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'So Skeptical': As Election Nears, Iowa Senator Under Pressure For COVID-19 Remarks

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, appears on stage with Vice President Mike Pence in Des Moines on Aug. 13. Ernst is locked in a close race for reelection this fall against Democrat Theresa Greenfield.
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, appears on stage with Vice President Mike Pence in Des Moines on Aug. 13. Ernst is locked in a close race for reelection this fall against Democrat Theresa Greenfield.

On Labor Day weekend, a parade of tractors brandishing Trump flags rolled down Highway 30 through the northwest Iowa town of Denison.

Farmer Leon Venteicher, a Trump enthusiast who receives chemotherapy to treat his cancer, pulled off the road when he and his wife noticed the parade.

"We are very cautious," he said. "We wear our masks if we can't control the crowd."

Waiving from a shiny blue New Holland tractor was the state's junior senator, Republican Joni Ernst. Venteicher says he's voting for Ernst because making sure Republicans hang onto their majority in the Senate is just as important as the presidential race.

"I hate to sound like Whoopi Goldberg or Rosie O'Donnell and say I'm going to move out of the country if the Democrats get control," Venteicher said. "But we may be better off."

Locked in a tight race for reelection, Ernst is counting on support from voters like Venteicher. Her Senate seat is one Democrats have a close eye on. The party needs to net four seats total this November to retake the majority. They could also win a majority with a net of three seats and a victory in the race for the White House, which would allow the vice president to cast tie-breaking votes.

Ernst won her seat by nearly 9 points six years ago, but recent polls show her in a much closer contest this time around. Iowa has emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot in recent weeks, and Ernst has come under fire for repeating a debunked conspiracy theory downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

The tractor parade ended at a farm where a local Republican picnic was underway. People were enjoying the weather and feasting on picnic cuisine, but hardly anyone wore masks. The picnic came the same weekend that the White House Coronavirus Task Force sent a report to Iowa showing the state had the third-highest rate of new cases in the country.

Sen. Joni Ernst attends a Trump Tractor Parade and Picnic Rally in Crawford County, Iowa on Sept. 6.
/ Clay Masters/Iowa Public Radio
Sen. Joni Ernst attends a Trump Tractor Parade and Picnic Rally in Crawford County, Iowa on Sept. 6.

Ernst did wear a mask, sporting the Iowa State University logo and colors, but when she addressed the crowd, she didn't bring up the pandemic. Instead, she claimed her Democratic opponent, Theresa Greenfield, held extreme views that are out of step with the state.

"I am going to crawl across the finish line first," Ernst told the cheering crowd. "We are going to keep this United States Senate seat, and as you can attest from all of these tractors here today, we are going to reelect President Trump!"

Ernst, who recently completed a tour of all of Iowa's 99 counties, has faced criticism for her recent comments about the pandemic.

While campaigning in Waterloo recently, Ernst said she was "so skeptical" about the United States' total COVID-19 death count after someone in the crowd raised the question.

"These health-care providers and others are reimbursed at a higher rate if COVID is tied to it, so what do you think they're doing?" Ernst said, according to an account by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. More than 193,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, but Ernst said, "They're thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19."

Her comments echoed conspiracy theories that have been pushed by QAnon followers and debunked by public health experts who note that the number of U.S. deaths from COVID-19 is likely an undercount. Medical professionals have called Ernst's comments dangerous, and Greenfield called out Ernst in a video.

"Today I am calling for a statewide mask mandate and Senator Joni Ernst should join me. I don't think she will," Greenfield said. "She should also apologize to our health care heroes and explain why she supports these lies."

Democrat Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive from Des Moines, talks with Trent Hatlen, who farms and raises hogs near Rembrandt, Iowa, on Aug. 11.
/ Clay Masters/Iowa Public Radio
Democrat Theresa Greenfield, a real estate executive from Des Moines, talks with Trent Hatlen, who farms and raises hogs near Rembrandt, Iowa, on Aug. 11.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, has dismissed several White House Coronavirus Task Force recommendations — including issuing a mask mandate. Reynolds has not given local officials the authority to set their own mask mandates, but many of the state's larger communities have issued them. Reynolds and Ernst both urge Iowans to take personal responsibility when it comes to wearing a mask.

Two days after expressing skepticism about the death toll, Ernst appeared to walk back her comments and acknowledged the official mortality figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Iowa Medical Society said she apologized to them in a meeting, but wouldn't do it publicly.

"There must be some reason that she thinks it would shore up the base of Trump supporters behind her," said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. "If this were a more normal presidential race, Ernst would not be running as hard as she's had to."

Kedrowski noted if President Trump were less of a polarizing figure, the race would be much sleepier — especially when it comes to the millions of dollars spent on the race from outside groups. Groups supporting Greenfield have outspent those supporting Ernst, according to OpenSecrets. Meanwhile, Ernst has outperformed Greenfield in fundraising, receiving $14.4 million compared to Greenfield's $11.6 million.

But all of this political divisiveness concerns Iowa voter Trent Hatlen. He farms and raises hogs near Rembrandt in the northwest part of the state and says Republicans and Democrats both have good ideas.

Hatlen said he voted for Trump in 2016 and Ernst in 2014. But this time, he'll cast his ballot for Joe Biden and Greenfield (who he recently hosted at his farm).

"I think Trump has divided the country so much and got his side so hateful against ours," Hatlen said. "I'm a working-class dude; I'm not some leftist liberal out in California."

Next month, voters in this swing state will start filling out their ballots. And just how seriously they think politicians are taking a pandemic that has killed more than 1,200 Iowans will have a factor on how those decisions are made.

Copyright 2020 Iowa Public Radio News. To see more, visit Iowa Public Radio News.