Tied to Trump fate, Ernst walks tightrope in dead heat Iowa

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Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, speaks during a confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Monday, Oct. 12, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Shawn Thew/Pool via AP)

DES MOINES, Iowa – Joni Ernst burst onto national politics in 2014 as a gun-toting, hog-castrating, motorcycle-riding candidate who was going to shake up Washington.

One ad featured her at a shooting range firing a handgun as the gravelly-voiced narrator stated, “And when she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni’s going to unload.”

She won, defeating an establishment Democrat, in some some ways presaging Donald Trump’s defiant candidacy, one that she has enthusiastically supported throughout his presidency.

Now, as the first-term Republican senator seeks reelection, she finds her fate tied to Trump's in a state where the president's support has eroded significantly as voters have harshly assessed his handling of the pandemic, and hers.

Ernst's ads this time advocate not the reversal of the Affordable Care Act, but upholding its most popular provision: somehow guaranteeing health coverage for people with preexisting medical conditions while gutting other provisions in the law.

Trump finds himself locked in a close race in Iowa with Democrat Joe Biden, and Ernst is as well against Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.

When the campaign year began, strategists in both parties forecast that Republicans were likely to carry the state easily. But Trump is visiting Iowa on Wednesday, a measure of his difficulty in that he his taking precious campaign time for a trip to a state he won by more than 9 percentage points four years ago.

“I think it’s definitely tough. Walking the tightrope between pleasing the Trump base versus attracting other voters is challenging," said John Stineman, a Iowa Republican strategist unaffiliated with the Ernst or Trump campaigns. “I think if he performs poorly, that makes it hard for her."