DES MOINES, Iowa — Two Republican senators, hailing from different parts of the country and with different ideological positions and levels of experience, are facing similar challenges as they seek re-election with just over a week until Election Day.
Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Maine Sen. Susan Collins have both broken barriers: Ernst is the first woman to serve in federal elected office from the Hawkeye state, and Collins has risen to become the most senior Republican woman in the Senate.
Now, both are facing races deemed toss-ups by the handicappers at the Cook Political Report as Democrats try to regain Senate control. Add in Arizona GOP Sen. Martha McSally, who has trailed in her re-election bid for most of the year, and Republicans are at risk of losing a third of their seats currently held by women.
For both Collins and Ernst, Monday’s expected vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Comey Barrett underscores the balancing act both women have faced even as they have taken opposing positions over the nomination of a woman to the Supreme Court.
Women “are all too often perceived and judged based on who someone else needs or wants us to be not on who we actually are,” Ernst told Judge Amy Coney Barrett during the first day of the Judiciary confirmation hearings. “I cannot speak for those that would attempt to undermine your nomination, but as a fellow woman, a fellow mom, a fellow Midwesterner, I see you for who you are.”
Those remarks came days after Ernst described Barrett as a “wonderful decent person” and “a remarkable jurist” while on the campaign trail in Iowa, and just weeks after the senator reversed her position on following precedent to wait on confirming a Supreme Court nominee this close to an election.
In 2016, during Merrick Garland’s nomination under the Obama administration, Ernst released a statement arguing that a confirmation should wait, writing, “In the midst of a critical election, the American people deserve to have a say in this important decision that will impact the course of our country for years to come.”
She defended the about-face while debating her Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield, in late September, saying she was following the “Vice President Joe Biden rule.”
“The Biden precedent says that when there are divided parties — you have a Presidency of one party, and a Senate Majority of another party — you wait,” Ernst maintained, “Right now we do not have a divided government situation.”
To Iowa Democratic voters Bianca and Sara Calderone, Ernst’s reversal was hypocritical.
“I feel like the Supreme Court is one of the most important things we have set in place right now,” Bianca told NBC News, after casting her ballot for the first time in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I just don’t think it’s a decision that should be rushed either,” Sara added, “I think it’s something that we need to explore all the viable options, all the good candidates, not just pick one and just get it in before Election Day.”
But Republican voter Becky White felt reassured.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen with the [presidential] election so if we get [the Supreme Court Justice] put into place, that gives me a peace of mind.” White told NBC News in Des Moines, Iowa. “You know, we’re lucky. I mean — I’m sorry about Ruth Ginsburg but, the opportunity is there.”
While Ernst’s approval rating has dropped significantly in just her first term in the Senate, Collins has a decades-long history in the complicated political state like Maine.
Voters who stood by Collins in the past are now turning on her, citing her vote to acquit President Trump of both impeachment charges, her confirmation vote in support of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her vote in support of the Republican tax overhaul.
“I had to go with [Democratic challenger Sara] Gideon. I voted for Collins all these years and I’ve seen how she’s voted,” Maine voter Jackie Fox told NBC News after turning in her ballot early in Lewiston in early October. “I always used to vote for the person, not the party. The party wasn’t that important to me — it’s the person. After a couple years of this administration I said I can’t do it anymore.”
Now, Collins is depending on reclaiming her long-lived support from those who appreciate her bipartisanship — just as all eyes are on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett.
Collins maintained her stance that a vote for a new Supreme Court nominee should wait until after the election. Because the final confirmation vote is scheduled for Monday, eight days before Election Day, Collins said she intends to vote “no.”
“It’s clearly not a political calculation since it does not make a lot of people happy,” Collins pointed out in a recent debate. “It’s a matter of principle; it’s a matter of fairness in a democracy.”