Joni Ernst Hopes Some Performative Feminism Might Save Her Senate Seat

The Iowa senator is behind in the polls and down with women voters. Maybe praising Amy Coney Barrett will help?

Sen. Joni Ernst smiling.
Senator Joni Ernst speaks during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett on October 13, 2020. SUSAN WALSH/Getty Images

On the first day of Senate hearings on Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Sen. Joni Ernst lauded the proceedings as a victory for womankind. “Only 100 years ago, women in this country were given the right to vote. And today we consider adding another woman to the highest court in the land,” the Iowa Republican said.

Ernst went on to dismiss criticism of Barrett’s legal writings and judicial opinions—which largely argues that the nominee’s originalist philosophy allows her to rule against vulnerable parties—as “demeaning to women,” who are “all too often perceived and judged based on who someone else needs or wants us to be, not on who we actually are.” She closed her opening statement with a smile. “This, folks, is what a mom can do,” she said, as if no other mothers—not Sandra Day O’Connor, not Ruth Bader Ginsburg—had ever been nominated to, let alone served on, the Supreme Court.

Ernst has leaned hard on this gendered line of support for Barrett. When she met with the judge on Oct. 1, she tweeted, “I am truly grateful for her example for all of us working moms, but especially for young women across this country. She has proven a mom really can do anything.” At Wednesday’s hearing session, she asked if Barrett had any advice for young women, and told the judge that her own daughter, along with “thousands upon thousands of young women out there,” was a fan. Along with Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, the one other Republican woman on the Senate Judiciary committee, Ernst is recording a podcast on Barrett’s confirmation hearings for the Heritage Foundation, which is promoting the series as the record of a triumphant moment in women’s history.

Ernst’s deployment of girl-power shtick to support Barrett’s nomination is loaded with irony, and not just because the GOP and Barrett have worked to roll back women’s rights. Ernst’s party is the one that decries identity politics, believes claims of sexism are overstated, and thinks gender diversity in politics is utterly unimportant. As Kerry Howley pointed out in a recent profile of Ernst, according to a survey from one Republican group, 71 percent of Republican voters don’t think it’s a problem that women make up less than one-quarter of the U.S. Congress (the women serving are heavily weighted to the Democratic side). So why go all in on Barrett as a historic trailblazer, the first woman to ever prove that a mom can have a demanding job?

For one thing, to represent the advancement of a woman whose jurisprudence harms women as a victory for women supports the right-wing goal of delimiting feminism to a hollow numbers game. Celebrating Barrett’s womanhood is also an attempt to make a party that is on the anti-woman side of every plausibly gendered issue—and, as a result, is steadily losing women voters—seem superficially pro-woman. But, more specifically to Ernst, this sudden invocation of an imaginary glass ceiling could be a bid to shore up her flagging re-election campaign.

Last week, for the first time, Ernst’s challenger, Democratic businesswoman Theresa Greenfield, overtook the senator in FiveThirtyEight’s election forecast. The race is still a toss-up, but Ernst hasn’t led a poll in more than a month, and Greenfield is up nearly 5 percentage points in RealClearPolitics’ polling average. Iowa’s margin of support for Donald Trump, who won the state by 9 points in 2016, has all but disappeared in recent months, and Ernst has suffered for it. In a mid-September Des Moines Register poll that found Greenfield up by 3 points—within the margin of error—in Iowa, she also had the support of 10 percent of Trump voters, while Ernst had won over just 2 percent of Hillary Clinton voters. And women went for Greenfield by a margin of 20 points.

That cavernous gender gap has shown up in a number of other recent Iowa polls: Monmouth found a 15-point preference for Greenfield among Iowa women in late September; CBS News/YouGov and Quinnipiac found a 13-point and 22-point preference, respectively, earlier this month. This decidedly Democratic female voting bloc is new for Iowa. In 2016, according to CNN’s exit polls, women supported Clinton by a margin of just 7 percentage points and went for Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Republican incumbent, by a margin of 15 points. When Ernst was last on the ballot, in 2014, women split their votes equally between Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley, then a Congressman.

What’s changed since then? Trump is part of it. As in every other state, women in Iowa have turned against the president: Monmouth, CBS, and Quinnipiac found that Iowa women prefer Joe Biden over Trump by a margin of 13 points, 11 points, and 26 points respectively. Ernst has supported the president through several debacles that hit hard for Iowans, including Trump’s trade wars with major consumers of U.S. agricultural exports and his deadly mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis.

Since COVID-19 cases reached a terrifying peak in Iowa in August and are currently on the rise again, Ernst has tried to take a more moderate stance on COVID-19—isn’t it fun that the GOP has made lifesaving pandemic mitigation protocols a politicized issue?—by gently suggesting that the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee should be tested for COVID-19 before showing up for the Barrett hearings. “I hate to do [testing] without having reasons to do so,” she said, “but I think if we’re going to be working in close proximity over long hours, it’s probably not a bad idea.” Probably not a bad idea indeed! But Grassley, Ernst’s Iowan counterpart on the committee, refuses to be tested. He’s not up for re-election this year. The hearings have proceeded without any mandatory testing, while some members who recently had COVID-19 sit in the room speaking without a mask.

With Greenfield out-fundraising and out-spending her back in Iowa, Ernst clearly hopes the free exposure of the Barrett hearings will help swing some voters—women, maybe?—her way. Voters may or may not care about Ernst’s rank hypocrisy on filling court vacancies: Like many of her colleagues, she insisted in 2016 that Supreme Court nominees should not receive hearings during presidential election years, later saying, “It’s precedent set. … So come 2020, if there’s an opening, I’m sure you’ll remind me of that.” But Iowans are pretty evenly split on whether they think Trump or the winner of the Nov. 3 election should fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court seat.

Still, the issue of abortion rights, to which Barrett’s nomination poses an imminent threat, could play a role in motivating voters to oust Ernst. One 2020 poll showed Iowa’s majority support for “legal in all or most cases” abortion rights slipping a bit, but there are still more people who support legal abortion than not, including a strong majority of independent voters. (Another poll, which asked Iowa voters whether they thought abortion should be simply “legal,” found 70 percent of respondents in support.) It’s a particularly important issue for the voters who’ll need to turn out for Greenfield: Support for abortion rights was the top must-have position for Democrats who were surveyed at the 2020 Iowa caucuses. And Iowa women, who should have been a potential growth group for Ernst, are significantly more likely to say abortion should be “legal in all or most cases” than men. Which means that even though Ernst may be banking on her performance to save her campaign, she’s got to hope that women voters aren’t listening too closely, lest they remember that her superficial language of women’s empowerment is just a cover for her eager assaults on women’s rights.