true to that pledge, but has accepted contributions from corporate individuals, and benefits from advertising by liberal groups that so not disclose their donors.

“While she is talking about dark money, in one hand she’s saying, ‘Oh, we’re not going to have dark money in this campaign,’ she’s got the other hand behind her saying, ‘Please hand me some dark money,’” Ernst said. “So while she says, ‘I’m going to go to the United States Senate and get rid of dark money spending,’ what she’s saying on the campaign right now is, ‘Give it to me please. Bring in the dark money.’”

When Ernst accused Greenfield of calling police officers racist, Greenfield interrupted and attempted to talk over Ernst before she could finish the comment. Ernst was drawing from a comment by Greenfield that there is racism in all of the country’s systems, including policing. Ernst alleged that Greenfield’s comments meant that Greenfield believes Iowa police officers are racist.

“We have systemic racism in all of our systems, and have for generations, including our policing system. But that is not saying that our police officers are racist,” Greenfield said.

The question put to the candidates that produced the dark money discussion was whether the government should incentivize individuals to move out of areas that have been repeatedly hit by significant natural disasters in recent years.

Ernst throughout the debate attempted to tie Greenfield to policies supported by some in her party, but not by Greenfield herself — like Medicare-for-all, or adding U.S. Supreme Court justices, or free tuition for all college students. Greenfield reiterated during the debate that she does not support any of those proposals.

Greenfield answered a question about tax policy by criticizing Ernst on health care, and responded to a question about a federal mask mandate during the COVID-19 pandemic by criticizing Ernst and lawmakers for not producing another relief package.

On health care, Greenfield said she supports maintaining and expanding the Affordable Care Act by introducing a public option.

“I’ve been very clear that I don’t support Medicare-for-all, but I do support strengthening and enhancing the Affordable Care Act, making sure that everyone has affordable health care,” Greenfield said.

Ernst defended her votes to repeal the law, even though Republicans did not have an alternate. She said she supports plans where the federal government serves as a “backstop” to ensure the most vulnerable are covered.


“Making sure that the federal government is caring for those (people with preexisting conditions) and providing equal access to health care products, making sure that they are affordable, that should be the federal government’s role,” Ernst said.

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