Heard on the Hill

Iowa battlefield extends from politics to gridiron

Healthy trash talk is all part of life in Iowa-Iowa State rivalry

Sen. Joni Ernst is a proud Iowa State alumna, and not shy about it. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Iowa is a perennial political battleground, but Iowans know the most intense contest happens on the gridiron every year, when the Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones try to demolish one another in one of college football’s oldest rivalries.

The reward? A move up in conference ranking, bragging rights and the coveted Cy-Hawk trophy. This year, ESPN’s “College GameDay” broadcast from Iowa State territory in Ames for the first time in school history on Sept 14. Iowa won, 18-17. 

That can make things weird when rivals work in the same congressional office.

“Everyone in the state is watching that game,” says Katelyn Schultz, proud Hawkeye and staffer for Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley.

Her colleague and fellow Iowan Stephanie Carlson agrees on the intensity of the rivalry. She might play nice at work but all bets are off come game days. 

“I’m a diehard Cyclone,” Carlson says firmly.

Grassley, a University of Northern Iowa graduate, talked about September’s game on the floor recently, diplomatically extolling the tailgating where he talked to his constituents about “ethanol, biodiesel & trade.”

The UNI Panther has been known to sport purple to play nice, but his home-state Senate GOP colleague is not afraid to talk trash.

“The UNI rivalry, as much as Sen. Grassley really wants it to be there, it’s not really there,” quips Sen. Joni Ernst, a faithful Iowa State alumna.

“It’s more McCarthy versus McConnell,” she adds, comparing the Iowa-Iowa State rivalry with the relationship between House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “You’re still on the same team; You’re still Iowans, but who’s better — the House or the Senate?”

Regardless of the sport or the politics, Midwesterners known for their friendliness say it’s all in fun. 

“I think it’s a healthy trash talk,” says Carlson. It’s mostly “side eyes” and “jabs,” says Schultz. “Hope you’re ready for Saturday,” she might say to Carlson when feeling combative.

A distinguished member of Congress is no exception. “Oh, were you (that) bad that your parents made you wear that?” Ernst might taunt an innocent kid in Hawkeye gear, the tone in her voice more empathetic than threatening.

“If you lose, you’re upset, but the next day you’re fine,” says Schultz, whose team won last month, it should be noted.

“Debatable,” a defeated Carlson responds.

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