Is Joni Ernst at Risk of Losing Her Iowa Senate Seat?

While the 2016 GOP maxim centered around “draining the swamp,” the party’s 2014 rallying cry, at least in the Hawkeye State, was focused on “making ’em squeal.”

That line, of course, was delivered by Joni Ernst, Iowa’s Republican candidate for Senate at the time. Her infamous ad comparing Washingtonians to hogs was enough to catapult her into the spotlight, emerging out of a crowded primary and securing a victory in the general.

Sure, Ernst was able to win then, but her chances at a second term six years later are less certain.

Two pieces this morning — one from FiveThirtyEight’s Geoffrey Skelley and the other from Axios’s Mike Allen — highlight potentially vulnerable Republican-held Senate seats up in 2020. Among them are the usual suspects, like Martha McSally of Arizona and Susan Collins of Maine. The inclusion of Ernst, though, could leave some scratching their heads.

After all, at first glance, she’s doing pretty well: out of the three major election raters, Inside Elections and the University of Virginia Crystal Ball both have the race as Lean Republican, and the Cook Political Report is even more bullish, deeming the seat Likely Republican.

What accounts for this shift in conventional wisdom? I have a theory — and you might be thinking the same — but we’ll get there. To arrive at that conclusion (which totally doesn’t start with “i”), it’s important to consider why other factors may not be contributing to this movement.

True to form, let’s start with the polls. Right off the bat, it should be noted that Iowa is a fairly difficult state to poll; notably, most surveys in 2014 had Ernst ahead of Democrat Bruce Braley by only 1 or 2 percentage points, far shy of her eventual 8-point margin of victory.

There’s unfortunately only one poll of Ernst’s chances in a general election, and it comes from Emerson College, not necessarily this blog’s favorite pollster. Released in mid-October, it found Ernst up seven points, 47% to 40%, against Theresa Greenfield, the current top dog in the Democratic primary.

We also have data specific to Ernst. A Des Moines Register/Selzer survey from February shows her at +27% net approval (57-30) and net favorability (56-29). Summer 2019 Morning Consult data is less encouraging, placing Ernst’s net approval at -4% (39-43).

Despite these mixed numbers, many believe her ties to Donald Trump could further complicate affairs. Indeed, according to FiveThirtyEight, Ernst has a Trump score of 91.8%, meaning she “votes in line with Trump’s position” on 9 out of 10 pieces of legislation.

The issue arises when taking into account the president’s support in Iowa, which has plummeted since the beginning of his trade war with China: a September 2019 Morning Consult survey places him at -13% net approval (42-55), and this morning’s latest Grinnell/Selzer poll has that number at -10% (40-50).

Simply put, being connected to a politician as disliked as Trump, it is argued, could spell doomsday for Ernst, especially in a year where the two will appear on a ballot together.

Next up, fundraising data (interestingly, Ernst won the election in 2014 with fewer dollars than Braley):

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This is really where Ernst starts to blow her opponents out of the water…she has more cash on-hand than the rest of the field has cumulatively raised.

To be fair, these numbers are subject to change. Once the race catches national attention, for example, there’s bound to be an influx of donations to whomever becomes the Democrat challenging Ernst. Plus, as reported at the beginning of October, Theresa Greenfield out-raised her by about $100,000 in the third quarter of 2019 — a trend that could be worrying if it continues, but isn’t too substantial in the short-term.

Because there haven’t been any major changes in polls or fundraising, the sudden shift in opinion regarding Ernst’s chances of reelection might be, unsurprisingly, from the ongoing impeachment controversy.

That above Grinnell/Selzer poll backs this up; support for the Senate removing Trump from office is at net -2% (42-44), but the House’s impeachment inquiry is a bit more popular, +6% (48-42). At a time when the Iowa Senator is now being accused of not “standing up to Trump,” there’s no clear plan that mitigates backfire: support him and lose voters, or denounce him and lose voters. Whether this will still play a role next November is yet to be seen, but it certainly doesn’t help Ernst today.

So, maybe Ernst’s ties to the president are currently her largest hurdle to a second term in the United States Senate. A harrowing thought, for sure, but one not unique to her — if the aforementioned pieces by Skelley and Allen are correct, the specter of impeachment could put the fate of many more Senate seats into jeopardy.

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