Staff Columnist

Iowa's U.S. Senate race shapes up to be nasty and pricey

A sticker seen Tuesday at polls at the Hiawatha Community Center reminds primary election voters to practice social dist
A sticker seen Tuesday at polls at the Hiawatha Community Center reminds primary election voters to practice social distancing. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

So a record number of Iowans voted in major party primaries in Iowa last week, setting up fall races for the U.S. House and Senate. Turns out sending every Iowa voter an absentee ballot request form led more people to cast a vote.

It could also be more Iowans have come to the conclusion during a pandemic and subsequent deep economic dive that sound federal leadership matters, and they want to have a say. Throw in a nation now roiled by protests sparked by yet another black American, George Floyd, dying in police custody — some Iowans voted amid curfew orders — and you’ve got a critical national moment. Under a hail of rubber bullets, it was comforting to see that ballots still counted.

Oh, and there’s also the climate crisis, dirty water, a lack of affordable, accessible health coverage, the struggles faced by farmers hit by trade disruptions and a hobbled biofuels industry, pressing infrastructure needs and the future of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Iowa Democrats, again, went with a U.S. Senate nominee anointed early by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and other national groups. Theresa Greenfield, a West Des Moines businesswoman, won Tuesday’s primary easily. She had the backing of labor unions and other groups that usually propel Democrats to primary wins.

After watching two Des Moines businessmen lose statewide races for governor, Democrats are tapping the Polk County talent pool one more time. And even after seeing the last DSCC-anointed Senate candidate, Patty Judge, lose big to Sen. Chuck Grassley, they’re trusting national judgment, and money, again.

They did not go with Michael Franken, a retired Navy admiral with 37 years of military service who was born in Sioux County and now hails from Sioux City. His command experience included duty in Africa where he led forces responding to the Ebola epidemic. Timely, but he got second with 25 percent of the vote and swiftly endorsed Greenfield. It may not be the last we hear from him.

You have to wonder how this Democratic Senate race might have been different without a pandemic. Greenfield’s resources and institutional support gave her a big advantage that was hard for her opponents to crack in a campaign without face-to-face events and overshadowed by bigger, more pressing news. Still, less than half of the Iowa Democrats who voted picked Greenfield in a four-person field.

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Greenfield takes on Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst in the fall. It would be swell if the campaign were a contest of ideas over how best to deal with all of the problems listed above. But like everything else these days, it promises to be nasty, expansive and mainly about President Donald Trump.

Ernst has remained a solid, unflappable Trump backer even when the president’s policies have harmed her constituents and the nation. It’s entirely fair and necessary to question the judgment of a senator who worked so hard to elect a president who, just in the past week or so, wrongly accused a TV host of murder, lied about fraud in mail-in balloting, called on governors to violently crack down on demonstrators and threatened to use U.S. military forces against American citizens on American soil protesting racial injustice. His administration ordered the use of tear gas and rubber projectiles to clear protesters near the White House so he could have a photo op, holding up a Bible.

Senator, are we better off than we were four years ago? How about four months? Four minutes?

So Ernst will have a Trump problem. But she and Greenfield will have no problem raising bucks and drawing help from groups poised to spend tens of millions of dollars on what’s seen as one of the country’s most competitive Senate races.

Democrats are desperate to take over the Senate. If Ernst wins, don’t be surprised to see her start showing up on lists of possible presidential candidates.

Already, we’ve seen a clash of Chicago billionaires. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s Senate Majority PAC spent $6.9 million promoting Greenfield’s primary candidacy. The PAC’s top donor is Fred Eychaner, a “reclusive” Chicago entrepreneur and philanthropist who has donated $8 million to the Senate Majority PAC this cycle.

Greenfield also got help from Women Vote, a PAC arm of EMILY’s List. It spent nearly $1 million attacking Franken for coming back to Iowa after decades in the Navy to run for office. That PAC’s top donor is Donald Sussman, a Fort Lauderdale asset manager, who gave $1.1 million.

On the other side, Americas PAC, the super PAC I previously wrote about headquartered in Marion, spent $1.3 million promoting Ernst. Its top donor is Richard Uihlein, founder of the shipping supplies company Uline, who gave $4.5 million to Americas PAC this cycle.

The Des Moines Register reports that, according to Advertising Analytics, more than $50 million in campaign advertising already has been booked in Iowa.

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Greenfield hopes to make campaign cash an issue in her race against Ernst, especially “dark money,” undisclosed donations spent on political messaging. Trouble is, some of the groups that back Greenfield have taken money from other groups that don’t disclose donors. It came up during the primary and will come up again in the general election race.

How much do TV ads really matter? Maybe not much to voters. But the messages they scream tend to set the tone for a campaign, and still are loud enough to drown out other voices, Iowa voices.

We’d be better off if the billionaires took a hike and left the debate over what sort of senator we need to the hundreds of thousands of Iowans who spoke clearly on primary day. Call it political distancing. Rich guys, stay at least 6 feet away from our state.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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