Senate 2020: Iowa Farmers Are Feeling the Effects of Climate Change. That Could Make Things Harder for Joni Ernst

Erratic, destructive weather, the GOP senator says, has nothing to do with human-driven warming. Her opponent, Theresa Greenfield, says the science can’t be denied.

Democrat Theresa Greenfield (left) is running against Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to represent Iowa in the Senate. Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call; Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Democrat Theresa Greenfield (left) is running against Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) to represent Iowa in the Senate. Credit: Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call; Greg Nash/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

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This story is part of a series focusing on the climate records of candidates in key Senate races in November’s elections.

At a Glance:

  • Joni Ernst was a rising GOP star who got her start with backing from the Koch brothers, but her support for Trump and continued denial of climate science might alienate the state’s key independent voters.

  • Theresa Greenfield, whose campaign centerpiece is Social Security, has attacked her opponent for her record on biofuels and taking money from the oil industry. The political newcomer has said climate change is a major challenge for the state.

  •  The state has been battered by Covid-19, Trump’s trade war with China and an onslaught of climate-fueled disasters, but it’s too soon to say if the climate issue sways voters.


Ernst v. Greenfield

In a now near-famous 2014 television ad, Republican upstart Joni Ernst boasted that she grew up castrating hogs on her family’s farm and vowed to “make ‘em squeal” in Washington if elected to the Senate.

The ad, along with backing from the Koch brothers, helped propel Ernst ahead of four Republican opponents and into Iowa’s history books. She became the first woman the state sent to Congress and a rising GOP star.

Now, one term in, Ernst’s Democratic opponent says “nobody’s squealing but Iowans”—and Ernst could be in trouble.

In polling from June, Ernst trailed Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive from West Des Moines who has never held elected office, by 3 points. Greenfield has the support of the national Democratic party, which has increasingly focused on the race for charting a way back to a Senate majority. The duel could end up being one of the more costly Senate races.


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Both candidates grew up on farms. Both back the policies that undergird the state’s economically and politically vital corn and soybean industries. Both support the state’s growing renewable energy economy.

But in the six years since Ernst was elected, the landscape in Iowa has changed. The Covid-19 pandemic shut down slaughterhouses. The already slumping farm economy has been badly bruised by President Donald Trump’s ongoing trade war with China.

And the weather.  

The state has been battered by a succession of droughts, floods and heatwaves in recent years. Then in August, a freakish series of hurricane-force “derecho” storms swept across the central part of the state, decimating 10 million acres of crops, or about 40 percent of the state’s output.

The state’s farmers—largely conservative and resistant to the science of climate change—have had to accept that something is, indeed, happening.

Ernst, who has repeatedly said she doesn’t believe that human-caused emissions are fueling a warming atmosphere, does not connect that erratic, destructive weather to climate change.  

Greenfield believes climate change is the driving force behind recent flooding, and says, “We can’t afford to have Senators who question and deny the science,” according to her campaign website.

Climate change has not been front-and-center in the race so far, but the candidates have battled over related issues, with Greenfield accusing Ernst of capitulating to oil interests at the expense of Iowa’s all-important biofuels industry.

“Greenfield has consistently called out Ernst and others in the Senate for taking money from the oil industry and even voting to put a coal lobbyist in charge of the EPA,” said Craig Auster, senior director of political affairs for the League of Conservation Voters, which backed Greenfield’s campaign. 

‘Climate Always Changes’

At the Republican National Convention in August, Ernst talked about historic flooding and the devastating derecho storms that recently struck the state. She thanked Trump for issuing an emergency declaration.

But there or elsewhere, she has not embraced the facts of human-caused climate change. After the latest National Climate Assessment was released in 2018, Ernst told CNN our “climate always changes and we see those ebb and flows through time.”

Ernst has a 1 percent lifetime score on the National Environmental Scorecard record from the League of Conservation Voters; she has supported and celebrated the rollback of a major Obama-era water pollution rule,  and she has called the Green New Deal “socialist fantasy.”  Ernst told the Omaha World Herald that she supported Trump’s decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement, saying it would “subject Americans to stringent regulations that put our country—including American families and businesses—at an economic disadvantage.”  

Her job approval rating among voters in the state has declined recently, possibly because of her alliance with Trump, whose approval numbers have also been sliding in Iowa, despite a resounding win in 2016.

Another hurdle for voters may be Ernst’s relationship with Big Oil, which has been a significant donor, with big-name backers, including the Koch brothers.

Like Trump, Ernst has had to tread a thin line between two major constituencies: the oil and biofuels industries.  

Under the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS), oil refiners are required to blend a certain amount of ethanol into fuels—unless they can prove that doing so will present a financial hardship, in which case they can appeal to the Environmental Protection Agency for a waiver. The Trump EPA has issued a record number of these waivers, angering the biofuels industry, which stands to lose billions in revenue. 

Despite that, Iowa’s farmers (and farmers in general) celebrated earlier this year when Trump signed a trade deal with China. Ernst was on hand at the signing.

“I’m proud to work with President Trump to deliver real results for Iowa’s farmers and manufacturers,” Ernst said at the time. 

Like her challenger, Ernst has farm kid bonafides and is a late-comer to politics. She retired from the Iowa Army National Guard in 2015, as a lieutenant colonel, after 23 years in the Army Reserves and National Guard.

According to the Des Moines Register Ernst drove supply convoys from Kuwait into Iraq during the Iraq War, conducting 402 missions. Her military record, analysts said, was key to distinguishing Ernst from her rivals. 

She is the first female combat veteran elected to serve in the Senate.  

Putting Milk in the Refrigerator

Greenfield has the kind of back story that political strategists love.

Her family lost their farm during the farm crisis of the 1980s, but Greenfield managed to put herself through college working at Pizza Hut. At 24, with a baby and another on the way, she lost her husband, an electrician, who was killed in a worksite accident. 

With the help of Social Security benefits, she raised her children and carved out a career in real estate, becoming president of a prominent Des Moines real estate company. She frequently says the program helped her “put milk in the refrigerator,” raise her sons and go back to school.  Now saving Social Security is the centerpiece of her campaign.

“I don’t want Joni Ernst to gut it,” Greenfield told the Daily Beast

Greenfield has gone after Ernst for accepting campaign contributions from the oil industry and for her vote to confirm Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA even as he promised to continue granting the RFS waivers.

“Why is it that the EPA and Washington keep signing RFS waivers left and right, making it harder for our Iowa farmers to get by?” she asks in a recent ad. “One reason: Joni Ernst took corporate PAC donations from Big Oil and voted for one of their guys to run the EPA.”

“I don’t take corporate PAC donations,” Greenfield adds.

The Money Race: Iowa

The race is Greenfield’s second attempt at political office. In 2018, she withdrew from a Congressional race after her campaign manager faked signatures on required documents. 

A University of Iowa political science professor, Tim Hagle, says the state’s voters are evenly split, with about one-third Republican, one-third Democrat and one-third Independent.

“She seems to be going after the independents,” Hagle said. “And they care about what we call kitchen sink issues—jobs, healthcare and the economy.”

The Takeaway:

After a continued beating by natural disasters, Iowans could be fed up with Ernst’s position on climate change. Farmers and biofuels producers, meanwhile, might be angry enough about Ernst’s support for EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler—who they see as an enemy of the biofuels industry—that they cast votes in favor of Greenfield, who has called on Ernst to demand Wheeler’s resignation. Loyal partisans are mostly entrenched in their positions on climate change, but persuadable Independents will likely decide the race.