How Conservative or Establishment Will Ernst Be in Washington?

WASHINGTON – Sen.-elect Joni Ernst’s (R-Iowa) campaign image as a hog-castrating, gun-toting farm girl helped her win Iowa’s open Senate seat, but what she will do as a lawmaker in the U.S. Senate’s new GOP majority is anyone’s guess.

Ernst became the first woman to represent Iowa in the U.S. Senate when she beat her Democratic opponent handily in the first competitive race in the Hawkeye State in more than a decade.

The Republican defeated Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa), a four-term congressman and former trial lawyer, in a race that came down to the wire and helped the GOP retake the Senate majority.

The candidates were vying to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who held onto the seat for 30 years.

Final polls showed the race was close, with Quinnipiac University’s poll showing Ernst with a four-point advantage and a Loras College poll giving Braley a one-point lead. Quinnipiac’s last poll Monday had both candidates in a tie.

By the time 80 percent of precincts had reported Tuesday night, things were not quite as close, with Ernst earning 51 percent of the vote. With 100 percent of precincts reported, Ernst won Iowa’s Senate race by 8.5 percentage points.

Ernst won in a state that Obama took by 6 points over Mitt Romney in 2012 and by nearly 10 percent in 2008 against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

As with all competitive Senate races this year, the Iowa contest was affected by the widespread frustration with President Obama, who has a 39 percent approval rating in the state.

The Braley campaign made a push in the last months of the race to portray Braley as a better choice for female voters in Iowa. In a late October poll, Braley led among women by eight percentage points.

According to CNN exit polls, Ernst fought her Democratic opponent to a draw among female voters – both candidates received 49 percent of the vote. Fifty-eight percent of men voted for Ernst.

She won all age groups except for 18- to 29-year-olds and won among all income brackets, except for those making less than $30,000 a year.

A relatively obscure one-term state senator from Red Oak, Iowa, Ernst was elected to that seat in 2011. The 44-year-old grandmother had a distinguished two-decade career in the military, and she is a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.

She squared off against better-funded opponents in the Republican primary, but she set herself apart by running a campaign that emphasized her military experience and rural background.

Ernst burst onto the national scene when her television ad – in which she emphasized her experience castrating hogs on an Iowa farm – went viral, helping her to cultivate an image of a down-to-earth farm girl.

In her victory speech Tuesday night, Ernst referenced her readiness to cut pork in Washington and reiterated the importance of the Iowa values she was raised with, including “honesty, service, and hard work.”

“These are the values that our parents and grandparents have taught us. They taught us to live simply, not to waste, and to help our neighbors,” she said.

She called Braley a “worthy opponent” and thanked him for running a “phenomenal campaign.”

“It’s a long way from Red Oak to Washington, from the biscuit line at Hardee’s to the United States Senate,” she said. “But, thanks to all of you, we are heading to Washington. And we are going to make ‘em squeal.”