1 of the GOP’s brightest female stars is dogged by Trump in 2020






Sen. Joni Ernst

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst will be seeking reelection in a state where Democrats made gains in the 2018 midterms. | Joshua Lott/Getty Images

2020 Elections

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will have to outrun the president, whose trade war has damaged his standing in the state.

ADEL, Iowa —Joni Ernst had barely kicked off a town hall one morning here recentlywhen the barrage of complaints about Donald Trump began.

One after one, constituents took to the microphone to grill the first term Republican senator about the president — his attacks on John McCain, his emergency declaration at the border and why, in the opinion of several voters, Ernst hasn’t stood up to him more often.

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“Other senators are speaking up criticizing Trump and defending McCain, but I have yet to hear one word from you,” one man implored her. “Is there no line Trump can cross that would cause you to break ranks with him?”

Ernst kept her cool as she answered the 30 people who trekked to a high school auditorium on the outskirts of Des Moines to hear her. But she was emphatic in response: “Oh, I break ranks with President Trump quite a bit.” After defending McCain, she said: “So right there — there you have it.”

Ernst better get used to it. At the same time she’s gearing for reelection, Democratic presidential candidates will be camped out in Iowa hammering Trump at every turn. The heightened attention on the president will test the political agility of Ernst, who has generally earned high marks in the state but is having to answer for Trump — whose poll numbers lag behind hers — and some of his unpopular policies.

Ernst was elected to the Senate in 2014 under much different circumstances. The 48-year-old combat veteran ran as an independent-minded Republican who would slash federal spending and combat Democratic overreach. But next year she’ll be on the ballot with Trump, whose tariffs have hurt the state’s agriculture industry and whose tax cut — backed by Ernst — has ballooned, not reined in, the deficit.

Ernst, known in the Senate for her easy-going demeanor and willingness to work with Democrats, is favored to hang on. Her race is a top priority for Senate Republicans, not just because they’re clinging to a narrow majority heading into 2020 but because Ernst is one of the few women in their ranks — and one of their most promising prospects of either gender. In November, she was the first Republican woman elected to Senate GOP leadership in eight years, and she’s one of two Republican women on the Senate’s powerful Judiciary Committee, which until this year had no GOP women.

But her reelection in the conservative-leaning state, which Trump carried easily in 2016, is not a foregone conclusion. Democrats flipped two GOP-held seats in Iowa last year, and Trump’s approval ratings have sunk as his trade wars have stretched on. Barack Obama won the state twice and Ernst’s predecessor, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, represented the state for three decades.

“There’s only two ways to run — one is unopposed and the other is scared, so she’s got to be prepared and I think she will be,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). Iowa, he added, “is not a ruby-red state.”

Ernst projects a warm and down-to-earth demeanor: When confronted by voters, she’s calm and allows them to finish their thoughts. She responds by explaining her perspective, and refers to voters by their first name, as if she were talking to a friend.

During her first term she’s focused on issues affecting veterans and women, pairing with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) on a bill to require sexual assault prevention training for new members of the military, and teaming with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) on reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act. She’s also known in the Senate for her monthly “Squeal Award,” which seeks to call out wasteful federal spending.

“I like Joni, I like working with her,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) ), one of the most progressive members of the Democratic party who sits on the Armed Services Committee with Ernst.We do have our differences, [but] I think she’s thoughtful and she’s focused on the things that she cares about.”

Ernst’s poll numbers in Iowa have fluctuated but appear strong now. In February, she had a 57 percent approval rating,according to a Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll, an increase over her 47 percent approval rating in September. Her approval rating has hovered around 50 percent the past two years, according to that poll.

Trump, on the other hand, has seen his net approval rating plummet by 20 points in Iowa since he took office, according to Morning Consult. The February poll from the Des Moines Register found that 50 percent of Iowa voters disapproved of Trump, while 46 percent approved.

