DONNELLSON, Iowa — “Where’d you get these apples?” asked Theresa Greenfield, the Democratic Senate candidate turned pie taster at a farm in southeast Iowa.
Steve, it was explained, had picked the apples at Bob’s. Bob gave them to Beth. Beth Howard then made a pie using her famous recipe and offered a piece to Greenfield during the first stop of the day on her “Back On Our Feet” tour.
The candidate had finished her piece of pie by the time the conversation turned to politics.
“I got asked by somebody what type of Democrat I am,” Greenfield said, before portraying herself in the mold of Iowa moderates like Tom Harkin and Tom Vilsack. “And I said, ‘I’m a pragmatic, common-sense scrappy farm girl.’ ”
Republicans, however, have cast her as an out-of-touch radical.
“The angry mob is out of control, and Theresa Greenfield is their candidate,” said an anti-Greenfield advertisement from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “They want to defund the police and put us all at risk.”
With about a week until Election Day, labeling their opponents as radicals has become the closing message for Republicans in tight races around the country. While Democrats have focused on health care access and getting the coronavirus pandemic under control, most Republicans have settled on a message of grievance — that Democratic governance would bring socialism and left-wing extremism.
Greenfield, like Democratic candidates for the Senate in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, has balked at progressive issues like single-payer health insurance, adding seats to the Supreme Court and defunding the police.
She spent her tour of southeast Iowa talking about expanding job training programs and health care coverage through a public insurance option. She criticized Democrats for not prioritizing an infrastructure bill and vocational education.
She has rejected the Green New Deal, the expansive piece of climate legislation backed by two progressive lawmakers, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
But that has not stopped her opponent, Republican incumbent Joni Ernst, from casting her as a secret socialist, or someone who will become one once in Washington.
When Ocasio-Cortez mentioned the Iowa race Sunday in an interview with CNN, Ernst’s campaign immediately sought to weaponize the comment.
“Theresa Greenfield is a liberal who has the full support of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the author of the Green New Deal,” a spokesperson for Ernst, Brendan Conley, said in a statement. “Theresa Greenfield supports extreme new environmental rules that would kill American jobs and hurt Iowa farmers, making clear that Greenfield is perfect for New York or California, but wrong for Iowa.”
The Republican strategy was on display during a recent debate. At times, Ernst focused on her record, trying to project the strength of an incumbent front-runner. At other times, she accused Greenfield of calling police officers “racist” and supporting “Medicare for All,” which led to some pointed exchanges in which the candidates talked over each other.
“I don’t support Medicare for All, but I do support strengthening and enhancing the Affordable Care Act,” Greenfield said.
The Republican efforts range from the presidential race to the Senate level and even some local elections. At the top of the ticket, President Donald Trump continues to ignore Joe Biden’s history as a bipartisan candidate, instead portraying him as someone who is promising a political revolution in the mold of Sanders.
On Saturday in suburban Wisconsin, Trump said what most Republicans have merely hinted at: “We should be running against Bernie.”
Last week, during the debate in Tennessee, Biden argued that he had defeated Sanders because of these differences, deploying an argument he has used throughout his presidential bid: The American people know him and his record.
“I beat the socialist,” Biden said in a September interview with a Wisconsin network. “That’s how I got elected. That’s how I got the nomination. Do I look like a socialist? Look at my career — my whole career. I am not a socialist.”
In Senate races, candidates like Greenfield, Mark Kelly in Arizona or Sara Gideon in Maine have articulated the version of the same argument. They barely mention — much less endorse — issues like Medicare for All or court packing. During her tour, Greenfield stayed on message — farming, jobs and health care — and called out Ernst on those issues and the Republican response to the coronavirus.
In an interview, Greenfield’s ease in rebutting accusations of radicalism showed how some Democrats were increasingly confident that the Republican strategy of name-calling had not worked. The framing has allowed Greenfield to cast positions like a public health insurance option as a compromise alternative. And like Biden, she said she believed Iowans knew her, which was part of the reason the race was close after it had once been assumed to be a safe Republican seat.
Last week, a poll from The New York Times and Siena College found Greenfield and Ernst in a statistical tie.
“Winning in a state like Iowa is sort of like eating an elephant: We’re going to get one bite at a time from lots of different places,” Greenfield said. “I don’t see my neighbors as one party or another. I see them as independent thinkers and independent voters.”
That leading Democratic candidates feel free to distance themselves from the progressive policies that drive the national conversation speaks to the ideological diversity within the party. Progressives displayed their strength by sweeping a number of blue districts during the party’s primaries. Yet the party united behind Biden, a moderate, in the presidential primary, an indication that defeating Trump remained a priority.
Early in the primary, when Biden was lagging behind candidates like Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, there was a fear among down-ballot Democrats that nominating a progressive would make it harder for more candidates in difficult House districts and Senate battlegrounds. Now, with Biden at the head, many candidates in those states say the claims of “radical” and “socialist” fall flat.
Michelle Smith, who leads Democrats in Jasper County, one of the 31 counties in Iowa that flipped from supporting President Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, said the effect was a campaign in which the parties are talking to different audiences. Republicans are trying to motivate their base and sow discord. Democrats are playing a game of persuasion aimed at getting swing and independent voters to back Biden.
Smith said she was watching one number in the run-up to Election Day: absentee ballots. The county party registrants are equally split among Democrats, Republicans and independents, she said. But in what she described as a good sign for Democrats, their ballots have been returned at a 3-to-1 rate over Republicans.
Smith, and most state observers, expect Republicans to make up some of that ground with in-person voting Nov. 3.
“Yes, I know it’s my job to say Biden’s going to win,” she said. “But to be honest, I think it’s too close to call right now.”
Jerry Hageman, a union activist in Waterloo, Iowa, who also works with the Alliance of Retired Americans, said that unlike four years ago, there were fewer divisions between rank-and-file union members and the leadership. Hageman said that based on Biden’s campaign and Greenfield’s battle against Ernst, it seemed Republicans had not adjusted to the fact that they were not running against a candidate who has a poor reputation in rural, white America — as Hillary Clinton did.
“There were people that just flat-out told me they could not vote for Hillary. But they would support our candidates in down-ballot races,” he said. “I think they’ve done a better job of selling Joe as a longtime friend of labor.”
It is a feature of the party’s change from 2016 all the way down the ticket. During Greenfield’s tour of farms, small businesses and job training centers, the implied message was clear: This Democrat understands rural Iowa.
Ryan Drew, president of the Southeast Iowa Building Trades, said members of his union supported Greenfield and rejected the idea that she was some radical.
“All those crazy ideas were for the primary,” Drew said, referring to progressive policies like Medicare for All. “We have faith in Theresa that she’ll stick to the fundamentals.”