The political rise of Joni Ernst

ernstBy Zachary Toillion

In 2014, Republicans won nationwide, gaining control of the Senate and building a larger majority in the House of Representatives. But as is the case in every election, most weren’t contested. The four main battleground states came down to Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa, and Alaska. Republicans won in all of these states; but one race was an absolute blowout.

In Iowa, Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement in early 2013. Stepping up to become the Democratic nominee was congressman Bruce Braley, who represented Iowa’s preeminent purple congressional district. The race was seen to be a shoo-in for the Democrats with many of the states top Republicans deciding not to run.

Braley assembled a first rate campaign staff and maintained a large monetary advantage throughout all of 2013 and most of 2014. Braley led in all of the polls issued from January 2013 until June 2014. As the election grew closer, nearly all public polling showed a tight race until the very end.

From the beginning, Joni Ernst was fighting an uphill battle. She was relatively unknown on the state level. As state senator, Ernst hailed from Red Oak Iowa, a relatively small community. In her primary, she faced a candidate who held a double digit lead, Mark Jacobs. Jacobs was the CEO of a leading energy company and had spent millions of dollars to win the Republican primary. Jacobs set an all-time record for self-financing in the state of Iowa, spending over one million dollars.

Ernst released an ad that launched her onto the national stage. The ad started out “Hi, I’m Joni Ernst and I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I go to Washington I’ll know how to cut pork.” The ad was widely mocked, but that was the main point. The ad catapulted Ernst to national stardom and she rose to the top of the Republican field nearly overnight.

She ended up winning the primary by an astounding margin, receiving 56 percent of the vote in a field of five candidates. While other swing states like North Carolina and Colorado came down to under five percentage points, in the general election, she bested Braley by a nine percentage point margin.

Tonight, Ernst will give the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address, a spot that has typically been reserved for leading presidential and vice presidential candidates. Previous politicians who have given the the address include 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, Gov. Mitch Daniels and Sen. Marco Rubio. The address will be given immediately after Obama’s address and a mere 17 days into her first term as a U.S. senator.

The choice of Ernst is perhaps a foreshadowing of the 2016 election. Nearly all the leading Republican presidential candidates will be white men and there will be a strong desire by the party establishment to broaden the appeal of their ticket. Sen. Ernst seems to be the ideal candidate for a vice presidential running mate. She is young, a female veteran of the Iraq War and hails from one of the nation’s most closely fought swing states. Of all the newly elected senators of 2014, Ernst will be the one to watch.

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