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Debate in crucial Senate race shows Iowa's Joni Ernst doesn't know beans about soy

Christopher Wilson
·Senior Writer
·5-min read

In a state where the price of a bushel of soybeans is exceeded in political importance only by the price of a bushel of corn, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst committed an embarrassing faux pas in a debate Thursday with her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield.

Ernst, a first-term senator who rode in on the GOP wave of 2014, is in a tight reelection contest with Greenfield, a real estate executive. In their third and final debate, held remotely because Ernst was in Washington for the confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, Ernst flubbed her answer to what should have been a softball question on the break-even price for soybeans — the minimum that farmers must receive to avoid losing money on their crop.

Republican Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst debates Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield on Oct 16, 2020. (Screengrab via KCCI news)
Republican Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst debates Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield on Thursday. (Screengrab via KCCI news)

Moderator Ron Steele began the exchange by asking Greenfield the same question about corn.

“Well, a bushel of corn is going for about $3.68, today, $3.69, and break-even really just depends on the amount of debt someone has,” Greenfield said as Steele nodded that her answer was correct. “I suspect there are farmers who are breaking even at that price; however, if their yields are down 50 percent, that’s certainly not going to cover it for them.”

Steele then asked Ernst what the break-even price was for soybeans. Ernst responded by talking about trade agreements and their effect on the state’s corn industry. Steele followed up, saying, “I might have missed it, but I don’t think you answered my question. What’s the break-even price on soybeans in Iowa? You grew up on a farm; you should know this.”

“I think you had asked about corn, and it depends on what the inputs are, but probably about $5.50,” Ernst replied.

“Well, you’re a couple dollars off, I think here, because it’s $10.05, but we’ll move on to something else,” Steele said.

“And I don’t think Ms. Greenfield answered, either,” Ernst added.

The debate was beset by technical glitches in the early going, and Ernst said she might have misheard the question.

On another topic of interest in Iowa, as in every other state, Ernst denied that systemic racism existed, stating, “I do believe that you will find racist individuals in those systems, but I don’t believe that entire systems of people — of people — are racist. There are racists out there.” She accused Greenfield of believing “our law enforcement officers in Iowa, they are systemically racist.”

Greenfield said the charge was wrong and also insulting.

Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield (Screengrab via KCCI news)
Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. (Screengrab via KCCI News)

“Discussing systemic racism does not mean that any one individual is a racist but rather that we have to take a look at the discrimination across our systems — housing, health care, education, finance and so many other things — to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to end that kind of racism,” Greenfield said. “To your question, Black and brown communities have faced discrimination and systemic racism for generations.”

Ernst has accused Greenfield of being backed by “liberal extremists.” Greenfield has spent the campaign hammering Ernst on health care, an issue that helped Democrats retake the House in the 2018 midterms and which they featured heavily during Barrett’s confirmation hearings. Ernst has voted multiple times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, which would leave millions of Americans without health care. During her 2014 campaign, Ernst’s campaign released an ad in which she fired a handgun while the narrator said, “Once she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni’s gonna unload.”

Iowa’s Democratic attorney general has sided against a lawsuit — backed by the White House and a number of Republican-controlled states — set to be heard by the Supreme Court next month that could overturn the ACA. When asked about the lawsuit that would overturn the ACA earlier this year, Ernst declined to give her position.

“I’m not saying whether I support it or not. It’s in the hands of the Supreme Court now, so we’ll see,” she said in May.

Five months later she voted, along with four other potentially vulnerable Senate Republicans, in favor of a symbolic bill against the lawsuit. But Ernst is likely to vote to confirm Barrett, who is viewed by opponents as a potentially decisive vote on the Supreme Court to throw out the ACA.

In September, Ernst was criticized after floating a conspiracy theory that the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 — now more than 217,000 in the United States and 1,500 in Iowa — had been inflated.

“They’re thinking there may be 10,000 or less deaths that were actually singularly COVID-19. I’m just really curious. It would be interesting to know that,” Ernst said, later adding, “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?”

At a debate earlier this month, Ernst offered an apology to frontline workers after weeks of being called out by Greenfield for her comments.

“I am so sorry that my words may have offended you,” Ernst said. “I know that you are tremendous workers, you are essential workers, you are providing care for our loved ones every single day.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up, but Greenfield has led in every poll since the start of September. Her average lead with less than three weeks until Election Day sits at 4.8 percent. The race has become one of the most expensive in the country, with Greenfield’s campaign announcing she raised $28.7 million in the third quarter of this year, four times the amount Ernst’s campaign said it raised.

Voting in Iowa began on Oct. 5.

Republicans currently hold a three-seat advantage in the U.S. Senate, but they’re facing a wave of well-financed challengers that could flip the chamber. Cook rates nine current Republican seats as either “lean Democrat” or “toss-up” and another three as “lean Republican,” while only two Democratic seats are seen to be in potential danger.

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