Iowa Dems Hunt for a Candidate to Challenge Ernst

The party is hoping to replicate its 2018 electoral success in 2020, but it won't be easy against a popular incumbent.

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks to aides as she walks into a closed-door meeting with Senate Republicans on Friday.
AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
Jan. 29, 2019, 8 p.m.

Even though Iowa Democrats picked up two House seats and notched some success in their statewide campaigns last year, they have no obvious candidate to challenge Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in 2020.

The biggest issues? Timing and name identification.

“You need to find somebody with a certain amount of celebrity, pizazz,” said one Democratic strategist and lawyer. “[Ernst] is a celebrity.”

Brushing itself off from a series of losses in 2014 and 2016, including seeing Donald Trump carry the state by 9 points, the party certainly found some celebrities in the making last year.

Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne ran aggressive campaigns and unseated two Republican men—both of whom entered Congress with Ernst—to help Democrats take back the House majority, becoming the first women the state elected to the chamber. Deidre DeJear, the Democratic Party’s choice for secretary of state, didn’t win in November, but she worked her way from political unknown to being the first black nominee for statewide elected office over a more seasoned opponent. And Rob Sand won the race for state auditor on the back of an explosive fundraising campaign that broke the million-dollar mark.

But despite the excitement surrounding their names, none are likely to launch a Senate bid. At least not this cycle, said Polk County Democratic Party Chairman Sean Bagniewski.

“People wonder why there would be more interest in running against Senator Chuck Grassley in a few years than running against Senator Ernst next year,” he said. “But in Iowa, people know they have to find their time.”

DeJear, whom presidential contender Kamala Harris recently named her state campaign manager, is not planning on running, Bagniewski said. Rob Hogg, a state senator who failed to win his party’s nomination to challenge Grassley in 2016, is also out.

As for Sand, it’s possible as a former assistant attorney general he may wait to try for the state attorney-general position, held by 74-year-old Democrat Tom Miller, said Linn County Democratic Party Chairman Bret Nilles. Bagniewski agreed.

“He ran an aggressive statewide campaign, but he’s fairly new on a statewide level,” he said.

Instead, Bagniewski said Sand might sit out a bid in 2020 and opt to run in 2022 for the seat held by Grassley, who has not decided whether he will bid for an eighth term. The same goes for Finkenauer, he said.

Axne appears unlikely to be exploring a bid, either. But two of her primary opponents may be.

Theresa Greenfield, who ran a short-lived bid for the Democratic nomination in Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District last year, is the leader at this point, Bagniewski said. A woman with a rural and union background, in addition to being a tech-savvy fundraiser, Greenfield embodies a lot of the trends that saw the party succeed last year, he said.

Although she failed to make the primary ballot last year due to petition fraud by her campaign manager, Greenfield’s campaign gathered a number of notable endorsements and made her a candidate that Democratic operatives are excited to watch.

“Is [Ernst] beatable? Sure, everybody is beatable in a certain year, especially in the environment we’re all living in,” the Democratic strategist said. “I think Greenfield could do it.”

Greenfield is strongly considering a bid against Ernst, and while she’s not made a final decision, she hopes to do so by the end of the quarter, said one person familiar with her thinking.

Another 3rd District candidate, Eddie Mauro, has also put out feelers about a run, according to Bagniewski.

Meanwhile, two potential contenders have so far refused to clarify whether they’re considering launching a campaign—choosing to neither confirm nor deny any speculation. Former Gov. Tom Vilsack has maintained a strong presence in the state and has set up residence as a go-to elder statesman. At the end of last year, Vilsack said his sole focus is on preparing the party for the upcoming presidential caucuses, but he hasn’t publicly ruled out a Senate bid.

Former congressional candidate J.D. Scholten, whose campaign against controversial conservative fixture Steve King built up surprising energy, also has not closed the door on a rematch with King or a new battle with Ernst.

Last week, Scholten gathered reporters at the state Capitol for what many thought was a campaign launch. Instead, he unveiled Working Hero Iowa, a nonprofit helping low-income workers in the state. He plans to hold events through Working Hero Iowa across the state, which could come in handy for building a statewide network ahead of a campaign.

One thing that Democratic operatives and party officials agreed on is the need for a competitive and crowded primary.

“We need a lot of candidates, and we’ve had too many cycles where we haven’t had much competition for statewide office,” said Rob Barron, cofounder of the Latino Political Network in Iowa. “It’s not done the party any good.”

The party is still struggling to rebuild its bench in the state legislature—the Democratic strategist and lawyer pointed to state Sen. Nate Boulton, whose rising profile collapsed following sexual-misconduct allegations—and there are few candidates who are ready, at least for now.

But both Bagniewski and Nilles emphasized that Iowans are politically savvy, and they want to meet candidates and decide for themselves. A winning candidate is one who can bring the party’s message directly to the voters, especially in areas where the party’s been absent in the past, they said.

“There’s going to be so much activity going on over the next 12 months with the caucuses. What we need is a candidate who is not going to take the next 12 months off, or fly under the radar, but really use that as an opportunity to get engaged and think outside the box,” Barron said.

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