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.
Sens. Joni Ernst of Iowa and Susan Collins of Maine have both broken barriers: Ernst is the first woman to serve in federal elected office from Iowa, 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 control of the Senate. Add Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who has trailed in her bid for election to a full Senate term most of the year, and Republicans are at risk of losing a third of their seats currently held by women.
Monday’s expected vote to confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Comey Barrett underscores the balancing act Collins and Ernst 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 Barrett during the first day of Judiciary Committee 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.”
A few days earlier, Ernst described Barrett as a “wonderful, decent person” and “a remarkable jurist” while on the campaign trail in Iowa, just weeks after she reversed her position on following precedent to wait to confirm a Supreme Court nominee this close to an election.
In 2016, when Merrick Garland was nominated during 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.”
Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics
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 Calderone said after casting her ballot for the first time in Cedar Rapids.
Sara Calderone said: “I just don’t think it’s a decision that should be rushed, either. 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 election, so if we get [the Supreme Court justice] put into place, that gives me a peace of mind.” White said in Des Moines. “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 her first term in the Senate, Collins has a decadeslong history in the complicated political state of Maine.
Voters who stood by Collins in the past are now turning on her, citing her vote to acquit President Donald Trump of both impeachment charges, her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and her vote for 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 said after turning in her ballot early in Lewiston early this month. “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 support from those who appreciate her bipartisanship — just as all eyes are on Barrett’s nomination.
Collins maintained her stance that a vote for a Supreme Court nominee should wait until after the election. Collins said that because the final confirmation vote is scheduled for Monday, eight days before Election Day, she intends to vote “no.”
“It’s clearly not a political calculation, since it does not make a lot of people happy,” Collins said in a recent debate. “It’s a matter of principle. It’s a matter of fairness in a democracy.”