Politico

SCOTUS battle crashes into decisive Senate race in Iowa


GRIMES, Iowa — Republican Sen. Joni Ernst joined the GOP blockade of Merrick Garland in 2016, and two years later she reiterated that the Senate shouldn’t take up a Supreme Court nominee in a presidential election year.

But with Senate Republicans now forging ahead with confirmation proceedings for Amy Coney Barrett, the first-term senator is right there with them.

“In my mind, I’ve been consistent because we had divided government then between the Senate and a Republican majority versus the president,” Ernst, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in an interview here last week, arguing that Garland wouldn’t have been approved, anyway. “But we have consolidated power between the branches now, and I think it’s appropriate. So I’ll do my duty.”

Yet Ernst — locked in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country — isn’t taking much heat from her Democratic opponent over her change. In an interview, Theresa Greenfield brushed off a question about Ernst’s consistency by saying voters would make that judgment, and even criticized claims from Democrats that the entire confirmation process is illegitimate, calling them “divisive.”

Greenfield said that a vote on Barrett should wait until after the election so voters can have their say and criticized the rush to confirm the lifetime appointee. But with the confirmation moving forward, she also called on senators in her party to meet with Barrett and carefully review her nomination.

“Do your job is what I advise, and it’s the job we’ve done for as long as our country’s been around,” Greenfield told POLITICO. “And so I hope all senators take the time to carefully review and get to know the nominee.”

Greenfield’s posture speaks to the tenuous politics of the Barrett nomination in the handful of races that will determine control of the Senate, including Iowa’s. Democrats are confident that the confirmation battle will play in their favor by further energizing the liberal base — especially among its small-donor army, which is flooding Senate races with campaign cash — and by highlighting the threat to the Affordable Care Act in front of the court just weeks after the election. Republicans are equally optimistic that the issue benefits them, much like the Brett Kavanaugh hearings did in 2018: animating conservative voters in red-tinted states with Senate contests, even if national public opinion tilts the other direction.

But both sides are plainly wary of a boomerang effect: In Iowa, Greenfield is avoiding any perception of disrespecting Barrett, a highly accomplished woman from the Midwest. And Ernst said during a debate Monday night that she thinks that Roe v. Wade will likely stand even if Barrett is confirmed, an effort to downplay one of the major threats to the left that a conservative court poses.

The Iowa Senate race has emerged as a potential tipping point for the chamber: Polls show Greenfield with a narrow edge over the incumbent, and national groups have poured tens of millions into the state. But the Supreme Court fight hasn’t made its way into paid advertising from either party, and some operatives on the ground doubt the confirmation fight will alter the trajectory of the race in either campaign’s favor.

“I believe at this point that it’s going to help [Ernst] because I believe that she is making the case that she has a duty to perform. And I also believe this is going to absolutely ignite our base,” said Jeff Kaufmann, the state GOP chair. “Is there a chance it could be a wash because you ignite the left as well? I suppose there’s a chance.”

Scott Brennan, a former state Democratic Party chair, also used the term “wash” to describe the political fallout.

“We’re all so polarized,” Brennan said. “If you’re somebody who follows politics … — to the extent that you follow who Supreme Court nominees are, and it’s going to tip the balance — you’re probably already somebody who’s going to vote and know who you’re voting for.”

The nomination fight hasn’t yet knocked either candidate off their existing platforms. Ernst, who roared into the Senate in the 2014 wave and quickly rose the ranks of the party into leadership, has emphasized her efforts back home to visit all 99 of the state’s counties every year. In a kickoff for an RV tour here last weekend — at a gas station so she could fill the tank with E-15, to emphasize her efforts for the state’s biofuel industry — she didn’t mention the court but attacked Greenfield for not visiting every corner of the state to campaign.

“They want to know their elected officials. They want to be able to have that conversation face-to-face with their elected officials,” Ernst said to a small crowd in masks. “I am fighting for Iowa. And, folks, you can’t fight for Iowa in the basement of your home.”

It didn’t alter Greenfield’s message either: She has made health care central to her campaign and has spent months criticizing Ernst’s votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act and highlighting the Justice Department’s lawsuit to overturn it, long before there was a Supreme Court vacancy. Greenfield, a 56-year-old businesswoman, shrugged off the criticism about her campaign schedule, saying she’s done over 250 events, including plenty of virtual ones on Zoom because of Covid-19 spikes in the state.

“The only reason Sen. Ernst wants to make this campaign about our schedules is because she can’t get back here and explain her votes to gut pre-existing conditions,” Greenfield said, seated at a picnic table on the patio of a local barbecue joint in Ames, with the Iowa State University football game on at the bar. The stop came after she spent the morning touring two farms in nearby counties, including a wind farm, early that morning to emphasize the state’s agriculture and energy economy.

Ernst, the 50-year-old first-term senator, did not take a position on the administration backing that lawsuit when asked about its impact in the court. But she insisted Republicans could be trusted to work to protect pre-existing conditions protections in the Senate if the law is overturned, despite their past failure to unite behind comprehensive health care legislation.

“We’ll see what the decision is. But that’s in the court’s hands,” Ernst said. “It’s our job as [members of] Congress to make sure it’s protected.”

The Republican senator also defended moving forward on the court nomination by pointing to calls from some Democrats to end the filibuster and pack the court. She argued the issue would net to benefit her because Iowa voters would bristle at possible changes to procedures in the Senate or Supreme Court.

“I believe that most Iowa voters will say this is the right thing to do because, should Chuck Schumer do what he has said he is going to do, it will radically change the United States,” Ernst said, pointing to Schumer’s comments that “nothing is off the table.”

Greenfield says she opposes adding justices to the high court. But in the interview, she said she would look at changes to Senate rules such as forcing a talking filibuster on the floor. She did not say how she would vote on eliminating the filibuster entirely.

“I want to figure out if we can work together first, and then I’ll take a look at reforms,” she said.

In 2016, as Trump cruised in Iowa by more than 9 percentage points, the politics of the Supreme Court vacancy broke sharply against Democrats. Sen. Chuck Grassley won another term overwhelmingly after not moving forward on Merrick Garland’s nomination as chair of the Judiciary Committee.

Patty Judge, the former Democratic lieutenant governor who lost to Grassley four years ago, said she thinks it will be different the politics will break differently this time — especially with Trump and Biden locked in a dead heat in the state.

“It’s six weeks until an election, and that is pushing it. That is really pushing it,” Judge said of the GOP confirmation timeline, speaking before Barrett was announced as Trump’s pick. “We have not even gone through a period of mourning yet, and they’re talking about who the nominees are and how they’re going to get this orchestrated. And it really, I think, leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.”

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