Joni Ernst Wins in Iowa, Frustrating Democrats’ Push for Senate Majority

DES MOINES — Senator Joni Ernst, Republican of Iowa, won re-election on Tuesday, overcoming a serious and well-financed Democratic challenge and pockets of discontent with President Trump to score a victory that bolstered her party’s efforts to save its Senate majority.

Ms. Ernst, 50, the only woman on Senator Mitch McConnell’s leadership team, defeated Theresa Greenfield, 57, a businesswoman, in one of the most expensive Senate races in American history, according to The Associated Press.

With the future of the Senate hanging in the balance, more than $233 million had poured into the race from around the country — with spending almost evenly split between supporters of the two candidates.

The victory preserved Ms. Ernst’s status as one of the highest-ranking women in Republican politics, poised to help shape the course of the party for at least the next six years.

“She’s now part of Iowa’s politics for the foreseeable future,” said Christopher W. Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. “The first re-election bid is always the toughest. Once a senator gets past that first re-election, it’s really hard to knock them out.”

Ms. Ernst has been a smasher of glass ceilings as the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate and the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress. But she faced an uphill battle for her second term, in a year in which voters even in her conservative-leaning state had soured on Mr. Trump and rallied around the Affordable Care Act — and its protections for pre-existing conditions — which Republicans pushed repeatedly to repeal.

So Ms. Ernst reinvented herself. During her first Senate campaign in 2014, Ms. Ernst ran an ad in which she appeared at a gun range, shooting at a target as a narrator said she would “unload” on Obamacare. This year, she took a softer approach, running an ad featuring her sister, who has diabetes, in which the senator pledged to fight to protect people with pre-existing conditions.

When Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, forced a recent vote attempting to bar the Trump administration from arguing in court to overturn the health care law, Ms. Ernst broke with her party to vote with the Democrats. She also apologized repeatedly for her making a comment in which she embraced a debunked theory questioning the coronavirus death toll.

At times, her struggles mirrored those of other stars of the Republican class of 2014 — including Senators Cory Gardner of Colorado, Steve Daines of Montana, Dan Sullivan of Alaska and David Perdue of Georgia — who were once viewed as the leaders of a promising new generation in the party, but found themselves fighting on Tuesday to keep their seats. (Mr. Gardner lost his seat on Tuesday to John Hickenlooper.)

Ms. Ernst entered the Senate on the strength of a buzzworthy ad in 2014 titled “Make ’Em Squeal,” in which she promised to be just as ruthless in cutting wasteful spending as she had been in castrating pigs on her family farm.

As a member of the Senate, she spoke out powerfully about surviving rape and domestic abuse.

Polls had been tight in the race, with Ms. Ernst and Ms. Greenfield locked in a virtual tie in the final weeks of the campaign — a far cry from 2014, when Ms. Ernst cruised to victory, and 2016, when Mr. Trump carried Iowa by more than nine percentage points.

A survey in the final days of the race by The Des Moines Register showed Ms. Ernst with a four-point lead.

Kelley Koch, a Republican and a health care professional from Dallas County who attended a rally Ivanka Trump held with Ms. Ernst Monday at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, said the in-person rallies in the final weeks of the campaign made a huge difference.

“People were all Covid’ed out, hiding and depressed,” Ms. Koch said. “These freedom rallies have been a huge catalyst.”

While Ms. Ernst had occasionally parted ways with the president — she opposed Mr. Trump’s tariffs, for instance, and supported removing the names of Confederate military leaders from military bases — she typically embraced him.

On the campaign trail, Ms. Ernst promoted her relationship with Mr. Trump as an advantage for Iowans. She said she pushed him to invest in renewable fuel infrastructure in Iowa to increase sales of ethanol and, recently, when Mr. Trump told his administration to back away from negotiations over additional stimulus money for the economy, urged him in a phone call to reconsider.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Iowa’s other senator, Charles E. Grassley, a Republican who was first elected to his seat in 1980, emerged as Ms. Ernst’s biggest cheerleader, stumping for her repeatedly and promoting her speeches on social media.

A member of the Judiciary Committee, she used Mr. Trump’s election-season push to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court to her advantage, calculating that the fight would energize conservatives and drive them to the polls to support her. During the hearings, she praised the nominee’s achievements as a conservative woman who had risen to the top echelons of her field, and argued — in remarks that appeared to be as much about herself as about the judge — that such women were too often dismissed in the political arena.

Still, as polls showed her losing ground with women and independents in the race, Ms. Ernst also worked to allay concerns that Justice Barrett might overturn crucial abortion-rights precedents, pointing out that she had once upheld the legality of a protest buffer zone around an abortion clinic.

“I think the likelihood of Roe v. Wade being overturned is very minimal,” Ms. Ernst said. “I don’t see that happening.”

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