Ernst, Greenfield each call for apologies during second U.S. Senate debate

American flag flying with U.S. Capitol in the background.
A flag flies near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., in file photo from Dec. 18. 2019. (Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst and Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield asked each other to apologize Saturday during their second televised debate.

Ernst did. Greenfield didn’t.

The moment came toward the end of an hour-long debate in which the candidates also clashed on health care. WHO-TV moderator Dave Price offered the candidates a chance to ask each other a question.

Greenfield asked Ernst whether she would apologize for pushing “a conspiracy theory that suggests doctors and nurses are liars and cheats.”

Greenfield was referring to Ernst’s response to a question at a town hall in which she said she was “skeptical” of reported deaths due to COVID-19 and suggested a financial motive of increased reimbursements for COVID cases for inflating numbers.

Sen. Joni Ernst participates in a U.S. Senate debate Oct. 3, 2020 on WHO TV. (Screen shot from debate livestream)

Ernst said she had apologized for that statement. “I will apologize again tonight. I’m so sorry that my words may have offended you,” she said, going on to praise health care workers as essential.

Ernst said during the debate that she did not question that more than 200,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. She suggested her original statement stemmed from doubts that had been raised about the accuracy of Test Iowa results reporting.

Ernst, in turn, asked Greenfield to apologize to small business owners who were displaced when “you booted the mom-and-pop shops out of a development area to make way for a foreign corporation.”

Democrat Theresa Greenfield participates in a U.S. Senate candidates’ debate Oct. 3, 2020 on WHO TV. (Screen shot from debate livestream)

Greenfield instead disputed the allegation, which has been the subject of GOP advertising against her. “Well, Senator Ernst, you are misleading and wrong because that’s not what happened,” she said.

Republican ads have targeted a 2015 effort by Greenfield’s company, Colby Interests, to redevelop a Windsor Heights strip mall in favor of a proposed Aldi grocery store. Greenfield said the tenants were given more notice than required by the month-to-month lease and the company “helped many of them move on to a new location, some of them in the same properties that we owned.”

The Iowa Senate race is the third-most expensive in the country, with TV and radio ad spending now totaling $13.3 million, NBC News reported Sept. 30, based on data from Advertising Analytics.

Most polls have shown a close race. The most recent Des Moines Register/Mediacom Iowa Poll of likely voters, released two weeks ago, showed Greenfield with a 3-point edge over Ernst.

On health care, neither Greenfield nor Ernst were willing to give President Trump a grade on his management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Greenfield, asked to give Trump a rating on his performance, said she’d “let the pundits decide.”

She went on to say, “But I’ll tell you, when it comes to this pandemic, there’s a lot of frustration and we need stronger leadership, we need clear guidelines, we need the truth. We need to know what every individual, what our communities, can do to contain this virus because our public health is at stake.”

Ernst also demurred on giving a letter grade but defended Trump’s move to curtail travel from China, saying “he did very early on, put a travel ban, travel restriction, on those that were coming in from those hot spot areas. And I’ll remind everyone that Democrats criticized the president quite heavily, especially Vice President Joe Biden, because the president was putting his foot down and saying, ‘No travel, and we want to make sure that people are screened and that they’re quarantined.’”

The two candidates agreed on the need for more COVID-19 testing but differed on the role of the federal government versus state and local officials in managing the virus response. Ernst said state and local officials should take the lead, while Greenfield argued for a stronger role for the federal government.

The candidates will meet for a third televised debate on Oct. 15, sponsored by KCCI-TV and the Des Moines Register.