Ernst has been a reliable vote for most of Trump’s agenda. She’s backed his judicial and executive branch nominees, the GOP tax cut plan and a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. More recently, she sided with the president on his national emergency declaration to build a border wall, even as a dozen other Republicans opposed the move.

Ernst has broken with Trump on some issues, though. She opposed the administration’s ban on transgender people serving in the military and criticized his trade policies and the effect they’re having on farmers. She also supported an amendment this year opposing Trump’s proposed “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

Former Democratic Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, who said recently he wouldn’t run against Ernst, thinks Democrats should make the race a referendum on whether Ernst delivered on her promise to shake up Washington.

“She has essentially been an enabler of many of the Trump policies that aren’t particularly good for Iowa,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Democrat Rob Sand, who was recently elected state auditor and is seen as a potential challenger to Ernst, said her allegiance to the party line is her biggest vulnerability.

“She sold herself as this Harley-wearing, gun-shooting, pig-castrating person who really would stand up and be tough and she hasn’t been tough,” Sand said, referring to Ernst’sviral 2014 adboasting about her history castrating pigs as a metaphor for how she’d cut government waste. “She’s just taking orders from Mitch McConnell.”

Trump’s trade war with China is a huge issue in Iowa. The tariffs have slammed the state’s soybean industry, a big part of Iowa’s economy. Iowa State University last year projected the tariffs could cost the state’s farmers up to $2.2 billion in revenue.

Ernst points to trade as an area where she’s disagreed with Trump. She was among a group of senators who co-sponsored legislation in February that would require the Defense Department to justify tariffs issued on a national security basis.

“What he’s doing with the tariffs has been really hard on our agricultural industry and so I’m continually pushing on the administration — let’s focus on getting the trade deals done, let’s move let’s move we want a good deal but let’s move,” she said, adding that her good relationship with Trump is a boon to the state. “I mean, he will take my calls.”

Ernst attributed Trump’s sagging popularity in the state partly to his trade war. While she’s confident the president will carry Iowa again, she warned it’s going to be a lot harder if if Trump doesn’t strike trade deals to break the current impasse with China.

J.B. Poersch, president of the Democratic Senate Majority PAC, said the rising trade deficit could also drag down Ernst. The United States had a record trade deficit with China in 2018. Those numbers improved slightly in January, with China agreeing to increase its purchase of soybeans as part of trade negotiations.

“The budget debts, the trade deficit — they’re all remarkably high and have worsened in a Republican administration clearly at a time when Republicans were running everything,” Poersch said. “That’s what she considered her key strategic issue.”

Ernst’s race in a battleground state comes at a time when her party badly needs her.

Republicans have struggled mightily with recruitment of female candidates and appealing to female voters. The problem came to a head during the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, when a group of Republican white men on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled Christine Blasey Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual assault when they were in high school. He denied the allegation.

“It’s pretty obvious on some of the biggest fights that we had people who look like me and not enough people look like her,” Cornyn, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

Fellow Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said Ernst is “solving our problems by being a good Republican senator and encouraging other women to run as a role model.”

Ernst emphasized in 2014 that she wasn’t “running on my gender.” But she did manage to become the first woman elected to federal office from Iowa. Since then, Iowa elected its first female House Speaker, Linda Upmeyer, and first female governor, Kim Reynolds.

“I think it really undercuts Democratic rhetoric that somehow there is a war on women,” said Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Iowa Republican party. ‘If there is a war here in this state, we have women as our generals.”

Ernst has also gotten more personal about her own experience with sexual assault, amid a public divorce.

“It’s been very hard, I would say, sharing my own story,” she said. “It was important for me to acknowledge and hopefully be able to inspire other men and women because it’s not just women, there are men that are going through this as well.”

Ernst says that her party can attract more suburban women voters by paying attention to issues that affect them, like the cost of pharmaceuticals.

Upmeyer, Iowa’s first female House speaker, credits Ernst with being a role model for other female politicians in Iowa.

“Whether it’s a violence, or a divorce, or even the struggle of climbing the ladder and having the opportunity be a U.S. senator,” she said, women “can relate to that.”

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