"You know, I haven’t heard Theresa Greenfield say one thing that Chuck Schumer hasn’t told her to say," Senator Joni Ernst declared today on her Twitter feed. "And that’s not what Iowans expect in a leader."
Several political reporters quickly noted the role reversal in Ernst's call for six debates with her Democratic opponent. Usually challengers want more debates in order to raise their profiles before the general election. An incumbent making that demand is likely trailing, as the three most recent published polls on Iowa's Senate race suggest.
Other endangered Republican senators have similarly called for frequent debates this fall, a sign of justified fear that President Donald Trump's sinking approval will drag them down in November.
Another thing about Ernst's taunt struck me as more strange, though. If she wants to make the election about who slavishly follows her party's leader, Iowa's junior senator is on exceptionally weak ground.
Here's the video Ernst posted on June 22.
— Joni Ernst (@joniernst) June 22, 2020
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Greenfield almost immediately after she announced a year ago, and the main super-PAC aligned with Senate Democrats spent around $7 million to boost her candidacy before Iowa's June primary. So predictably, Republicans have been working for months to portray Greenfield as a puppet of Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Which might be an effective strategy if Ernst had built any kind of reputation for independent thinking.
I've closely followed Ernst's public statements and Senate voting record for five and a half years. For much longer than that, Bleeding Heartland's coverage of Congressional voting has highlighted examples of Iowans voting against most of their own party's caucus. Those are some of the most interesting stories coming out of the Capitol.
I cannot think of any time that Ernst parted ways with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on any bill or controversy. Not only has she done whatever her leader wanted her to do, I can't remember Ernst's name ever appearing on a Congress-watcher's "whip count" list as a suspenseful vote approached (such as the 2017 bills on repealing the Affordable Care Act and passing tax cuts skewed to the wealthy).
Everyone knows Ernst is a reliable vote for McConnell and Trump.
When Ernst was selected for the Senate GOP's fifth-ranking position shortly after the 2018 election, I wondered whether the role could become a liability.
One downside to being in leadership: it guarantees that Ernst will continue being a rubber-stamp for anything and everything GOP leaders want. She won’t be able to brag about standing up for Iowans against her own party when necessary.
Since becoming Senate Republican Conference vice chair, Ernst has appeared more frequently on national news programs. Invariably, she pushes GOP talking points on the issue of the day. I can't think of any time she made news by not sounding like a loyal foot soldier.
If Ernst wants voters to distrust Greenfield's purported allegiance to Schumer, she should have laid the groundwork by occasionally taking a high-profile stance against her own party.
Consider Senator Susan Collins of Maine. She is rightly criticized for caving to GOP leadership on many occasions. But the self-styled moderate did cast some critically important votes that saved the Affordable Care Act. She's signaled her independence in other ways too, like being the only Republican co-sponsor of the Equality Act, which "prohibits discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity" in many areas of life.
What could Ernst hang her hat on to show she is an independent voice for Iowa? She has co-sponsored bills with Democrats, but never on legislation that challenges her party's dogma.
At best she has criticized the Trump administration's ethanol policy. But even there, Ernst loudly praised the president's various promises to help ethanol producers, shifting the blame to other federal officials when those promises were broken.
Despite her vocal support for U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, Ernst made endless excuses for Trump holding up Congressionally-approved aid in search of a favor to boost his own re-election. She dismissed the Democrats' "political show" out of hand. She declared the matter "moot," since Ukraine eventually got most of the money. She made sure the Senate would never hear from witnesses who could testify to Trump's abuses of diplomacy and could not obtain documents the White House withheld from Congress.
When speaking to the media about impeachment, on many occasions Ernst sounded more like a White House press secretary than a senator who was ostensibly reviewing the evidence against the president.
Some Republican senators expressed mild disapproval of Trump's conduct, even as they voted to acquit him. Ernst couldn't even bring herself to do that. The word "Ukraine" did not appear in her acquittal speech. Instead, she served up this incredibly weak sauce.
Under the Constitution, impeachment wasn’t designed to be a litmus test on every action of the President – elections were designed to be that check. Further, the issue of foreign affairs has historically been fraught with peril for Presidents—foreign affairs is an art, not a science, and trying to insert a formula into every presidential interaction with a foreign leader is a path towards ineffectiveness.
Ernst showed again this morning that she desperately wants to make the Senate race a "choice" election. A year ago, she framed the choice as her against a "socialist agenda." Now she's trying to run against a senator from New York.
The reality is, the 2020 election is shaping up as a referendum on Trump and on the Republicans who have carried his water. Ernst will keep trying to change the subject, and maybe big money and social media will help her crack the code that flummoxed Democratic senators during the 1980 campaign. Nevertheless, it's hard to see how she can win a fight over which Senate contender is too quick to voice what party leaders "told her to say."