The trendlines looked bad. The Chicago Tribune observed, “Iowa, the epicenter of the Republicans’ 2014 and 2016 surge, is not an obvious place for a Democratic comeback.” As the 2020 competition began to take shape a year ago, every major suggested Trump would beat a Democratic ticket led by Joe Biden. Many of the same polls had Republican Senator Joni Ernst headed for an easy win. Ernst looked so strong that the state’s best-known Democrats took a pass on the Senate race
Yet, with the November 3 election less than two weeks away, the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls have Biden at 47.5 percent to 46.3 percent for Trump, and Democrat Theresa Greenfield at 47.4 percent to 42.5 percent for Ernst.
The numbers have made Trump, Ernst, and their strategists desperate. Fresh from his Covid quarantine, the president swept into Des Moines last week for a rally that a billboard erected by the group Iowa Rural America 2020 identified as the trump covid superspreader event. Trump fondly recalled winning Iowa in 2016—while inflating his victory margin—and pleaded with voters to stick with him. “Get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors, get your workers and coworkers, and get the hell out to vote because if I don’t get Iowa I won’t believe that one,” shouted the president. His desperation was echoed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, who like the president has been accused of mismanaging the coronavirus pandemic. “Don’t believe the polls,” Reynolds an aging crowd of mostly unmasked Iowans. “Don’t believe what the media is telling you.”
Believe it. Iowa might well back Biden and send a Democrat to the Senate. The epicenter of the Republican surge of 2016 could become the epicenter of a Democratic comeback. It’s true that Iowa is a small state in terms of population, with just six electoral votes. Yet it looms large in the thinking of Biden strategists. If the former vice president wins Iowa, it is hard to imagine that he doesn’t win the neighboring battleground states of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which are essential to Trump’s reelection strategy—and where polls now have the Republican trailing, as do polls from the equally essential states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.
“Usually, in the states that are battlegrounds, when they flip they flip for the same reasons,” says Pete D’Alessandro, a veteran Iowa campaign strategist for candidates such as Bill Bradley and Bernie Sanders, who is currently working with the national group Our Revolution. “If you can flip voters in Iowa, if you’re able to win them here, you win them in those other states.”
An Iowa win for Biden would put the Democrat on the offensive. If he swings Iowa and another state Trump swept in 2016, Ohio, Biden’s Electoral College options open up. Even if he were to stumble in a state such as Pennsylvania or Florida, the Democrat would still have the electoral votes to prevail. And if he wins the Midwestern battleground states as well as Pennsylvania and Florida, Biden could be headed toward a major victory.
But simply winning the White House in 2020 is insufficient for Biden. He needs a Congress he can work with. That’s why the Iowa Senate race is such a big deal. Democrats have to gain four seats to secure a clear majority in the chamber. In three states with vulnerable Republican incumbents—Arizona, Colorado, and Maine—polls have Democratic challengers leading. Iowa is now one of several states that could add a fourth Democratic senator. Greenfield, who is relatively new to electoral politics but has shown a knack for connecting with urban and rural voters, is not engaging in hyperbole when she tells supporters, “I never imagined that someone like me, a scrappy farm kid, could come this close to unseating a corporate PAC-backed GOP incumbent—but we have, together.”
Ernst, who blew a question about soybean prices in a recent debate, is pouring money into negative ads in a fierce fight to save her seat. But D’Alessandro, who monitors Senate races nationwide, says, “If Theresa Greenfield wins Iowa, that means a lot of people looked at things this year and decided we need to make a change—not just at the presidential level but in the Senate. If it happens here, it likely to happens in other states where Senate seats are in play.”
So what’s going on in Iowa? The truth is that the state was always more competitive than it seemed. Iowa began to reject Trump and the Republicans in 2018, when Democrats picked up two House seats. This year, Biden hired good people in Iowa and invested resources early. That commitment has boosted Democratic numbers in the suburbs of Des Moines. There’s also a growing sense that Biden’s making up ground in rural counties. In part, that’s because voters who took a chance on Trump felt burned by the Republican’s cavalier embrace of trade wars that did real harm to farmers and by a growing recognition that the reality-TV-star president could care less about rural America. “When President Obama came to Iowa when the state experienced flooding years ago, he’d join me while meeting with farmers in their cornfields,” explains former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s secretary of agriculture. “When Pence and Trump came to the state, they didn’t go to any of the state’s farms. Instead, they treated Iowa as if it was just a photo-op.”
Biden’s campaign targets rural areas with advertising and mobilization efforts in Iowa and other Midwest states, and it seems to be working. “I don’t think Biden is going to win a majority of the rural vote, but he’s closing the gap,” says Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and author of Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again In Rural America.
But there is more to it than that. Covid-19 has become a major issue for rural America. The virus is surging in Iowa, as it is in other Midwest states. “The nation’s pandemic hotspots have shifted to rural communities, overwhelming small hospitals that are running out of beds or lack the intensive care units for more than one or two seriously ill patients,” notes the Pew Charitable Trust. “And in much of the Midwest and Great Plains, hospital workers are catching the virus at home and in their communities, seriously reducing already slim benches of doctors, nurses and other professionals needed to keep rural hospitals running.” KCCI-TV in Des Moines reported Tuesday, “More Iowans are now hospitalized with coronavirus than at any point of the pandemic.” Iowa on Tuesday reported 727 new Covid-19 cases and 14 additional deaths.” That brought the total number of positive cases for the state to 108,297 total positive cases, the total number of deaths to 1,548.
Trump has misjudged everything about Covid-19, practically and politically. That desperate rally he held in Des Moines last week, where he tried to pack in as many supporters as possible for another Iowa photo-op, sent exactly the wrong signal at exactly the wrong time in exactly the wrong place.