The four Democrats running to face Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst debated for the first time Monday night. The November race is looking to be both competitive and expensive. Sen. Ernst hopes to get a second term representing Iowa, and Democrats see the seat as a possible pickup in November as they try to take the majority in the Senate.
The candidates were spaced 6 feet apart, Plexiglas separated them and there was no one in the audience at the Iowa PBS auditorium at the Johnston studios.
Political scientists in Iowa see real estate executive Theresa Greenfield as the front-runner because she leads the other candidates in endorsements and fundraising. In addition, the Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer, has been running ads in Iowa supporting her.
One of the first questions was for Greenfield. She was asked to respond to critics who say she is a tool for out-of-state establishment Democrats. Greenfield played up local endorsements.
“We just recently announced our 24th union that has endorsed our campaign representing together about 70,000 workers across the state,” Greenfield said. “Two weeks ago AFL-CIO endorsed our campaign.”
Businessman Eddie Mauro used several of his answers to attack Greenfield for not denouncing the PAC money and saying she isn’t a good business leader. He has been running similar ads in the state.
The moderators brought up COVID-19 outbreaks at meatpacking plants in the state and asked the candidates how they would balance the needs of the plant workers and the employers.
Kimberly Graham, who is an attorney for abused juveniles, said the plants need to be shut down as soon as there’s an outbreak.
“Initially you don’t balance them,” Graham said. “In other words you have to put the worker first. There is no burger, I don’t care how good it tastes, that is worth someone’s life.”
Graham said the plant owners need to be held accountable and there should be more investments in inspectors down the road.
The moderators also brought up the 3-trillion dollar coronavirus relief package approved by the House late last week. Iowa U.S. Reps. Cindy Axne, D- West Des Moines, and Abby Finkenauer, D-Dubuque, were among the 14 Democrats who broke with their party and voted against it. Iowa’s other Democrat in the House, retiring Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Iowa City, voted for it.
Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Mike Franken said the congresswomen made the right choice. He said he believed part of that bill placated the uber-rich
“I believe we ought to get something from those bills that lead to a better tomorrow such as a broad infrastructure package,” Franken said. “Or addressing the medical care or addressing those most impacted by this down to the small businesses and workers and including those undocumented in society.”
Greenfield said she was concerned about the transparency in the bill in what little she’d seen of it.
“I want to be assured that what’s in that bill would help Iowans before I’d be ready to vote for it,” Greenfield said. “So if I had to vote today it’d be a no.”
The candidates were also asked if the $1,200 pandemic relief checks that went out to Americans was a good decision. Greenfield said it’s a wise use of funds but added that lawmakers should also mandate paid sick leave to support workers.
“Workers should not have to decide whether they go to work sick or stay home and possibly lose a paycheck or lose their job,” Greenfield said.
“A lot of it didn’t go into circulation and those who needed it didn’t get enough,” Franken said.
Graham called the money pathetic crumbs for workers when there were subsidies for multinational corporations in the package. Franken said unemployment benefits should be extended. Meanwhile, Mauro said it did not go far enough.
“Every person right now should at least get 12, 15, 18 maybe $2000 maybe every month right now. People need to have that stability,” Mauro said. “They need to know when they get up in the morning, buy food, get prescription medicine they need.”
The debate also focused on the candidates’ positions on healthcare, climate change and immigration. As time was running out, they were asked to talk about what one important topic did NOT come up.
Franken said the debt. Mauro talked about the urban/rural divide. Greenfield and Graham both brought up childcare.
“We need to start working on the childcare crisis and by the way one-third to one-half of our childcare spots are vanishing during COVID19 and a lot of them may never come back so our crisis has become an extra crisis on top of that,” Graham said.
Afterwards, there was no applause and no handshaking among the candidates -- two visual differences in this time of running for office during a pandemic.
Iowa voters seem to be adjusting as well. The Secretary of State’s Office recently indicated that almost 400,000 Iowans have asked for an absentee ballot and early voting for the primary could set an all-time record.
Iowa Republican Chairman Jeff Kaufmann issued a statement focused on going after Greenfield.
"Tonight’s debate was a rare chance to see Theresa Greenfield finally outside of Chuck Schumer’s windowless basement, and it's very, very clear that she is not capable of demonstrating the kind of leadership Iowans demand,” the statement read.