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How Sen. Ernst's Handling Of Amy Coney Barrett's Nomination May Affect Her Reelection

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the U.S. Senate. This week, she's back in front of the cameras as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And activists hope her handling of the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court could make a difference to voters. Iowa Public Radio's Kate Payne reports.

KATE PAYNE, BYLINE: 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.

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JONI ERNST: During a presidential election year, the people should make that decision, and the people made that decision. And we did have a new president.

PAYNE: That's Ernst defending her position in a 2018 interview with the Des Moines Register editorial board. And she promised to be consistent.

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ERNST: So come 2020, if there's an opening, I'm sure you'll remind me of that.

PAYNE: But now Ernst says she will vote on a Supreme Court nominee before the election. During a recent debate with her Democratic opponent, Theresa Greenfield, on Iowa PBS, Ernst tried to downplay what Amy Coney Barrett's nomination could mean for abortion rights.

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ERNST: I think the likelihood of Roe v. Wade being overturned is very minimal. I don't see that happening.

PAYNE: Ernst was vulnerable even before the Supreme Court fight. Recent polling shows Greenfield, who's never held public office, with a very narrow lead over Ernst. And a bare majority of Iowans think the hearings should wait. At a vigil for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Cedar Rapids the day after she died, Democrat Anne Salamon (ph) was livid.

ANNE SALAMON: 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.

PAYNE: Money has poured into this race in the wake of Ginsburg's death. Greenfield raised $28 million in the last quarter. That's more than both candidates raised during the entire 2014 Senate race combined. Outside groups like Protect Our Care have blanketed the state in ads.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The winner of the presidential election should pick the next justice. But Joni Ernst disagrees.

PAYNE: The question is whether this fight makes a difference for those rare, few persuadable voters like Valerie Floy (ph), who works in logistics management in the city of Davenport. She's not registered with a party and hasn't made up her mind in the Senate or presidential race.

VALERIE FLOY: I'm usually a last-minute decision. I like to wait and see what all they have to say.

PAYNE: Floy does think the confirmation is being rushed and says that could factor into her decision. But she's not really motivated by issues. Her focus...

FLOY: How their views align with my views and my ethics and my moral values.

PAYNE: The Supreme Court fight is not likely to motivate many voters like Floyd, says Patrick Murray. He directs the Monmouth University Polling Institute.

PATRICK MURRAY: 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.

PAYNE: If Democrats are able to make it about issues like the fate of the Affordable Care Act and abortion, he says that could peel away some voters. But for those last persuadable Iowans, Murray says it's hard to say what could move them.

MURRAY: It's not about demographics anymore. It's more about kind of this psychological gut feeling that you have about the candidates.

PAYNE: What those gut feelings are could determine control of the U.S. Senate. For NPR News, I'm Kate Payne in Iowa City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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