Theresa Greenfield is a 56-year-old Des Moines real estate development executive who’s still small-town, girl-next-door-friendly. She’s also running for the United States Senate. Her style is so earnest, affable, and humble that talking to her the first question that comes to mind is: What’s a nice girl like you doing in a racket like this?
Part of the answer lies with Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst. The last time many saw her, back when she first ran in 2014, she was a pig castrator on a Harley vowing to snip the private parts of the porcine influence peddlers and their senatorial prey.
The squeal of pain she promised never happened. For a minor leadership position, Ernst got comfortable with the hogs at the trough. Butchering swine, which she took some symbolic swipes at, is not the same as defanging lobbyists. And the fiscal integrity of Washington is far worse than when she arrived. When Donald Trump moved to the White House in 2017, any remaining ideas about changing Washington vanished. She votes with the president well over 90 percent of the time.
At one time, Ernst looked unassailable. Iowans like incumbents—Tom Harkin held Ernst’s seat for 30 years. But Greenfield jumped into a congressional race in 2018 which she dropped out of, decided to run for Senate this time and found herself in a four-way race for the nomination. On June 3, she won easily and has held a small lead over Ernst ever since.
Greenfield has almost none of what’s required to prevail in modern politics but everything Iowa needs right now. She has the decency and solidity that comes from being a farm girl who knows a thing or two about pigs herself and who’s been hardened and softened by loss: financial loss, when her family lost its farm and crop-dusting business in the economic crisis of the 1980s, and personal.
That happened a few years later, when, with no farm left to work on, Greenfield left home to work her way through community college (at Pizza Hut), meeting and marrying Rod Wirtjes, a journeyman electrician working for the IBEW. Life was idyllic until one evening the parish priest came to the door bearing the news that Rod had been electrocuted on the job. At age 24, Greenfield was alone with a year-old baby, another on the way, and no income. It was two maligned entities, labor unions and government, that saved her.
On the phone with me, she repeats what she says at every campaign stop: “Social Security helped me put milk in the refrigerator, support my boys, and go back to school. I don’t want Joni Ernst to gut it.”
She’s paying it forward. Involved in local politics from an early age—gravel roads to the fields don’t build themselves—she learned a lot working her way up at engineering and land-use firms, serving as the planner for communities that couldn’t afford one of their own and where little decisions hammered out in long but respectful meetings make a big difference. “Washington,” she says, “would get so much more done if it worked more like our small towns.”
If Greenfield has a problem, it’s that many Iowans don’t know her, although a big ad buy and dawn-to-dusk virtual campaigning is changing that. Republicans plan to zero in on her support for the estate tax that the GOP claims hurts family farms, although less than 1 percent of the heirs would be affected. They also claim she evicted tenants for redevelopment, although the Iowa Starting Line refutes that.
There’s no denying she lacks legislative experience, but senators are never called on to land a plane. The good ones work hard, take their committee and oversight responsibilities seriously, and vote. It’s a bonus if once in a blue moon, like John McCain, one gets to give a thumbs-down at one in the morning and save health care.
The problem for Ernst is that after six years, Iowans do know her. She’s voted for the tax bill, a huge giveaway to the rich, and a budget buster to boot. On issues that matter to Iowans, Ernst has left the old neighborhood behind. She’s on the steak and martini fundraising circuit and takes dark and corporate PAC money (Greenfield doesn’t) with all the pressure to vote a certain way that comes with that. Heresy to her corn growers, but she supports giving waivers to oil refiners that allows them to dispense with mixing ethanol in fuel.
She revealed an openness to reforming Social Security “behind closed doors” (to encourage candor, she explained) that one in five Iowans relies on. When she should have called out Trump, loudly and ceaselessly, to stop his erratic trade war, which hurt Iowa more than it hurt China, she didn’t. Bankruptcies are at an eight-year high. Soybean growers weep on courthouse steps watching their fields being auctioned off. Suicides are on the rise.
Democrats are prepared to spend as well as Iowa joins other marquee races like those against Susan Collins and Martha McSally that could flip the Senate to Democratic control. Iowa is a quirky place where Trump won by 10 points, picking off counties Obama carried in both of his victories. But it’s also quirky enough to swing back. Joe Biden and Donald Trump are neck-and-neck there.
With her flannel shirts, quilted vest, and eastern counties accent, Greenfield could bring back those Obama/Trump voters whose flip was a cry for help. She performed strongest in rural areas where Democrats traditionally struggle. She’s trying to avoid the Trump trap: “What I care about is how Iowans choose between me and Joni Ernst.”
Either Ernst doesn’t realize that the ground has shifted beneath her, or she actually believes in Trump. The cost grows as Trump ignores police brutality and embraces all things Confederate, positions that are particularly rejected by women. Ernst is losing them overall 54 to 34 and among non-college-educated white women by a shocking 60 to 29.
When she had a chance to break with a president who recklessly insists the virus will disappear like the “sniffles”in an interview with CNN’s Dana Bash last weekend, Ernst claimed Trump has done a better job dealing with COVID-19 (133,000 dead) than Obama did handling Ebola (two dead). It’s hard to know what Ernst got from Trump for that, or how she lives with it, but over the next two days Greenfield received $200,000 in contributions.
And now Trump’s ordering schools to open, hoping that if the kids are all right in September, carrying new backpacks and sharpened pencils, everything else will look all right. The Senate should be squealing that he can’t threaten to withhold funds from states that don’t open and he can’t discard his own CDC’s guidelines he doesn’t agree with. That’s if there was a functioning Senate.
Without senators like Greenfield, Biden winning won’t restore the country. Divided government has crippled us. If Obama was for something, McConnell was against it. He vowed to make Obama a one-term president. He proudly denied Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland a hearing and recently pledged to fill any vacancy up to and including Inauguration Day. There’s no telling what he’ll do with a Biden nominee if he’s still the majority leader.
Greenfield, in her flannel shirts and down-home style, seems made for the Hawkeye State with its famous summer fair of deep-fried Twinkies and friendly alpacas, small towns and quilting bees. In Field of Dreams, one of the players who’s come to the field because Kevin Costner built it emerges from between tall stalks of corn to ask, “Is this heaven?” “No,” Costner answers, “it’s Iowa.” It’s the kind of place that could send Greenfield to Washington in November to join Biden in the urgent cause of making America decent again.