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Joni Ernst

Sen. Joni Ernst at St. Ambrose University earlier this year.

The battle line has been drawn.

Do you want socialism or not?

It’s early in the 2020 campaign cycle, and yet it is already quite clear that Republican candidates feel they can win over voters with messaging against socialism.

President Donald Trump warned against it in his re-election kickoff rally this past week in Florida. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called himself "the grim reaper of the Democratic socialist agenda," and is so fired up about it he somehow included calls for Washington D.C. statehood under socialism’s apparently ever-growing umbrella.

U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst used the term several times during her campaign kickoff at her annual Roast and Ride fundraiser this past weekend in Boone. During an interview the day before the event, Ernst said she will tell voters the choice in Iowa’s U.S. Senate election will be between socialism and freedom.

Will that message resonate with Iowa voters? Is it a political red meat message to fire up the base? How will it play with more casual voters in a general election?

The answers to those questions remain to be seen over the coming months.

Meantime, the messaging will get some pushback. For example, some of the most popular federal government programs — Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — could be described as socialist. Do Republicans who decry socialism also want to do away with those programs?

Or, as a small Twitter mob pointed out to me this past weekend, angrily but accurately, what about government subsidies for farmers and businesses? Those could be described as socialist. Do Republicans who warn of the dangers of socialism also want those subsidies eliminated?

Turnabout questions are fair play here, too. Proposals like universal health care and tuition-free college come with a hefty price-tag, and candidates should have to show their math. How would candidates pay for those programs? How would they upset existing markets? (For example, how would tuition-free college impact private colleges?)

And there’s the question of whether we’re even all on the same page as to what exactly is socialism. McConnell already showed a willingness to stretch the term’s boundaries.

Here’s what it really means, according to our good friends Merriam and Webster: "any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods."

As so often happens in politics, this all boils down to a simplified political argument whose nuance should be explored.

It’s also interesting to see how Democrats are responding to Republican attacks on socialism.

Some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders, are defending so-called socialist policies. They say Republicans are turning the word into a scare term when many Americans actually support those policies.

Others, like John Hickenlooper and John Delaney, are warning Democrats that they should not be embracing the term socialism.

So socialism is on the march ... at least on the 2020 campaign trail. Expect to hear that word often, Iowa voter. Here’s hoping you hear it with a discerning ear.

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Erin Murphy covers Iowa politics and government for Lee Enterprises. His email address is erin.murphy@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @ErinDMurphy.

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