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Ernst, Greenfield Square Off In First Heated U.S. Senate Debate

Candidates U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, R - Red Oak, and Theresa Greenfield, D - Des Moines, will answer questions from reporters and discuss their platforms, concerns and future plans. David Yepsen, host of Iowa Press on Iowa PBS, will moderate the debate that begins at 7 p.m.

Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst and her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield squared off for the first time in a debate Monday night at Iowa PBS's studios in Johnston.

These days it’s hard to turn on a TV or a YouTube video without getting a negative ad about Republican Sen. Joni Ernst or her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield. The two major party candidates debated for the first time last night and many times it sounded like both of their ads were playing at the same time as the two talked over each other.

Polls have shown the race to be tight in Iowa for Ernst's first re-election campaign and Democrats see the seat as a possible pickup in their effort to gain back control of the U.S. Senate. The debate had extra health precautions in place because of the pandemic. The two candidates and three moderators sat around a large circular table in an empty auditorium with Plexiglas separating them.

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (left) and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield sitting in Iowa PBS's Johnston studios.
Iowa PBS
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (left) and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield sitting in Iowa PBS's Johnston studios.

When the pandemic came up in questioning, Ernst said mask mandates are not enforceable and she pointed to the one in Des Moines.

“I rolled into town wearing my mask even in the car and as I’m driving down the street there are many people that are not (wearing a mask),” Ernst said. “Even under a mask mandate.”

Meanwhile, Greenfield, who supports a statewide mask mandate, said she’s been frustrated with the inconsistencies from federal leaders.

“Iowa has some of the highest cases of infections at this point in time and of course even the White House task force wants Iowa to have a mask mandate,” Greenfield said. “We do that because it really makes it clear what the health guidelines that everyone should be trying to follow.”

Ernst and Greenfield disagreed on most of the issues. When it comes to filling the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Ernst has said she plans to move forward.

In 2018, Ernst told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board that a sitting president should not nominate justices to the Supreme Court in an election year. One of the moderators asked Ernst why she’s changed her mind in planning to go ahead with the nomination process of Judge Amy Coney Barrett.

“When there are divided parties, you have a presidency of one party and a senate majority of another party, you wait,” Ernst said. “Right now we do not have a divided government situation so I feel I have been consistent.”

Meanwhile, Greenfield says the election should take place before confirming a justice. Ernst’s campaign has recently accused Greenfield of wanting to pack the courts. One of the moderators asked Greenfield outright if she supported expanding the number of justices on the court or if there should remain nine.

“That is our institution and our tradition and I don’t support packing the courts,” Greenfield said.

They also disagreed on abortion. Ernst downplayed the idea that President Trump's justice nominee will get the ultimate result abortion opponents have long sought.

"I think the likelihood of Roe v Wade being overturned is very minimal," Ernst said. Greenfield called the decision "settled law."

"I will always defend a woman's right to make her own health care decisions with the guidance of her doctor," Greenfield said.

The topic of healthcare also came up. Ernst took the opportunity to accuse Greenfield of supporting Medicare For All.

“The Democrats' plan which would eventually lead us to Medicare for All would actually bankrupt 52 of our rural healthcare systems so I think there are ways to address the issue,” Ernst said. “But certainly putting our rural constituents on the hook is not the way to do it.”

Greenfield responded.

“I don’t support Medicare For All, but I do support strengthening and enhancing the Affordable Care Act,” she said. “Making sure that everyone has healthcare and in addition to that building in a public option which creates competition and brings down those prices.”

One of the most heated exchanges came when Ernst accused Greenfield of calling police officers "racist," with Greenfield repeatedly calling the claim a lie and spoke over the senator.

There was no audience to respond, just the moderators and at one point, Iowa PBS’s David Yepsen’s frustration got the best of him.

“Do either of you think you’re acting like a U.S. Senator should here?” Yepsen asked. “Is this the way Iowans expect their senator to act? I want to ask a question and get a response. Please.”

Iowa voters will start giving their response in this high-stakes and expensive election soon. They can start filling out their absentee ballots on Monday, Oct. 5.

Clay Masters is Iowa Public Radio’s Morning Edition host and lead political reporter.