Campaigns

Iowa Democrats stress rural roots as they vie to take on Sen. Joni Ernst

National groups back Theresa Greenfield, but she faces a fight for nomination

Iowa Democratic Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield attends at a picnic hosted by the Adair County Democratic Party in Greenfield earlier this month. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

GREENFIELD, Iowa — Facing a group of Democrats gathered in a brick park shelter here, Theresa Greenfield pitched herself as the best candidate to take on Iowa Republican Sen. Joni Ernst

“I am a businesswoman, and I am a mother of four, and I am a farm girl,” the real estate executive told attendees at the Adair County Democratic Party potluck earlier this month. 

Greenfield is a top candidate in the race to take on Ernst, who is running for a second term in a state President Donald Trump carried by 9 points in 2016. Despite the backing of national and local Democrats, however, she doesn’t have the primary to herself. Challenging her are a familiar foe, a Navy vice admiral and a liberal lawyer. 

[Iowa’s Joni Ernst preps for ‘full throttle’ Senate race]

The crowded presidential race may be capturing most Iowans’ attention, but after the February caucuses conclude, the focus will shift to the June primary battle to take on Ernst, who burst on to the national scene five years ago as a farm girl with military credentials.

Rural roots 

To win statewide in Iowa, Democrats acknowledge they need to improve their margins in rural areas.

Greenfield has tried to do that by stressing her upbringing on her family’s farm just over the state’s northern border in rural Bricelyn, Minnesota. She went to college in the Hawkeye State, where she met her first husband, a phone company lineman who was killed on the job not long after they married.

Greenfield credits Social Security and union benefits with helping her keep her family afloat after his death.

“I want you and grannies and young widows all over the state to know that I’m going to work hard to sustain Social Security and Medicare, because I know that it keeps people out of poverty, and gives them the opportunity to get on with their life like like it did for me,” Greenfield told the Adair County Democrats.

It’s a pitch she also utilized in a bid for the House in 2018, when she failed to qualify for the 3rd District ballot despite being considered a top candidate. Greenfield discovered ahead of the filing deadline that her campaign manager had forged petition signatures, and a last-minute push to gather enough valid signatures came up short. She said the experience could be an asset in the Senate race. 

“It shows people that I’m willing to do what’s right, and not look away, even at personal cost,” she said in an interview at the potluck.

Greenfield also isn’t the only Democrat highlighting an agricultural background. Retired three-star Admiral Mike Franken, who jumped into the race Monday, is also stressing his roots in rural northwest Iowa, as well as his military service.

Franken returned to Iowa earlier this year after retiring from the Navy, where he led the branch’s legislative affairs and had been U.S. Africa Command’s deputy for military operations.

He suggested his military experience would make him a formidable match against Ernst, an Iraq War veteran and the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate. She served with the Army Reserve and the Iowa National Guard.

Insurance broker and community activist Eddie Mauro tried to counter Ernst’s military background earlier this year when he said that serving in the Senate requires a “different kind of courage” than in the military where “you fall in line,” the Carroll Times Herald reported.

Asked in a recent interview if he regretted those comments, Mauro said, “Hell no,” adding that he respects people who’ve served in the military. Mauro also ran unsuccessfully in the 3rd District primary last cycle.

While they stress their different profiles, the three candidates take similar positions on what they consider the campaign’s top issue, health care. Each supports a “public option” that would let people buy into government-run insurance if they choose to, rather than a “Medicare for All” proposal that would eventually phase out private insurance.

The fourth Democrat in the race, lawyer Kimberly Graham, does support Medicare for All.

“It’s completely untrue that a real progressive cannot win this state,” she said in an interview after attending an event with former Vice President Joe Biden in Des Moines. 

Taking sides 

Graham said she expects to be endorsed by a progressive group that supported Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise primary win in New York last year, but declined to say which one. Justice Democrats, a key backer of Ocasio-Cortez, did not respond to a request for comment. 

National Democrats have already signaled that Greenfield is their preferred candidate.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and abortion rights group EMILY’s List endorsed Greenfield in June. She also has the backing of End Citizens United, which supports candidates who favor overhauling campaign finance laws. Prominent Iowa Democrats, including retiring 2nd District Rep. Dave Loebsack, have also endorsed Greenfield. 

Both Graham and Mauro said the DSCC’s endorsement made fundraising more difficult. At the end of the most recent fundraising quarter on June 30, Greenfield had raised $628,000 to Mauro’s $205,000 — which includes a $100,000 loan he made to his campaign — and Graham’s $9,000, disclosures with the Federal Election Commission show.

Ernst had $3.4 million in her campaign account on June 30.

Franken, who highlighted his military career and opposition to the Iraq War in his campaign launch, was unfazed by Washington-based groups jumping into the race.

“This is the state that is first on deck to choose the president of the United States,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “This is the state that certainly can choose its senator.”

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the Iowa Senate race Likely Republican.

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