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.”
Democrats worked to paint Ernst as too extreme politically for the state, while Republicans capitalized on various comments made by Braley and Harkin.
In many ways this was Braley’s race to lose. The Iowa Democrat began the race with an advantage due to his name recognition as a congressman. When Harkin unexpectedly announced that he would be stepping down at the end of his fifth term, the party chose Braley to inherit the senator’s seat.
But a series of gaffes, including disparaging Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) as a “farmer who never went to law school,” helped the Ernst campaign depict Braley as out of touch with Iowa farmers – a key demographic in the Hawkeye State.
At a Democratic barbecue right before the election, Harkin made headlines when he called Ernst “attractive,” likening her looks to those of singer Taylor Swift, but “wrong for the state of Iowa.”
Even multiple visits from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and first lady Michelle Obama could not save the Braley campaign.
The final Des Moines Register poll for the race found that likely voters regarded Ernst as a candidate who better reflected Iowa values, cared more about people like them, and was more like a regular Iowan.
Ernst, who opposes abortion, co-sponsored a “personhood” amendment in the Iowa state legislature. After winning the primary, she adopted a more moderate tone, abandoning hardline rhetoric but maintaining her position on issues such as healthcare and foreign policy. During the general election campaign, she stopped calling Obama a “dictator” and accusing the UN of plotting against Iowa farmers.
She pledged that as a senator she would work to shut down the U.S. Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency – two ideas popular among Tea Party supporters. But Ernst also said that she will try to reach across the aisle on at least one issue – legislation to deal with sexual harassment in the military.
Ernst received endorsements from divergent wings of the Republican Party, ranging from Tea Party favorites Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and McCain. Her campaign received funding from American Crossroads, the super PAC associated with Karl Rove, and from Freedom Partners Action, the group organized by libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch.
Ernst said repealing Obamacare would be her first priority in the Senate – an area where she has common ground with Cruz, who said Tuesday that Americans have given Congress “another chance” to repeal the president’s signature healthcare law. At a campaign stop before the election, Ernst and McCain criticized Obama’s handling of ISIS and the Ukraine conflict. McCain, who will take over the helm of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee in January, said he wants Ernst to serve on the panel.
Ernst’s vagueness on many policy issues and her short legislative record – albeit very conservative – put a question mark over whether she will join the more conservative wing of the party, or if she will work with the GOP establishment. Based solely on her campaign, however, Ernst promises to be one of the most conservative members of the U.S. Senate.