Against the Grain

Republicans Should Be Worried About Iowa

President Trump won the battleground state by 9 points in 2016. It’s swinging back to the Democrats, putting a popular freshman senator at risk in 2020.

Sen. Joni Ernst
AP Photo/Cliff Owen
Jan. 8, 2019, 8 p.m.

Iowa’s famed caucuses will be the launching pad for the 2020 Democratic nomination process. But more consequentially, the state will be a test of whether President Trump can hold together his tenuous coalition from 2016—and could offer an early warning that everything is falling apart for the embattled administration.

The Midwestern state has swerved from supporting President Obama’s reelection to backing Trump by nearly double-digits back to being a hotbed of Democratic support in last year’s congressional elections. If there’s a home base for those fickle Obama-Trump voters, Iowa is ground zero.

There are plenty of signs that Iowa voters have grown tired of Trump. Two of the state’s four House seats fell to Democrats last year—and even Rep. Steve King faced the scare of his political career in his typically safe rural northwestern district. Trump’s job approval in the state fell to 43 percent in a new Morning Consult state-by-state tracking poll, behind that of more Democratic-friendly states like Maine, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire.

The state’s gold-standard Des Moines Register poll found Trump’s favorability rating among Republicans dipped last month to 77 percent, a small but significant erosion that foreshadows trouble with his own base. And just 67 percent of Iowa Republicans said they’d definitely be willing to reelect Trump, another red flag for his reelection campaign.

You don’t have to rely on polling to understand why Trump is losing support in the American heartland. Farmers have taken a major hit from the president’s trade wars, with one recent study from Iowa State University showing the state’s agriculture industry losing $2.2 billion as a consequence. Nearly one-quarter of Trump’s GOP base (22 percent) opposes the tariffs, according to the Des Moines Register poll, one of the largest sources of intraparty disagreement. Expecting some sort of grand bargain with China to emerge from all of Trump’s protectionist rhetoric, most farmers have been willing to cut the president some slack. But if he can’t deliver results heading into 2020, the goodwill may dissipate and the president will face more political pain.

Immigration is another issue that holds political potency in the state, often in unpredictable ways. Iowa’s economy depends on immigrant workers—many of them undocumented—to fill the state’s sizable agricultural sector. With unemployment low, farms and manufacturing plants often rely on low-skilled immigrant laborers to function effectively.

At the same time, the cultural shift that comes from an influx of largely Hispanic employees is often disorienting for voters in such a racially homogeneous state. During the midterms, Trump frequently invoked the murder of Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts, who was killed by a suspected illegal immigrant, to rally support for his restrictionist policies. King, the last remaining Republican in the House delegation, has built a national profile among immigration hard-liners over his uncompromising posture against immigration—legal or illegal. In Iowa, these cultural anxieties have often trumped the economic concerns of voters.

To that end, Republicans believe immigration played a key role in Kim Reynolds’ narrow victory in the governor’s race last year. Reynolds, who criticized the country’s broken immigration system as part of her campaign message, defeated Democratic businessman Fred Hubbell by 3 points, beating back the national Democratic wave. Still, Democrats won three of the six statewide offices on the ballot in 2018, underscoring Iowa’s competitiveness in the upcoming election.

The state politician facing the most pressure heading into the 2020 election is freshman Sen. Joni Ernst, up for reelection next year. Over-reading the 2016 statewide results, many analysts assume she’s in rock-solid shape for a second term. (The Cook Political Report rates her seat as “solid Republican”; Inside Elections rates the seat as “likely Republican” and safer than five other GOP-held Senate seats.)

Count me skeptical. If Trump struggles to turn around his political fortunes, Ernst will be among the first Senate Republicans to suffer the consequences. Unlike nearby Midwestern states like Missouri and Indiana, where the electorate has steadily gotten more conservative, Iowa is still a perennial swing state that has a storied populist history. Trump delivered ample rhetoric to win over these blue-collar Iowa voters in 2016, but they’re not sold on the results.

Trump needs to win Iowa to have any chance at reelection. The Hawkeye State was something of a Trumpian stronghold in 2016, giving the president a bigger margin of victory than he received in Texas. If Democrats capture Iowa’s six electoral votes, they would be looking at the prospect of a presidential landslide.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the first leading Democratic presidential candidate to announce her intentions, barnstormed throughout the state last weekend to large crowds, even in rural areas. It’s a sign that the Democratic base remains energized and offers a reminder that the populist rhetoric that brought Trump to the White House is threatening to turn against him ahead of the 2020 election.

For more from Josh Kraushaar, subscribe to the “Against the Grain” podcast on iTunes or Stitcher.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Democrats won three, not four, of the six statewide offices on the Iowa ballot in 2018

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