DES MOINES, Iowa – Democrat Theresa Greenfield leads Republican incumbent Joni Ernst by 3 percentage points in Iowa’s hotly contested U.S. Senate race, a new Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll shows.

According to the poll, 46% of likely voters say they would back Greenfield if the election were held today, and 43% say they would back Ernst.

“This is definitely a competitive race,” said J. Ann Selzer, president of Selzer & Co., which conducted the poll. She said the poll contains other “warning signs” for Ernst and noted that this is the first Iowa Poll conducted since Ernst first ran in 2014 in which she has trailed her general election opponent.

“Symbolically, that’s certainly meaningful, even if Theresa Greenfield’s lead is not commanding,” Selzer said.

The poll, which was conducted June 7-10, has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points for questions asked of the 674 likely voters in the 2020 general election and plus or minus 3.5 percentage points for those asked of 801 Iowans.

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Republicans, Democrats already spending millions

The results come at the start of a general election cycle likely to be shaped by social and economic turmoil wrought by a global pandemic, nationwide protests around racial justice and a volatile incumbent president seeking reelection.

Both parties have already invested heavily in Iowa, underscoring its political importance as Republicans seek to defend their narrow 53-47 seat majority in the U.S. Senate.

Democrats have charted a path to the majority that includes taking on vulnerable incumbents in Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina. As Democrats work to defend their own endangered incumbent in Alabama, they’re hoping to expand their opportunities by investing heavily in Iowa, where they see Ernst as beatable.

The senator’s job approval rating among all Iowans began to drop earlier this year, according to Register polling, falling to 47% in March from 57% a year before. This poll shows that rating has changed little, now at 49%. Another 39% say they disapprove of the job she is doing, and 13% are unsure.

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Ronda Hennings, a 61-year-old Bonaparte resident and poll respondent, said she didn’t vote for Ernst but had high hopes for her when she took office.

“I wanted her to get out there and really talk about the people that put her in office,” Hennings said. “And all I can see from her she’s a yes player. She just goes along with whatever the party says, and she puts her votes in, and she says, ‘Yes.’”

Hennings, who is disabled and benefits from Social Security payments, said she appreciates that Greenfield talks about the importance of that program in her advertising. Greenfield’s first husband died in a workplace accident, leaving her a single mother who relied on Social Security benefits to get by.

“I know that she’s gone through the system and knows how it works,” Hennings said. “And a lot of people don’t.”

Greenfield is viewed favorably by 41% of Iowans and unfavorably by 20%. Although she is substantially better known today than she was in March, a large group remains – 39% – who say they don’t know enough about Greenfield to form an opinion.

Forty-five percent of Iowans have a favorable view of Ernst, and 40% say they have an unfavorable view. Those numbers have dipped during the past year. In February 2019, 56% said they had a favorable view of Ernst and 29% had an unfavorable view.

Ernst appeals to the ‘heart’ of Iowa’s GOP base

Ernst does well with many of the demographic groups that also backed Republican President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

She earns 67% of the evangelical vote, compared with 22% for Greenfield. Fifty-six percent of likely voters living in rural parts of the state back her over Greenfield, who earns 32%. And men are more likely to favor Ernst – 53% of men support her, compared with 37% for Greenfield. And white men without a college degree back her 59% to 30%.

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“That’s the heart of the Republican base in Iowa,” Selzer said.

Ernst has occasionally distanced herself from some of Trump’s more controversial comments, including his call to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. And she called it racist when the president issued tweets calling on four Democratic congresswomen of color to “go back” to the countries they came from.

Still, Ernst has defended the president on numerous occasions, including during his impeachment hearings, and she frequently attends events with him and touts his praise of her.

On Thursday, the president tweeted his support for Ernst, saying “Few people have ever fought as strongly for Iowa” as she has.

Few people have ever fought as strongly for Iowa as Senator @JoniErnst! A combat Veteran, her service to Iowa and our Country is remarkable! Joni is Strong on Crime, our Military, Vets, Low Taxes and will protect your #2A at all times…

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 11, 2020

Trump carried Iowa by 9 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016, but Democrats made gains in 2018 by flipping two congressional seats.

Darwin Vice, a 59-year old Libertyville resident and poll respondent, said he plans to vote for both Ernst and the president in the fall. He’s particularly concerned about rising health care costs associated with the Affordable Care Act and the influence of money and corporations on politicians.

“I just want them to do what they say they’re going to do,” Vice said of elected leaders. “I’m tired of all these years of being lied to.”

He said he couldn’t see himself voting for a Democrat, because he hasn’t seen them condemn the violence associated with protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Floyd, a Black man, died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

Women supportive of Greenfield

Greenfield leads 71% to 19% among likely voters who do not have a religious affiliation and 55% to 34% with those who live in cities. She earns a plurality or majority of the vote in every congressional district except the 4th, which is the most Republican-leaning in the state.

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Women choose Greenfield by 20 percentage points, 54% to 34%. White women without a college degree choose Greenfield by an even larger margin: 60% to 29%.

Selzer said the gender gap for each candidate is striking.

“More women typically vote in elections than men,” she said. “And so if there is this kind of gap, this kind of lead with the majority of voters, it’s very difficult to overcome that. Except that recently the division is strong on both sides.”

While Ernst leads 47% to 41% among those ages 35 to 54, Greenfield leads with those younger than 35 (46% to 40%) and those 65 and older (50% to 42%).

Each candidate is firmly backed by members of her own party. Ninety-five percent of Democrats say they will vote for Greenfield, and 90% of Republicans say they will vote for Ernst.

But independents are more likely to back Greenfield, with 42% saying they would support her and 38% saying they would support Ernst.

Terry Dvorak, a 49-year old Norwalk resident and independent, said he voted for Ernst in 2014. He said he remembers her advertising that she would “make ‘em squeal” in Washington, D.C., by cutting government waste, but he said he’s been dissatisfied with her performance.

“It seems she’s playing to the political lobbies of big corporations instead of the everyday Iowan,” he said. “I think she has slipped right into the corrupt Washington base. I mean, the whole administration is that way. She fits in with Trump, which I don’t like either. That whole crowd is getting worse and worse to me.”


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