Will she or won’t she? There had been a rumor that Sen. Joni Ernst would be too busy casting votes in Congress, or washing her hair, to accompany Donald Trump on his June trip to Iowa, the one calculated to compete with Joe Biden’s first tour of a state that he and former President Barack Obama won twice, but which Trump won by nearly 10 points in 2016.
Ernst ultimately found the time to join Trump. She introduced him in Council Bluffs, endured an on-stage kiss, and, possibly, ended her career. In normal times, Ernst would be favored to win reelection. She’s the Harley-riding combat veteran known for an ad in which she promised to castrate the forces of evil in Washington the way she castrated pigs at home. In 2014, in a state that sent retiring Democrat Tom Harkin to Washington for 30 years, she won by nine points.
That was political eons ago, when the White House was but a twinkle in Trump’s eyes as he tested the presidential waters trying to prove that Obama had tricked the country into believing he was born here. Ernst didn’t have Trump on the ballot in 2014. Now, she’s running with him in 2020 with many farmers mad as hell. Ernst hovers around a 50-percent approval; Trump’s net approval has fallen 20 points since he took office, according to the latest Morning Consult polls. He gets most of the blame for the loss of two Iowa House seats in the 2018 midterms.
That’s a lot of drag on a first-term senator who like most of her colleagues crumples like a Mylar blanket to stay on Trump’s good side. She won’t outright challenge the president on his “beautiful” tariffs in his “easy to win” trade war which in reality, says Aaron Putze of the Iowa Soybean Association, is causing Iowans a “tsunami of pain” as the “tip of the spear” in Trump’s war. It’s bringing about bankruptcies, land auctions on the courthouse steps, and crippling the economy of entire towns.
The rural vote was crucial to Trump flipping the state. Farmers are used to battling acts of God, like the floods that have hit the Midwest this year, but not coping with a capricious act of man that has cut soybeans prices by 50 percent since 2014, costing Iowa farmers an estimated $2.2 billion, according to Iowa State University, and farmers nationally $10 billion, according to the American Farm Bureau. Farmers stay up nights wrestling with whether to give up on soybeans and plant something else, knowing that the something else could well be targeted later, should the mood strike Trump.
And $15 billion in budget-busting subsidies don’t begin to make up for the catastrophe, monetary and emotional. The Washington Post spent a day with Ray Martinmaas, whose family has farmed since 1888. He lost $700,000 last year and said farmers are “bearing the brunt” of Trump’s folly. “People are starting to say ‘I don’t know how we’re going to survive this.’” Martinmaas voted for Trump and is now open to a Democrat for president in 2020.
Unlike the Manhattan-dwelling Trump who barely knew a “great patriot farmer” before he started campaigning in flyover country, Ernst knows what they’re going through but can’t quite bring herself to question the president’s wisdom. She did join in legislation that merely asks for the Defense Department, with its third (and only acting) secretary, to verify that tariffs imposed on the grounds of national security be confirmed as such.
On her own, Ernst would likely keep her seat. While a reliable vote for Trump on judges, tax cuts, and repealing Obamacare, she has occasionally crossed him, opposing his ban on transgender people in the military and supporting an amendment objecting to his proposed “precipitous withdrawal” of troops from Syria and Afghanistan. She gives out a monthly “Squeal Award” for stupid spending. Democratic women have found her accessible. She collaborated with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on military sexual assault legislation. Her colleagues rallied round her when her records from her divorce after 26 years of marriage became public in February. Her husband accused her of cheating (false, she says; he presented no proof) and she accused him of physical abuse (reported to county officials at the time). After being interviewed by Trump to be his vice president, the file revealed, Ernst withdrew her name, concerned that it would make her ex-husband more embittered. “He hated any successes I had, and would belittle me and get angry any time I achieved a goal.” It’s no wonder she joined with Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.
Her constituents are starting to squeal at her supporting Trump over them. At a gathering outside Des Moines, she listened as a constituent wondered why she didn’t criticize Trump more. According to Politico, she proceeded to defend Sen. John McCain as an American hero, as if that would be enough, and assured the crowd that she breaks “rank with President Trump quite a bit,” just not publicly.
Does it matter if Trump doesn’t hear? Ernst has attracted three Democratic challengers, the strongest being Theresa Greenfield, the frontrunner for a House seat in 2018 until her campaign manager admitted on the eve of the filing deadline that he had forged petition signatures. Greenfield calls herself “a farm kid with farm kid values ready to fight,” talking about the stress her family went through during the farm crisis in the ‘80s and the freak accident that killed her first husband holding down a second job as an electrician. She supported her two kids on Social Security. She’s now remarried with four children and runs a small business.
The party thinks Greenfield is good enough to break with tradition and endorse her over the two other challengers. Iowa is one of five states the national party is targeting to turn the Senate Democratic, and with good reason. Not only did Democrats flip two House seats in the midterms, they very nearly beat Rep. Steve King which would have cemented unanimous control of the four-person delegation. With storage bins groaning with unsold soybeans, Trump and by association Ernst, have no place to go but down.
Ernst may need a bigger animal than a stuck pig, metaphorically and in reality, to overcome Trump’s drag on the ticket. Her bland “Let’s focus on getting the trade deals done” and bragging about what a boon it is to her constituents that Trump takes her calls is no substitute for telling him to stop using her farmers to make a political point. It’s not about getting Trump on the line. The election will be about saving farmers who may well have planted their last row of soybeans because of him.
Margaret Carlson is a columnist for the Daily Beast. She was formerly the first woman columnist at Time magazine, a columnist at Bloomberg View, a weekly panelist on CNN’s "Capital Gang" and managing editor at the New Republic. To read more of her reports — Click Here Now.
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