Greenfield far outraises Ernst as race draws national attention

State parties helped the presidential campaigns and national parties legally circumvent donor limits to raise campaign cash in 2020. (Photo by Getty Images)

Iowa’s Senate race is drawing in massive amounts of fundraising dollars and it shows in the barrage of political advertisements that are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore, said Tim Hagle, political science professor at the University of Iowa.

“I was just watching some YouTube videos, and even on YouTube or Hulu, you’re seeing almost wall-to-wall political ads and a lot of them are dealing with the Senate,” Hagle said.

July through September, Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield reported raising $28.7 million — about four times more than Republican incumbent Joni Ernst’s $7.2 million.

The race between Greenfield and Ernst ranks ninth for the most money spent, according to opensecrets.org. Both candidates have spent at least $51.3 million on advertising, saturating a state where there are few media markets and purchasing a television or radio spot is relatively cheap, said Sam Roecker, a Democratic consultant who led John Hickenlooper’s Iowa caucus campaign.

Theresa Greenfield is a Democrat running for Iowa’s U.S. Senate seat. (Photo submitted by Theresa Greenfield campaign)

In total this campaign cycle, Greenfield raised $40.4 million to Ernst’s $22.2 million. She has spent $30.2 million and ended September with $9.5 million cash on hand.

Ernst spent $18 million and closed the third quarter with $4.3 million cash on hand.

The Democratic challenger’s haul is indicative of, “a perfect storm of everything aligning for Greenfield at this point,” Roecker said. 

Nationally, Democrats are trying to turn the Senate blue and are pouring money into competitive races, Roecker said. The vacant U.S. Supreme Court seat is also drawing attention and fundraising dollars. And since the presidential race is predicted to be close in Iowa, dollars are being used from the top down to help Democrats win the state, Roecker said.

“It creates this atmosphere where Iowa seems like a very solid investment if you’re trying to figure out where to put your money before the election,” Roecker said.

But money isn’t everything and doesn’t necessarily turn into votes, Hagle said. 

Sen. Joni Ernst speaks during a video her office produced about her tele-town hall on May 20, 2020.

Though Ernst is vulnerable as a newer senator, she also has the benefit of incumbency and name recognition, Hagle said. 

Every year, Ernst has completed a 99-county tour, which helps build familiarity between her and Iowans around the state, Hagle said. Her town halls also draw local news outlets, which further spreads her message to rural communities.

While Greenfield has not held a similar 99-county tour due to COVID-19, Hagle said her extra spending power and ability to buy more ads and mailers can help get her name out.

“Greenfield hasn’t been out the same way,” Hagle said.

Though Greenfield outraised Ernst, Hagle said the Republican’s fundraising numbers still aren’t bad. 

Voter turnout remains the most important indicator of who will win, but it’s impossible to tell yet whether the sharp rise in early voting is indicative of more new voters or that existing voters are choosing to vote absentee instead this year.

“More than usual, we have to be careful about any predictions about what’s going on,” Hagle said. “Campaigns have been so different and situations for people have been so different. It’s always true the turnout is the key, but even more so that we have to wait and see what happens with all of this.”

Linh Ta
Reporter Linh Ta comes to Iowa Capital Dispatch from the Des Moines Register, where she covered trending news, public safety and the suburbs. Most recently, she has covered retail business and followed both national and local trends to provide insight about the issues that matter the most to Iowans. Beyond traditional journalism, Ta has worked as a speech coach with the Des Moines Storytellers Project with the goal of sharing the diverse perspectives of Iowans from all walks of life. She is the 2019 winner of the Young Iowa Journalist Award and the winner of an Iowa Broadcast News Award. Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @linhmaita.