Final Iowa US Senate debate has a glitchy start but gets down to serious issues of race, ag
After a rough start beset by technical difficulties, the third debate between U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and challenger Theresa Greenfield rebounded to feature frank and detailed discussions of systemic racism, agriculture and other key issues.
The program began at 6:30 p.m. but suffered from a series of stops and starts as producers attempted to iron out glitches that prevented the candidates — who appeared virtually — from hearing moderators' questions and at times cut off their own audio as they tried to answer.
"Hey folks, we apologize for the technical difficulties that we're having," moderator Steve Karlin said after an early break in the program. "We appreciate your patience for this very important debate."
Ernst, a first-term Republican, and Greenfield, a Democrat businesswoman who has not held elected office, are locked in one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races in the country, and the winner could decide which party controls the chamber next year. A Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll in September found Greenfield leading Ernst by three points, 45% to 42%, within the poll's margin of error.
The race has drawn millions in spending from the candidates and outside groups. Greenfield's campaign recently said she raised $28.7 million in the third quarter of 2020 — four times as much as Ernst, whose campaign says the senator raised about $7.2 million over the same time period.
Thursday night's debate was hosted by the Des Moines Register, KCCI-TV in Des Moines, KTIV in Sioux City and KWWL in Waterloo. It was their third televised debate, after programs hosted by Iowa Press in September and WHO-TV earlier this month.
Both candidates appeared virtually, while the moderators spoke from Franklin Junior High in Des Moines. Ernst is in Washington, D.C., this week and has been participating in the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearings for President Donald Trump's Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett.
After about 20 minutes, the technical glitches largely cleared and the candidates began responding to questions on health care, the economy and other issues.
Does systemic racism exist?
Moderator Rheya Spigner asked both candidates whether they believe systemic racism exists.
"No. I don’t," Ernst said. "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."
As she has before, Ernst accused Greenfield of saying she believes Iowa law enforcement officers are systemically racist.
"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."
Iowa Poll:Most Iowans say protests have been more harmful than helpful in raising awareness of racial issues
The candidates were also asked whether they believe the protests for racial justice that have taken place in Iowa this year have been helpful or harmful in raising awareness. The protests were sparked by the death of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis man who was killed by a white police officer in May.
Greenfield began her answer by saying she supports Iowans' First Amendment rights to free speech and protest, but criticized looting and damaging property.
"But absolutely we do need to march, we do need to protest in a nonviolent and peaceful way to make sure that our voices are being heard," she said. "And I am proud of the Black Lives Matter leaders here in our state who absolutely predominantly have been making their voices heard in a nonviolent way," Greenfield said.
Ernst praised peaceful protests, but said the movement has "slid backwards" by damaging property.
"As they started and as they were peaceful I think they were very, very helpful but as they digressed back to looting and damaging of not only those small businesses but federal property I think it really smeared those that were trying to do good through those protests," she said.
During the first weekend of protests in Des Moines in late May, the storefronts of East Village businesses were damaged and the downtown federal building had its windows broken, but the city has seen months of peaceful protests since then.
Why did you leave the farm?
Later in the debate the candidates, both of whom grew up on farms, each gave personal answers about why they did not pursue agriculture as a career.
For Greenfield, it was because of the farm crisis of the 1980s, when she said she saw families in her area that were devastated.
"I went to auctions where families went bankrupt, and my parents, they ended up having to sell their crop dusting business, sell their hogs, and they never farmed again," Greenfield said. "And so I had to leave the rural area. There were no jobs and we couldn't farm, and I headed off to Iowa Lakes Community College to begin my life."
Ernst said her sister and brother-in-law still run their family farm in southwest Iowa, but she was leaving behind an abusive situation when she went to study at Iowa State University.
"I, as a young girl, young woman, was in an abusive situation. And so when I went off to Iowa State University, I decided to study psychology. I felt that would be a great way for me to give back to my community as a counselor. So I did take a different turn, but I have remained engaged in the farming community," Ernst said. Ernst has previously opened up about the physical and sexual abuse she suffered from a former boyfriend and her former husband.
The candidates were also asked for the break-even price of corn, in Greenfield's case, and soybeans, in Ernst's case.
"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 moderator Ron Steele nodded and said, "That's correct."
Ernst was then asked about the price of soybeans, but began her answer by talking about the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement and its impact on Iowa's corn market. When Steele followed up, Ernst appeared to believe he had asked her about corn as well.
"I might have missed it, I don't think you answered my question: What's the break-even price for soybeans in Iowa? You grew up on a farm, you should know this," Steele said.
"I think you had asked about corn, and it depends on what the inputs are, but probably about $5.50," Ernst said.
"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.
Given another chance to answer, Ernst appeared to still believe she was being asked about corn.
"You said, could the break-even for corn is $10.50? I don't think that's correct," she said.
Brendan Conley, a spokesperson for Ernst's campaign, wrote on Twitter that "the audio cut out and we assumed they were asking the same question they asked Greenfield."
In a statement about the night's technical issues, KCCI President and General Manager Brian Sather said there were problems with each candidate's phone line that prevented them from hearing the moderator's questions and their opponent's answers. Those issues were resolved after the first 15 minutes, he said.
"During the beginning of last night’s debate, the phone line that allowed Theresa Greenfield to hear the questions and her opponent’s answers was not working. Subsequently, the phone line to Senator Ernst that allowed her to hear audio was lost. Technical teams worked to restore audio to the candidates," Sather said.
Sather said the candidates provided a spirited debate once the problems were fixed.
"We still wanted to provide this critical debate to the voters of Iowa. The unique challenges of this production led to some unexpected issues," he said.
What would you do to get money out of politics?
As they have throughout the campaign, both candidates attacked the other for receiving support from outside political groups.
Moderator Brianne Pfannenstiel, the Register's chief politics reporter, said each candidate has criticized her opponent for accepting outside money in the Senate race while also benefiting from such contributions.
"If you're so opposed to this practice, what would you do if elected to get all of this money out of politics?" Pfannenstiel asked.
Senate race spending:In a slew of competitive Senate races, Iowa's draws second-highest advertising spending in the country
Greenfield answered first and talked up her plan to remove outside money from politics before accusing Ernst of taking contributions from "Big Pharma" and "Big Oil" and then voting against Iowans' interests.
"The very first plan I proposed was a plan to end political corruption. To end Citizens United. To end corporate PAC donations. To end those dark money groups. You know, those are the ones that are running those nasty attack ads that ruin your YouTube videos and your football games," Greenfield said.
Ernst said by the time the election is over, Greenfield "will be Iowa's leading benefactor of outside independent expenditure money, what is known as dark money." She said there's an "easy answer" to getting money out of politics.
"So easy: Transparency," Ernst said. "If you have, if you force those donors to disclose who they're donating to, to what organization, I guarantee you the whole system would clean up quickly."
Des Moines Register reporters Nick Coltrain and Ian Richardson contributed to this story.
Stephen Gruber-Miller covers the Iowa Statehouse and politics for the Register. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 515-284-8169. Follow him on Twitter at @sgrubermiller.