Bruce Braley, a former U.S. representative from the state’s First District, promised to protect Social Security in his Senate campaign against Ernst herself in 2014, and got crushed in the general election. The strategy didn’t work then, and it won’t work now, Kochel argues.
But the times are different now than they were six years ago. The unusual pressures of 2020—an economic crisis triggered by a global pandemic—are heightening people’s concerns about retirement and their long-term survival, say the politics experts and strategists I spoke with for this story. The pandemic’s effects on Iowa’s farming industry, in particular, have been devastating. “When there’s so much uncertainty and insecurity,” Greenfield’s message “resonates tremendously,” Steffen Schmidt, another Iowa State political-science professor, told me.
Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who has rooted his three successful campaigns in a full-throated defense of organized labor and the social safety net, told me that the pandemic has demonstrated exactly how the government should intervene to improve Americans’ daily lives. “The congressional response with the stimulus check kept people from devastation,” Brown said, citing recent studies showing that federal coronavirus aid has prevented millions of Americans from falling into poverty.
Brown is the only statewide elected Democratic official in Ohio, a mostly red state that, like Iowa, voted overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016. As Democrats try to figure out how they’re going to beat the president in these places—and in the even more crucial battleground states of Wisconsin and Michigan—Brown believes that the strategy for doing so is obvious. He cited Joe Biden’s stated commitment to preserve and expand Social Security benefits, and his consolidation of support from many union leaders. “It’s things like that that will help Biden carry Ohio,” Brown said. In Iowa, Greenfield’s emphasis on Social Security could redouble to Biden’s benefit, too.
So this is the new candidate meet and greet. I’m sitting on a Zoom call, in a virtual room full of virtual Democrats—tiny faces in boxes glowing yellow on the screen. Ten or 11 have people signed on; they are white and mostly older, with names like Ron and Nancy and Jan. This group, the Warren County Democrats, usually has its annual summer picnic outdoors, with hot dogs and ice-cold drinks. Instead, they’re on this video call buying time rating local pizza joints. (Fong’s, in Des Moines, offers more creative options, they say, but Ames’s Great Plains Sauce and Dough has the tastiest crust.)
Fifteen minutes into the meeting, Greenfield pops up in a new square, smiling widely in front of a brick wall. I turn up the volume to hear her better. “Hi, folks,” she says cheerfully, before launching into her life story. She grew up in southern Minnesota, she says, just a few minutes north of the Iowa border (which helps explain all the “soh-rrys” and “ya knows”). Her father was a farmer and a crop duster, and she was a “scrappy farm kid,” fond of riding pigs and getting into trouble. In the 1980s farm crisis, she explains, her family was forced to sell everything, and they never farmed again. When she arrives at the story of her husband’s death, in 1988, Greenfield pauses to emphasize her main point: “I’ll tell ya,” she says, “I wouldn’t be here today in this fight without the helping hand of Social Security and union benefits.”
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