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In A Tight Iowa Senate Race, Activists Hope Supreme Court Fight Will Make A Difference

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Clay Masters
/
IPR file
Whether Sen. Joni Ernst wins re-election could determine control of the U.S. Senate. Activists in both parties hope her handling of a Supreme Court vacancy could make a difference in the race.

The Senate Judiciary Committee still plans to hold hearings this month on President Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, despite multiple committee members being infected with COVID-19. Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, will be among those in front of the cameras, in the midst of a neck and neck re-election fight. Activists hope her handling of the nomination could make a difference for voters.

When Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court in 2016, Sen. Joni Ernst stood with her party.

She said there should be no hearings, because it was an election year. She doubled down on this position during a 2018 interview with the Des Moines Register Editorial Board.

"During a presidential election year the people should make that decision," Ernst said. "And the people made that decision. And we did have a new president. And that new president then selected."

She was even asked a hypothetical that’s now been borne out: what if this happens again in 2020?

"It's precedent set. Precedent set," Ernst said. "So come 2020, if there’s an opening, I’m sure you’ll remind me of that."

"As a member of the Judiciary Committee I will do my duty. We will vet the nominee. We know who the nominee is now, and we will move forward with that nominee."
-U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst

Now in 2020, she’s standing with her party again, as she explained during a debate with her opponent, Democrat Theresa Greenfield on Iowa PBS.

"As a member of the Judiciary Committee I will do my duty. We will vet the nominee," Ernst said. "We know who the nominee is now, and we will move forward with that nominee."

By and large, Iowa Republicans see this stance as justified, an opportunity to solidify a conservative majority for years to come.

Iowa Democrats generally see it as outrageous.

At a vigil for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Cedar Rapids the day after she died, pharmacist Anne Salamon, a Democrat, was livid.

"If the Republican Party wants to have any sense of integrity left, any shred, they will honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They will honor what they said a few years ago and not move on this," Salamon said.

"If the Republican Party wants to have any sense of integrity left, any shred, they will honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They will honor what they said a few years ago and not move on this."
Anne Salamon, Cedar Rapids voter

With the president and multiple senators now sick with COVID-19, the hearings could get derailed, though McConnell is plowing ahead with the process of confirming Barrett.

Sen. Lindsey Graham R-S.C., the chair of the Judiciary Committee, has scheduled the hearings to begin Oct. 12, with the ability for members to participate virtually. A vote before the full chamber, which must be done in-person, is slated for Oct. 22.

Operatives in both parties hope the confirmation process will fire up the base in the Iowa senate race.

Recent polling shows that Greenfield, a Des Moines businesswoman who’s never held public office, has a slight edge over Ernst, though within the margin of error.

And a bare majority of Iowans think the confirmation process should wait.

Kyle Christina, a Republican who works manufacturing in Dubuque, says he's somewhat "torn" on the timing of the hearings, due to the past precedent of waiting until after the election.

But as an evangelical Christian, he says he would prefer a Trump nominee to a Biden nominee.

"Trump just stands for a lot of the stuff we believe in, too. All the big issues. Gun rights and abortion [...] He runs stuff more in a Christian way I guess, even if he's not really."
-Kyle Christina, Dubuque voter

"Trump just stands for a lot of the stuff we believe in, too. All the big issues. Gun rights and abortion," Christina said. "He runs stuff more in a Christian way I guess, even if he's not really."

As far as the senate race, he says it won’t make much difference for him: he’s never voted for a Democrat and doesn’t plan to.

"I’ll be voting straight Republican ticket. So yeah, I made up my mind on that," Christina said.

Voters like Salamon and Christina were won over a long time ago.

The question is whether this fight makes a difference for those rare few persuadable voters, like Valerie Floy.

Floy works in logistics management in Davenport, and she’s not registered with a party, and hasn’t made up her mind in the Senate or presidential race.

"I’m usually a last minute decision," Floy said. "I like to wait and see what all they have to say and weigh my options."

Floy does think the nomination process is being rushed, and says that could factor in to her decision.

But she says she’s not really motivated by issues. She says she thinks more about a candidate’s worldview and how it compares to hers.

"Mostly for me, it’s how their views align with my views and my ethics and my moral values," Floy said.

"It's not about demographics anymore. It’s more about kind of this psychological gut feeling that you have about the candidates. And that is what we're looking at right now with these voters."
-Patrick Murray, director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

It’s voters like Floy who could cast decisive votes.

But the Supreme Court is not likely to swing them, according to Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. He had a poll in the field in the wake of Ginsburg's death which gauged Iowa voters on the senate race and their views on the confirmation fight.

"The Supreme Court nomination process has never been one on which this type of voter, this kind of swing voter has put at the top of their list of their priorities," Murray said.

But if Democrats are able to make this fight about issues at stake, like the fate of the Affordable Care Act and abortion, he says that could peel away some voters who have doubts about Ernst.

But for those last persuadable Iowans, Murray says it’s difficult to say what could move them.

"It's not about demographics anymore. It’s more about kind of this psychological gut feeling that you have about the candidates," Murray said. "And that is what we're looking at right now with these voters."

What those gut feelings are could determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter