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Will Supreme Court fight galvanize voters in the Midwest?

The fight over nominating a replacement for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is consuming Capitol Hill and upending the election, which is already underway in many states. How are American voters reacting to the court vacancy and other key political issues? John Yang talks to Washington Post columnist Gary Abernathy, who is based in Ohio, and author and journalist Sarah Smarsh, based in Kansas.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court nomination fight has already consumed Capitol Hill and upended the election that is under way in many states.

    John Yang is here an update on how voters are reacting to the vacancy at the court and other key issues.

  • John Yang:

    And, Judy, for that, we check in with Gary Abernathy. He's a columnist for The Washington Post, He lives in and is based in Hillsboro, which is in Southwestern Ohio. And Sarah Smarsh, she's a journalist and author of the book "Heartland." She lives outside Topeka in Northeastern Kansas.

    Welcome to you both. Thanks for joining us.

    Sarah, I want to start with you.

    As Judy said, the nomination — or the expected nomination to — for a successor to Justice Ginsburg is already consuming Washington. But, as we know, what consumes Washington doesn't necessarily consume the country beyond.

    I want to start with you, because Kansas has got a Senate race to be decided in this election, an open seat, picking a replacement for retiring Republican Pat Roberts.

    Is this moving voters, or is this likely to have — this Supreme Court nomination, likely to have an effect on voters, either in intensity or maybe how they vote, do you think?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Well, I think, if there's anywhere that the current events surrounding the Supreme Court could move the outcome of a Senate election, it would be Kansas.

    It's an extremely close race, as you cited, which is sort of remarkable and historic, in that Kansas hasn't sent a Democrat to the United States Senate since 1932. Currently, the Democratic and Republican candidates are in a statistical tie as of at least polling done in August.

    The Democratic candidate has outraised the Republican candidate, at least as of second quarter numbers. So, that is all to say that this is a very tight race and very much in the mold of Joe Biden's campaign.

    The Democratic candidate, Barbara Bollier, is running as a centrist. She's hoping to appeal to folks who are not far right. They might be moderate Republicans, and certainly Democrats of all stripes.

    And therein lie a lot of voters, I think, who would be concerned about this current vacancy and the Senate's power in relationship to the bench as we approach the election.

  • John Yang:

    Gary, how about you? Do you think this is going to make a difference among voters in Ohio?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Yes, I do, John.

    Thanks for having me.

    Sarah, good to see you.

    First of all, let me say that, even in Southwestern Ohio, where I'm at and which is very conservative Trump country, there was a sense of sadness over Justice Ginsburg's death. I think that, even though most of the people here didn't agree with most of her ruling from the court, they had a great respect for her as a person and her long fight with cancer. And there was a real sadness that greeted her passing.

    But, on the politics of it, yes, people are motivated now. Early notions that maybe Trump shouldn't fill the seat or — and the Senate shouldn't go ahead with the nomination process and the hearings and the confirmation really were angering people.

    They feel like Trump was elected for all four years and, until the end, despite what happened in 2016 and that whole argument, he's got a job to do. And they see it, obviously, as a chance to add another conservative to the court.

    And if they need any extra motivation, and most Trump voters don't need much extra motivation — they're very devoted — but this gives it to them. This really reinforces the importance of whether a Donald Trump or a Joe Biden hold the Oval Office.

  • John Yang:

    Sarah, going back to you in Kansas, the other issue that has been dominating Washington has been the COVID pandemic.

    And we just passed a threshold of 200,000 U.S. COVID deaths. How are your neighbors and friends in Kansas viewing this? Are they still worried about this? Are they worried about the financial effects of the previous shutdowns? And how are they viewing this now?

  • Sarah Smarsh:

    Well, I think, to some extent, the response to the pandemic is, of course, politicized and can be sort of predicted along party lines.

    But, by and large, the majority of Kansans are very aware that there's a health crisis afoot and that it dovetails with an economic crisis. Kansas is a state where, as in some other Midwest places, cases are on the rise.

    We had an easier time early in the pandemic, when major coastal urban areas were suffering their worst hit. And we're in that moment right now here in Kansas.

    Earlier this week, Governor Laura Kelly, in her weekly briefing, kind of lamented we had really passed a make-or-break moment in terms of an ability to contain the virus as a state. And she pointed to Republican legislators basically curbing her attempts at a statewide mask mandate long ago, many months ago.

    Meanwhile, we're a non-Medicaid expansion state. And that, coupled with the ACA coming up to the Supreme Court in November, makes for a kind of perfect storm that is quite perilous for citizens of the state, residents of the state.

  • John Yang:

    Gary, your governor in Ohio, Republican Mike DeWine, was one of the more aggressive ones early on in the pandemic, even moving away from in-person voting for the primary in your state.

    How is the pandemic being viewed among your neighbors in Hillsboro?

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Yes, that's — in Hillsboro, of course, is different than a lot of other places in Ohio.

    What DeWine did was popular, particularly really, ironically, more among Democrats, and not popular with a lot of Republicans, especially conservatives in Southern Ohio.

    And it was interesting to note, when President Trump was in Ohio yesterday, when he introduced Governor DeWine, there were a lot of boos at the Trump rally for DeWine, which I think caught even Trump off-guard.

    He said, well, don't worry, DeWine is opening things up again. Things are getting better.

    So, the idea of closing anything back up is not popular in this part of the state. A lot of folks here didn't feel like it needed to be kind of a one-size-fits-all applied here, as it was across the whole state. In some of the urban areas and the harder-hit areas, people understand that.

    But in some rural areas and where people were always able to social distance more, and it just didn't spread that badly, being ordered to shut down, to not go to work hurt particularly a lot of small businesses. And they're still not very happy about that.

  • John Yang:

    Gary Abernathy in Ohio, Sarah Smarsh in Kansas, thank you both very much.

  • Gary Abernathy:

    Thank you, John.

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