Watch the Women

senate ruth bader ginsburg
Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez outside Schumer’s and Ginsburg’s alma mater, James Madison High School in Brooklyn. (Chuck Schumer @SenSchumer / Twitter)

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last Friday was greeted with an outpouring of grief and appreciation for her life’s work. But as she anticipated with her dying statement to her granddaughter—”My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed”—the vacancy she leaves on the Supreme Court has set off an intense partisan fight just weeks before the 2020 election.  

With voters already casting ballots in some states in the presidential and Senate races, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and President Trump have declared they will push through a Senate vote on Ginsburg’s replacement—despite the precedent McConnell set in 2016 when he blocked President Barack Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland during a presidential election year.

The looming nomination battle has supercharged media and voter attention on Senate races. Republicans currently control the Senate 53 to 47. Which party controls the next Senate could hinge on how 2020’s many women candidates fare—since women are on the ticket in nearly half of all competitive Senate races. 

This article is adapted from “Watch the Women,” which appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Ms. Part 2 will be posted on Wednesday Sept. 23, 2020.

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Six of the nine Republican women in the Senate are defending their seats this cycle. Two, Cindy Hyde-Smith (Mississippi) and Shelley Moore Capito (West Virginia), are up for reelection in traditionally Republican seats, and Wyoming will in all likelihood elect a Republican woman (Cynthia Lummis) to its open Senate seat.

But four incumbents—in Maine, Iowa, Arizona and Georgia—are in races considered by forecasters to be among the most likely to change party control. If current polling numbers continue on a similar trajectory through Election Day, Republican women could see their Senate delegation decrease.

Maine: Sara Gideon Challenges Sen. Susan Collins

Maine: Sara Gideon Challenges Sen. Susan Collins
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) [right] faces a well-funded and experienced challenger in Sara Gideon (D), Maine House Speaker.

In Maine, two women will face off in a race that is one of the most closely watched Senate contests this cycle.

Mainers value independence and four-term Republican incumbent Sen. Susan Collins has in the past thrived in this environment, tenaciously serving the state on powerful Senate committees and never missing a Senate vote. Even as Maine consistently chose Democrats in presidential elections, voters crossed party lines to reward Collins with supermajority support.

But Trump’s reshaping of the GOP has been hard to navigate for the last remaining Republican in New England’s congressional delegation. Early in Trump’s presidency, Collins bucked her party on occasion—for example, casting one of the key votes to save the Affordable Care Act.

Later, she supported some of Trump’s signature initiatives, voting for his 2017 tax bill and casting a deciding vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. She voted against convicting Trump at the Senate impeachment trial.

Collins, who did not respond to our interview requests, continues in her 2020 campaign to tout her bipartisan record and her dedication to serving Maine’s voters and boosting the state’s economy. But there are signs Mainers have soured on Collins as their view of Trump dims. The president’s favorability rating is underwater in Maine, with only 39 percent viewing him favorably. In that same poll, only 42 percent viewed Collins favorably. Forecasters expect the Maine Senate contest to be close to the finish and rate it a toss-up race.

For Collins’s Democratic opponent, Speaker of the Maine House Sara Gideon, health care and reproductive rights are top priorities. In her tenure as a state legislator, Gideon has been at the forefront of expanding access to affordable health care, pushing to expand Medicaid under the former Republican governor and finally succeeding when Gov. Janet Mills (D) took office in 2019.

Besides health care, Gideon is focused on climate change and reducing the power of special interests, two areas she sees as connected.

“If you look at any issue, from climate change to health care to the price of prescription drugs, you can see the influence of big drug and insurance and oil companies and understand why nothing is getting done,” she told Ms.

Iowa: Sen. Joni Ernst Faces Challenger Theresa Greenfield

Reproductive Rights on the Line in Iowa, Joni Ernst, Theresa Greenfield
Incumbent Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) [left] faces off against businesswoman and first-time candidate, Theresa Greenfield (D).

Iowa, another battleground state featuring a two-woman Senate contest, is flying mostly under the radar.

Joni Ernst, the incumbent Republican senator, appears to be a good fit for the GOP-leaning agricultural swing state. Raised on an Iowa farm, Ernst is a combat veteran, an evangelical and pro-life in a state with an influential religious right. Before winning her Senate seat in 2014 with Tea Party backing, she had served in local elective office. She was the first woman Iowan elected to Congress. A rape and domestic violence survivor, Ernst has sponsored several bills addressing sexual misconduct in the military and elsewhere. (Ernst did not respond to our interview requests.)

In 2016, Trump won the state by a 9-point margin over Clinton. But his trade and tariff policies have hurt farmers, and the coronavirus pandemic has damaged Iowa’s economy even further. Polls of the presidential race show Biden in a statistical tie with Trump in Iowa. The high-quality Selzer poll also shows a statistical tie between Ernst and challenger Theresa Greenfield, and forecasters have moved Iowa into the toss-up column.

Ernst’s 2020 campaign message is in sync with Trump’s, blaming China for America’s COVID-19 outbreak, as well as amplifying his condemnation of Black Lives Matter protests by sponsoring the Ending Taxpayer Funding of Anarchy Act. Outlawing abortion has been one of Ernst’s priorities as a senator. She has sponsored several bills to ban or limit abortion and restrict access to reproductive health care. After Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg announced in July that she was being treated for a recurrence of cancer, Ernst said she would support confirming and seating a Trump nominee to the Supreme Court this year, even in a lame-duck session after the election.

Greenfield, Ernst’s Democratic opponent, is a political newcomer. Like Ernst’s, her biography is appealing in Iowa. She comes from a farm and union family and most recently was the president of a small business. She has been a strong fundraiser and earned endorsements from women’s groups and labor unions. But she remains one of the least-known contenders in competitive Senate races.

Greenfield told Ms. that three things motivated her run for the Senate: the economic crisis facing farm families, defending Social Security and protecting reproductive rights and health care access. All are personal.

When she was 24 years old, Greenfield’s first husband, a lineman for the power company, was killed on the job.

“When I became a single mom, a young widow with a 13-month-old and another one on the way,” she says, “I didn’t know how I was going to pay the rent, buy diapers and put milk in the refrigerator. And seriously it was Social Security that was there for me.”

With Social Security and her husband’s union benefits, Greenfield was able to go back to school to prepare for a new career to support her family.

Starting a political career with a high-stakes Senate run in a swing state is unusual.

“For me, the obvious race to run was for federal office, because of Social Security, because of foreign policy and, of course, women’s right to make their own health care decisions,” Greenfield explains. “I’ve had the right to make my own health care decisions and I’ve had access to all the reproductive care that I’ve needed in my life. I want to make sure that my granddaughters have the same rights. So being at the table where those decisions are made in Washington is important.”

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Nancy L. Cohen is an editor-at-large for Ms. She is the author of four books, including Delirium: The Politics of Sex in America and Breakthrough: The Making of America’s First Woman President. She has appeared as a guest on MSNBC and her writing has been published in the New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere. Find her on Facebook and Twitter @nancylcohen.