Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democrat Theresa Greenfield each argued during a televised debate Saturday that she is better suited to help lead the nation through a coronavirus pandemic that has left President Donald Trump and thousands more hospitalized this weekend.
Ernst, who is seeking a second term, touted her efforts in securing federal funding for coronavirus relief in the $2 trillion CARES Act and criticized Greenfield for opposing against a “skinny” relief package that Republicans supported but Democrats said didn’t go far enough.
“Democrats outright rejected that bill (and) decided doing nothing is OK,” she said. “I continue to push for that.”
Greenfield, a businesswoman who has not held elected office, said Congress must move more quickly to provide the next round of relief.
“I’ve been calling for a phase four stimulus package and more investment in testing, in PPE — making sure, number one, we’re putting the health and safety of Iowans first and foremost,” she said.
The debate came at a particularly tumultuous moment. President Trump was transported to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Friday to be treated for COVID-19, and his chief of staff told reporters earlier in the day that he faces a “critical” 48 hours ahead.
A number of Trump’s staff and advisers have also tested positive for the virus. So have several Republican senators who sit on the Judiciary Committee.
Ernst, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, tested negative for the coronavirus before arriving for the debate, said moderator Dave Price, as had Greenfield. The candidates’ lecterns were separated by about nine feet, he said, and there was no studio audience to help protect against the spread of the virus.
Greenfield was the only candidate to mention the president’s diagnosis.
“It is a solemn time right now with our president in the hospital, with a number of senators — with Americans — sick with this virus,” she said in her opening remarks. “And I want to offer them all my best wishes for a full and speedy healthy recovery.”
The candidates were divided on how the federal government should interact with states in addressing the pandemic.
Ernst said the federal government plays an important role in providing resources, but argued that states know best about whether they need things like mask mandates, business restrictions or stay-at-home orders.
Greenfield advocated a stronger role for the federal government, saying it should be “the authority on how we get through this health and economic crisis.” She called for greater adherence to the guidance set by public health experts.
In one exchange, Greenfield called on Ernst to apologize to health care workers for comments she made at a campaign stop last month. There, Ernst echoed a conspiracy theory by expressing skepticism about the reported coronavirus numbers and suggesting health care workers might be inflating them to get higher reimbursements from Medicare.
The senator said Saturday she had offered an apology to health care workers. “I am so sorry that my words may have offended you,” she said. “I know that you are tremendous workers, you are essential workers, you are providing care for our loved ones every single day.”
The debate came just two days before Iowans can begin casting their votes in the race, which polling shows is especially competitive this year.
A September Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll showed the race remains close, with Greenfield leading Ernst by 3 percentage points, 45% to 42%. That falls within the poll’s margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.
Underscoring its competitiveness, campaigns and outside groups have spent massively to try to persuade Iowans. More than $155 million worth of political advertising has been booked — more than in every other Senate race in the country but one.
The candidates sparred in a contentious televised debate Sept. 28 that was marked by heated cross talk through much of the hour-long broadcast.
Though much of Saturday’s debate was cordial, it grew more tense as it progressed, with each candidate accusing the other of being dishonest on multiple occasions.
Ernst referenced a development deal Greenfield’s company led in 2015 that displaced local business owners, as well as lawsuits filed against the company.
“Why on earth would we take someone that has this record of dishonesty and failed business leadership to the United States Senate?” she asked.
Greenfield pushed back, saying the company gave every tenant more notice than was required and helped some of them to relocate.
“I am proud of my service to small businesses and I will take that with me to the United States Senate,” shes aid. “And Senator Ernst, frankly, I’m surprised you are one of the few Republicans I’ve ever met who hates economic development.”
Greenfield also said Ernst was being “dishonest and certainly misleading” in describing her stance on racism.
Greenfield has said often that “systemic racism” in policing and other institutions should be addressed. Ernst has said that amounts to calling police officers “racist.”
“Well, Sen. Ernst is being dishonest and certainly misleading,” Greenfield said. “I will tell you, Black and brown Americans and Iowans have faced systemic racism for generations, and discrimination, and it is time we take action.”
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