Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield point fingers in second U.S. Senate debate

Candidates for Iowa’s U.S. Senate sparred in their second debate on Saturday, accusing each other of dishonesty throughout the debate.


Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

Candidates for Iowa’s U.S. Senate participated in their second debate Saturday night, both accusing each other of dishonestly in their attacks on health care, social security, and racial justice. 

Democratic candidate Theresa Greenfield accused Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of wanting to defund and privatize social security and Medicaid, and Ernst said she has “never once voted to cut social security or Medicaid.”

“Ms. Greenfield is making things up on the fly, and it’s totally inappropriate and unprofessional,” Ernst said.

Ernst has said lawmakers should consider all options to keep social security solvent, and in 2014 she suggested allowing young workers to put some of their payroll taxes into a savings account that accumulates interest rather than social security, according to However, Ernst has never proposed a plan to privatize the program. 

Greenfield opposes the privatization of both social security and Medicaid, and supports a public option health-care plan. Ernst repeatedly said that a universal health-care plan would lower the quality of medical care and drive doctors out of rural areas.

On the topic of taxes, Greenfield said she would make sure the wealthiest people and corporations “pay their fair share in taxes.”  

‘If millionaires and billionaires are paying $750 in taxes, clearly there is something wrong with the system,” Greenfield said of President Trump reportedly paying $750 in income taxes in 2017.

Ernst said she has called on the president to release his tax returns, but that because we don’t know the details of his tax returns, we can’t speculate as to why he paid $750 in income taxes. 

A New York Times investigation found that Trump didn’t pay federal income taxes in 10 of the past 15 years before being elected in 2016. According to the report, Trump reported losing more money than he was making. 

Ernst accused Greenfield of calling police officers racist, and Greenfield said she was “offended” Ernst would say that, because Greenfield’s grandfather was a police officer.

During the Sept. 28 debate, Greenfield said that systemic racism exists in the law enforcement system, but she said that doesn’t mean individual police officers are racist.

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Ernst said it was unfortunate that Democrats in Congress voted against the JUSTICE Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that addressed a series of criminal-justice issues, and that she had a role in crafting the legislation. 

At the end of the debate, Greenfield asked Ernst to apologize to health-care workers for saying she was skeptical of the number of COVID-19 deaths reported by hospitals, saying “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?”

Ernst did apologize to the camera and said she deeply appreciates Iowa’s health-care workers and does believe that the 200,000 COVID-19 deaths reported nationally are accurate. 

Ernst asked Greenfield to apologize to the Iowans she pushed out of homes when a real-estate company she worked at bought out some residences in Des Moines.

Greenfield rejected the notion that she pushed anyone out of their homes, and she said the company always gave tenants notice that their building was going to be renovated before the notice was required.

Though Ernst apologized for questioning the COVID-19 data at the end of the debate, a press release from the Iowa Democratic Party pointed to her skepticism and said she excused her comments by saying she was responding to a constituent, and naming Greenfield the winner of the debate.

“While there’s no doubt Theresa had a commanding performance during tonight’s debate, Senator Ernst’s alarming embrace of COVID-19 conspiracy theories was as dangerous as it was disqualifying. Even with over 1,300 Iowans lost to the virus, Ernst is still trying to downplay the crisis – so it’s clear why she’s refused to deliver the health and economic relief that Iowans need,” Iowa Democratic Party Chair Mark Smith said in the press release.

The Iowa Republican Party claimed victory for Ernst in a press release and said Greenfield followed talking points from Democratic party leaders.

“Once again, Sen. Joni Ernst proved tonight she is a fierce leader for all Iowans, Joni has traveled to all 99 counties of the state, seven years in a row, listening to Iowans and bringing their concerns to Washington,” Iowa GOP Chair Jeff Kaufmann said. “ Sen. Ernst has secured countless wins for her constituents — from opening markets for farmers, to peeling back red tape and cutting taxes for middle-class families and small business owners.”

Caleb McCullough contributed to this report.