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Democrats look to unseat Joni Ernst in 2020 Senate race

December 20, 2018

DES MOINES, Iowa | Iowa Democrats think they can oust Republican Sen. Joni Ernst in 2020. But first, they’ll have to find a candidate who can build a credible campaign.

Mrs. Ernst won her first term in 2014 amid a GOP wave, but she faces a different environment heading into her re-election campaign.

Democrats netted two of the state’s U.S. House seats in last month’s midterm elections, and they figure Mrs. Ernst is among the weaker freshmen up for re-election in 2020.

Democratic insiders say the party is waiting to see whether former Gov. Tom Vilsak, who later served in the Obama administration as agriculture secretary, will take the plunge.

He has downplayed the chatter.

“I don’t know what that talk is about,” he said Wednesday after participating in a panel discussion about public investment on infrastructure and education. “It is not me talking about it.”

Pressed on whether he has closed the door on running, Mr. Vilsak told The Washington Times that “the door is not opened, closed, shut or I don’t even know where the door is.”

Behind the scenes, though, he has told donors he will not run, according to party insiders.

Successful recruitment was key to the Democrats’ victories this year, particularly in the House, where a crop of good candidates with strong fundraising skills made it relatively easy to regain control of the chamber.

Should Mr. Vilsack take a pass in Iowa, the party will have to look at a crew of candidates who are far less battle-tested, said Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University.

Some names being floated include J.D. Scholten, who nearly unseated GOP Rep. Steve King last month and is likely to challenge him again; Deidre DeJear, the runner-up in the secretary of state’s race; and former congressional candidate Theresa Greenfield.

“As is the case with the rest of the country, the Democrats have a thin bench because the up-and-comers lost in 2010 and 2014,” Mr. Goldford said. “The Democrats don’t have anyone with statewide name ID already.”

Iowa Democrats and their allies say Mrs. Ernst is proof someone can emerge quickly.

She was a state senator and former member of the Iowa Army National Guard when she emerged from a crowded primary in 2014, then won a seat left vacant by longtime Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin’s retirement.

“The visibility thing I am not so much worried about that,” said Ken Sagar, president of the Iowa AFL-CIO labor federation. “When you think about when Ernst got elected, she didn’t have any statewide name recognition.”

One issue activists plan to use against Mrs. Ernst is her opposition to Obamacare. Democrats deployed that issue successfully against a number of Republicans in the midterm elections.

“If the 2020 election is about health care, Joni Ernst’s days in the Senate are numbered,” said Matt Sinovic, head of Progress Iowa.

Mrs. Ernst, meanwhile, is projecting confidence, welcoming a re-election fight and battle over the future of Obamacare.

“Bring it on,” she told The Washington Times this week. She said the Affordable Care Act has priced many of her constituents out of being able to afford health care.

Though Mrs. Ernst has gained a post on the Senate GOP’s leadership team, Democrats say she’s still ripe for a challenge.

“The most likely time to replace an incumbent is their first re-election,” said Heather Matson, who won a seat in the Iowa House this fall. “So I think Democrats are also going to feel emboldened for that reason, or will be feeling if there is a chance to replace Joni Ernst in the Senate this is our best chance to do it.”

Troy Price, chairman of the Iowa Democrats, said having Mr. Trump overshadow the 2020 Senate race also will help an Ernst challenger.

“She’s already said that she is going to stand shoulder to shoulder with the president and we have seen here for a long time the president’s approval rating in the state is underwater,” Mr. Price said. “Republicans have been a very good opposition party, but we have seen over the last few years they are not a very good governing party.”

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