Ernst Aims to Be Iowa's First Female Senator
In 1989, a teenage college student from Iowa completed an agricultural exchange on a family farm in the Soviet state of Ukraine. Not surprisingly, as Joni Ernst retells it, the experience gave her a profound new appreciation for her home country -- one that has colored her career choices to this day.
“It was just such a difference between the United States and the opportunity we had and what that family had in Ukraine,” she told RealClearPolitics, citing the farm’s lack of basic utilities such as a telephone and running water. (Residents had to use an outhouse behind the chicken coop, and the family shared a single bicycle in the absence of a car. Farm work was done through manual labor, supported by horses and wagons.) “That made such an impression on me when I came back to the United States and it was a matter of ‘Oh, I love my country.’”
Ernst first expressed that love by joining the Army Reserves and the National Guard, and she hopes to express it further by serving in the U.S. Senate. What makes her ambition especially noteworthy is that, should she win the GOP primary on June 3 and the general election in November, Ernst would become the first woman from Iowa to serve in Congress. Given the state’s long track record of moderate, independent-minded politics, one might be astonished to learn that only Iowa and Mississippi have yet to elect a woman to federal office or governor.
Gender issues aside, she faces something of an uphill climb, starting with winning her party’s nomination. A member of the Iowa state Senate since only 2011, the Red Oak lawmaker is one of six GOP candidates running to replace retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. The victor is expected to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley in the general election.
Endorsed last week by Mitt Romney -- whom she supported in both 2008 and 2012 -- Ernst has placed second in polls to primary opponent Marc Jacobs, trailing the former Reliant Energy CEO by seven percentage points. (Ernst’s campaign attributes Jacobs’ lead to his greater name identification among voters.)
A Feb. 25 survey by Public Policy Polling (D) found Braley leads both Ernst and Jacobs by six points, with 42 percent of voters undecided. Still, the Democrat’s average lead over his prospective opponents has shrunk from 11 points to seven since July.
Whoever gains the GOP nomination will have to then contend with another Iowa dynamic: its tradition of ideological balance among elected representatives. In the Senate, the state has had Harkin as a reliably liberal vote and Chuck Grassley as a reliably conservative one.
“Iowans tend to be politically schizophrenic in that we tend to like to have our votes cancel out,” said Shane Vander Hart, editor of the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts. He noted that the state’s House’s delegation is also split in half by party affiliation.
Ernst’s supporters are unconcerned by that fact, and insist that her conservatism will boost her electoral prospects. “Iowans in general are conservative people,” asserted Chad Airhart, Iowa’s Dallas County recorder. “I think we’re a center-right state.”
A Dec. 13 Quinnipiac poll would seem to confirm this: It found Iowa voters, by 46 percent to 41 percent, want Republicans to win control of the Senate.
Regardless, Ernst’s campaign is putting its focus on the candidate’s varied life experiences, including 21 years in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard and being a mother of three and grandmother of six. Indeed, Romney’s endorsement highlighted her history as a “mother, soldier and proven conservative.”
A company commander in Kuwait and southern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 (and now a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard), Ernst says the grim realities she witnessed in Ukraine long ago sparked her interest in giving back to and supporting her own country.
“I felt that the military was a great way for me to do that, to defend the freedoms and opportunities that we have here in the United States,” she explained. “I’ve loved it.”
Nonetheless, Ernst recounts the hardships of serving in the Iraqi desert, including driving convoys in 142-degree temperatures and sandstorms that would sweep over the region. The situation was “just [a] pretty difficult environment, but you just adapt and you just roll with it,” she recalled. “It was the greatest of experiences and it was the worst of experiences.”
Those experiences are what drew some of Ernst’s supporters to her side. Ruben Garza, an officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, said he sees the candidate’s service as apt preparation for the U.S. Senate. “When you’re a military leader, your actions and your words are highly scrutinized and you’re expected to do what you say. I would expect, [if] Senator Ernst says she’s going to achieve something, she’s going to put 110 percent effort into achieving that.”
Her personal story goes far beyond the Iraqi desert, of course. It can be traced back to the cornfields of Stanton, a farming town of about 700 in southwestern Iowa. The town’s premier landmark is a water tower modeled after a traditional Swedish coffeepot, complete with a colorful floral design, handle and spout. Erected during Stanton’s centennial in 1970, the tower is both a nod to the town’s 19th-century Swedish immigrant heritage and a tribute to native daughter Virginia Christine, an actress featured in 1960s television commercials for Folgers Coffee.
