Iowa Republican U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst has canceled or declined to meet with editorial boards at several major Iowa newspapers, including the Des Moines Register, the largest circulation daily in the state.
In interviews with Media Matters, staffers at those outlets suggested Ernst's lack of availability is nearly unprecedented.
Ernst is a state senator and the Republican nominee for the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin. She is facing Democratic challenger Bruce Braley, currently a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In a post to Facebook this morning, Rekha Basu, a Register columnist who participates in the endorsement interviews, announced Ernst had “unilaterally” canceled a planned meeting with her paper's editorial board. Noting she had “also begged off meetings with The Cedar Rapids Gazette and The Dubuque Telegraph-Herald,” Basu asked, “Is Joni Ernst afraid of newspaper editorial boards?”
Basu told Media Matters that such a cancellation by a major party U.S. Senate candidate has never occurred before during her 23 years at the paper.
“Never, not that I'm aware of,” Basu said. “Not in the time I've been here, no refusing.”
Basu, who declined to speculate on Ernst's reason for pulling out of the meeting, pointed out that Ernst did meet with the editorial board in May during the Republican primary and received the paper's endorsement at that time.
“I think it's a very important forum in which to explain one's positions and stand up for them, to make the case for why they are the best person to be elected,” Basu said. “I would hope that if someone is committed to being in the U.S. Senate that they would be able to share directly with reporters and editors their reasons and uphold their policy positions.”
The paper has yet to endorse a U.S. Senate candidate for the general election next month.
Editors at other Iowa newspapers also spoke out about Ernst declining or avoiding meetings.
“We never got anything on the schedule,” said Elizabeth Schott, director of editorial relations for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. “We did request, we offered, we would have liked to interview her, but they chose to spend her time elsewhere. I cannot recall a time that that has happened before. We interviewed 27 other candidates this season, from county supervisor all the way up to U.S. Senate.”
Amy Gilligan, managing editor of the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald and a member of the editorial board, said she does not believe another major candidate had declined to meet with the newspaper in her 25 years on staff.
“I don't think it's ever happened,” she said. “I was surprised, we have the senators in Iowa, it's a huge position and we have such long-serving senators that they're nationally known and iconic and Senator [Chuck] Grassley and Harkin have always made time to come here.”
Asked about Ernst, Gilligan said, “She neither declined nor cancelled or interviewed. She just never responded. Our attempts to schedule an editorial board meeting began probably six weeks ago and we traded some emails and it seemed like they were always trying to get us on the schedule. Our executive editor also tried to call as well, but they only got a non-committal reply and it never happened.”
Gilligan said the race has been close and noted that the state's early voting began last Monday, which made earlier interviews and endorsements even more important.
Douglas Burns, co-owner and reporter at the smaller Daily Times Herald in Carroll, IA, said Ernst avoided media questions while in town this week for an event with Republican Congressman Steve King and Republican Governor Terry Branstad.
While King and Branstad, both facing re-election, were available to be interviewed, he said Ernst's people kept her away.
“It was apparent by the body language of her staff they did not want her anywhere near the media,” Burns said. “I had a series of questions I wanted to ask her, on Social Security, and rural economic development in Southwest Iowa. If she can't handle interviews with small town reporters, how is she going to be able to manage herself effectively and fight for us effectively in Washington, D.C.?”
Ernst has met with the Sioux City Journal and received its endorsement in the primary.*
In a statement to Politico, Ernst's campaign cited the candidate's busy schedule as a reason for the cancellation, also suggesting that the paper has opposed her candidacy:
“Joni is barnstorming the state, visiting all 99 counties and talking face to face with voters about the issues they care about most,” Ernst campaign spokesperson Gretchen Hamel said. “Recent editorials in the Des Moines Register make their position in this race perfectly clear, and it's one that many voters across our state seem to disagree with. With less than 12 days to go, time is precious and Joni wants to spend every minute talking to undecided voters, hearing their concerns, and demonstrating why we need a change in Washington.”
*Edited for clarity.