Next year will be U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst’s first statewide reelection campaign. She won her seat in 2014 following Democrat Tom Harkin’s retirement.
At this early stage, Ernst is seen as a favorite to win again, but she has closely aligned herself with President Donald Trump, a divisive figure whose popularity in Iowa is threatened by a range of issues, most of all the administration’s disastrous international trade agenda.
Given those circumstances, Iowa’s Senate race could be a pickup opportunity for Democrats. You might expect a lively primary campaign to precede such an election.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it’s turning out.
Three Democrats have formally launched U.S. Senate campaigns in Iowa this cycle, but the national party establishment has coalesced around one candidate in particular — Des Moines businesswoman Theresa Greenfield.
The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, the official campaign operation of Senate Democrats, endorsed Greenfield in June, a full year before Iowans will vote in the 2020 primary. Several national groups and out-of-state politicians followed suit.
Two snubbed candidates, Kimberly Graham of Indianola and Eddie Mauro of Des Moines, are criticizing those endorsements as undue outside influence
“Frankly, it’s not very democratic and was less than kind of them to not return my calls or emails,” Graham wrote in a Facebook post. She was the first to announce her campaign, and says she repeatedly tried to contact party leaders but never heard back.
Mauro said in a statement, “Democrats in Iowa want a spirited primary.”
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The objection is not to Greenfield herself — she would likely be a strong candidate in a statewide race. The problem is the process, whereby non-Iowans can select a front-runner, long before any votes are cast.
The Greenfield endorsement is not an isolated incident. Political parties are prone to fiercely protecting incumbents from primary challengers, and picking favorites in open races.
The invisible primary — where party insiders vet candidates in private and then commit money and resources to their preferred politician — serves an important purpose, safeguarding the party from candidates with hidden baggage. Still, it is susceptible to anti-democratic outcomes.
Iowans would be better served by a robust primary debate about the issues, open to all candidates.
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