Joni Culver, the second daughter of a farming couple, was born the same year the water tower was erected. Ernst and her campaign like to highlight her roots as a farmer’s daughter, and she cited this aspect of her life when arguing for reduced government spending during a debate with other Republican candidates for the Senate: “As a farmer’s daughter, who grew up in southwest Iowa castrating hogs with her dad, I can go to Washington and cut pork,” she said to cheers from the audience.
Among those familiar with Ernst during those early years is her sixth-grade teacher and campaign supporter, Rick Gustafson. He compares the candidate’s upbringing to “Little House on the Prairie,” where Mrs. Culver would sew young Joni’s and her older sister’s clothes. (He still has a pillow Ernst’s mother gave him, embroidered with the names of all 23 students in his class.) Moreover, Gustafson remembers his former pupil’s strong work ethic and that she learned to drive her father’s tractor, as well as being a model student in class.
“Joni was one of those rare students that had high intellect, very, very good academic ability, and also had a high integrity in terms of doing the right things,” Gustafson told RCP. “She had all those and showed all those qualities at that time, even though she was still in those formative years.”
Her Laura Ingalls Wilder background aside, Ernst as a U.S. senator would be a novel proposition for Washington, D.C., in other regards. For one thing, not since Ben Nighthorse Campbell took his Harley-Davidson to work has a U.S. senator ridden a motorcycle publicly, but Ernst has been riding one for the last nine years (and learned to ride in childhood). More substantively, however, Ernst would be the first female combat veteran to serve in the upper chamber. And upon taking office in 2015, she would be 44 years old -- younger than any of the current female members of the Senate.
In addition, her pro-life stance would make Ernst something of a rarity, along with Kelly Ayotte and Deb Fischer, among the 20 women in the upper chamber.
But that’s not all that would define her. In an interview with RCP, Airhart called Ernst “a fiscally conservative mother who would want to manage our state budget the same way you have to manage your household budget.”
Not everyone sees her in such rosy terms. Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan said in a statement sent to RCP: “As Iowans learn more about [Ernst’s] record, they will see that she routinely puts the interests of her oil billionaire backers ahead of her own constituents.”
The “oil billionaire backers” reference is presumably to high-profile GOP donors Charles and David Koch. Ernst reportedly attended a seminar sponsored by the brothers last year and contributions to her campaign have been from donors affiliated with them.
Nonetheless, she significantly trails her main GOP competitor for the Senate seat, Jacobs, in fundraising (and both of them are dwarfed by Braley’s haul, which tops $4 million for the current cycle). According to the Federal Electoral Commission, Jacobs had amassed contributions of more than $730,000 at year’s end, while Ernst reported just over $200,000. Ernst’s campaign points out, however, that Jacobs loaned or donated $521,000 of his own money to his coffers, and the candidate herself insists she’s not intimidated by her opponents’ deeper pockets.
“I truly believe that money can’t just buy an office,” Ernst said. “… I think people across Iowa are going to support me because of my background, because of my experiences, because I walk in the same shoes they do. It’s concerning because, yeah, you can buy a lot more ads if you have a lot more money, but you can’t buy Iowa values.”
Asked to define that term -- “Iowa values” -- Ernst shared an anecdote about a farmer from near Villisca who had been severely injured by his livestock. The injury occurred when it was time to harvest his corn and bean crops, so community members came to his aid.
Iowans “don’t just sit back and say, ‘Woe is me. Government take care of me,’” she said.
That championing of self-reliance over government intervention may be Ernst’s policy position in a nutshell. She wants to reduce, if not altogether eliminate, the Department of Education, for example, and believes in redirecting many federal agency roles to state and local government.
“I do believe that the states know best what needs to be taught in their school systems and what and how children should be educated and what works in those particular states,” she said. “I don’t think as a federal government we should be saying one way is best for all, when we have such differences among the states.”
She also believes in reforming the tax code, which she calls “dysfunctional,” but was less specific on the details of doing so.
What Ernst is clear about is that she’ll be both a fighter and a nurturer should she win Harkins’ vacated seat.
“I care about giving back to my communities and this is just another way to do that, to give back to Iowa and say, ‘Thank you for taking care of me, now I’m going to take care of you,’” she said.