Sen. Joni Ernst--From Iowa Farm Girl to GOP Star

Sen. Joni Ernst--From Iowa Farm Girl to GOP Star
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A year ago, Joni Ernst was a virtually unknown state legislator in Iowa running a long-shot bid for the U.S. Senate. She hadn’t yet released the “squeal” ad that would put her on the path to GOP stardom—and made hog castration part of the national campaign lexicon. That wouldn’t come until more than a month later.

Now, not even a month into her first term, Sen. Ernst is preparing for prime time, having been chosen by party leaders to give the Republican response to the president’s State of the Union address. No new GOP senator has ever been tapped for the job.

Ernst’s fast rise—from a self-characterized farm girl to the first woman to represent her state in Congress—exemplifies what many people love about politics. Her story and resume—she’s also the first woman combat veteran in the Senate—has charmed even the institution’s dinosaurs. Mitch McConnell said she brings a “unique perspective” to the chamber.

By winning the Iowa seat held for three decades by Democrat Tom Harkin, Ernst helped Republicans win control of the Senate and make McConnell the majority leader.

Eight other now-senators helped their party with this feat. A slew of now-governors helped the GOP in a variety of states. But leaders find the 44-year-old woman from Red Oak to be among the party’s most refreshing new faces, and hope that viewers who see and hear her in their living rooms or on the mobile devices tonight start to think of people like her when they think of the Republican Party.

National Democrats don’t think it will work. Emily’s List went so far as to call the selection of Ernst as the party’s State of the Union responder “window dressing” and a “transparent attempt to appeal to women without having to offer any policies that appeal to women.” The group said the same about last year’s selection, House GOP conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who was considered successful.Democrats also take issue with many of the more conservative stances she took during the primary campaign, and like to describe her as a new Sarah Palin. Back in August, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Ernst "an onion of crazy." 

It’s a big moment for Ernst, who will deliver the address from the Senate building. The job carries rewards, but the pressure is enormous and expectations are high. The newly sworn-in senator is tasked with laying out her party’s vision for governing over the next year. She is expected to address economic and foreign policy concerns, weaving in her military background. Ernst is assigned to the Armed Services Committee, as well as to panels on agriculture, homeland security and small business.

But an even more career-defining moment for this new senator could come a year from now, when her state hosts the all-important first-in-the-nation caucuses for the 2016 presidential contest. Ernst is the most popular woman in Iowa right now, and her support is currency in the Hawkeye State.

“Any candidate is going to call on her when they visit the state,” says Iowa GOP strategist Tim Albrecht. “Every single candidate is going to want her in the room when they come here, and I think it’s safe to say she will be the most popular person in the room.”

Right now, Ernst’s style appears to be more workhorse, in the mold of one-time Sen.  Hillary Clinton, than showman, like Sen. Ted Cruz. The Iowa freshman has forgone the cable news shows and national media for now and is instead giving her time to state and local media. "There will be plenty of opportunities for that in the future," she told The Des Moines Register. "What we really want to do is focus on Iowa."

Ernst is also embarking on her own 99-county tour in the state, taking a cue from popular Iowa Republicans Gov. Terry Brandstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has mentored the freshman senator in her first few weeks on the job.

But the new senator also embraces the opportunity to play a role in the 2016 presidential contest, which will be a defining election year for her party. Ernst recently announced she’ll host a “Hogs and Harleys” fundraising event for Republicans in June, her own version of the Harkin Steak Fry, a Democratic tradition for political aspirants hosted by the now-retired senator. Ernst’s new event will attract a host of Republican presidential candidates hoping to stake claims in the early state.

Ernst is expected to stay neutral in the primary, welcoming candidates to her state and supporting the party process, as the governor is known to do. But as she is well aware, hosting an event like this will make her a player in the field. And she will be a plus for whomever emerges as the nominee.

“Joni has a national fundraising base,” says Albrecht. “She was able to attract dollars from across the country that would have eluded us with a less successful candidate.”

Ernst is hailed by her party as a model when it comes to modern Republican campaigns. Ernst garnered support from tea party conservatives and establishment-aligned Republicans in her Senate bid and overcame a crowded primary. While her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, made a series of missteps, operatives on both sides of the aisle compliment Ernst’s mastery of the retail campaign.

Ernst ran as a gun-toting, motorcycle-riding, leather-wearing mother and soldier, pledging to shake things up in Washington. It’s too early to tell what kind of difference she can actually make, though leaders are encouraging her to try. Her next big spotlight, though, may come in 2016.


Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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