Early last Thursday morning, Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for Senate in Iowa, swung by the Des Moines Rotary Club to speak at the group’s monthly lunch meeting. Mostly white and mostly male, the club counts much of the state’s political elite among its members. The day Ernst visited, I spotted the current Republican secretary of state, the GOP’s nominee to succeed him, a Republican state senator and former congressional nominee, and a former state GOP chair in the crowd. Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who is about to win his sixth term in office, wasn’t there, but his son Eric was sworn into the club before Ernst spoke.
Ernst is one of the surprise successes of the 2014 midterms. Thanks to a campaign predicated on playing up the state’s growing urban-rural divide and tarring her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, as an out-of-touch urbanite, the one-term state senator has narrowly led most recent polls and holds a two-point advantage in Real Clear Politics‘ polling average ahead of next Tuesday’s election.
Ernst is often described as the harbinger of a tea party revival. She supports a “personhood” amendment that could make all abortions illegal and endanger birth control and in vitro fertilization. She has called for President Barack Obama’s impeachment and thinks states should be free to nullify federal laws. She has vowed to vote for a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage, and she buys into the conspiracy theory that the United Nations’ “Agenda 21” is a secret plan to usurp democracy.
If elected, Ernst would almost certainly be among the most conservative senators in the country. Yet she owes her rise to prominence not to the tea party, but to the Rotary Club types—the GOP establishment, which urged her to run and bet that her biography and folksy political charm would matter far more than her extreme policy positions. She is somehow both the handpicked champion of the mainline business-minded wing of the Republican Party and a hard-right conservative reactionary—the logical end-result of the ongoing merger of the tea party and the rest of the GOP. And if she wins on Tuesday, she’ll set an example that Republican candidates will emulate for years to come.
Ernst’s life story is at the heart of her appeal, and she knows it. “I didn’t have a lot as a kid, but I didn’t know any different,” she told the Rotary crowd, regaling the room with tales of her childhood on a small family farm in southwest Iowa. She explained how, in 1989, she was one of 18 Iowa State undergrads sent on an agricultural exchange to a collective farm in Ukraine, which was then still a part of the Soviet Union. Ernst was shocked by the lack of modern amenities—the farm had no telephone, no running water, no car, no refrigerator. “They didn’t have those freedoms, and you could tell they hungered for that,” she said. The experience pushed her to join ROTC when she returned to campus.
Ernst built a career in the armed forces. She deployed to Kuwait in 2003 at the start of the second Iraq War, and serves as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard to this day, leading the largest battalion in the state. In 2004, she ran for county auditor in her home county. She won, and was reelected in 2008. Then, in 2010, Branstad tapped Kim Reynolds, the state senator in Ernst’s district, as his lieutenant governor. Reynolds and local Republicans recruited Ernst to run for Reynolds’ seat, which she won with 67.4 percent of the vote.
Ernst’s biography—and her record of electoral success—helped rally establishment Republicans to her cause, says Steve Roberts, a former chairman of the state party.
When Sen. Tom Harkin, the five-term Democratic incumbent, announced his retirement in 2013, the mainline GOP crowd knew Ernst was their woman. “She was a different kind of candidate, which was the only way we were going to maybe have a chance to beat Braley,” Roberts says.
Soon after Harkin announced he would retire, Roberts and a gaggle of other establishment GOPers encouraged Ernst to run for the soon-to-be-open seat. That group included David Oman—a former chief of staff to Branstad who ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1998 and was co-chair of Mitt Romney’s Iowa campaign—and David Kochel, Romney’s lead political strategist in the state. In July 2013, Ernst announced she would run for Harkin’s seat. Reynolds, the lieutenant governor, endorsed Ernst a few months later, and Kochel and Oman joined Ernst’s campaign. Romney, Kochel’s former boss, endorsed Ernst this March. As the state’s top Republican, Branstad didn’t endorse a candidate in the primary, but his preference was no secret. “Pretty much everybody in the state knew that Ernst was Branstad’s pick, even if he wasn’t going to say so publicly,” says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa.
Four other Republicans ran for the GOP nomination to replace Harkin. Like Ernst, they lacked statewide name recognition. But with the help of her friends in party leadership and a well-timed viral ad in which she promised to apply her pig-castrating skills to the federal budget, Ernst sailed to an easy victory in the June 3 primary. She finished with 56 percent of the vote—an outright majority that ensured she would not have to win over delegates at a potentially unpredictable nominating convention.
Since June, Ernst has tried to tack to the center, and Democrats have pointed to her comments during the primary to paint her as extreme. “That kind of stuff can come back to haunt you,” Hagle says. But Ernst has brushed off her past positions, often by simply denying she ever held them.
As a result, Ernst’s stump speech is light on policy specifics. She rolls through her bio, attacks Braley for being out of touch with farmers, complains about the Environmental Protection Agency, and touts Iowa’s economic fortunes over the past several years of Republican rule. “We are at that critical juncture,” she’ll say. “We have to set America moving in the right direction, just as we have done here in Iowa. I believe our Iowa way, our Iowa values is exactly what we need to see in the federal government.” How, exactly, those Iowa values would translate into federal policy is left unstated.
What Ernst lacks in policy substance, though, she makes up for with folksy charm and panache. She knows how to work a room, and she’s an expert in the sort of retail politics expected in Iowa, where presidential hopefuls come every four years to prostrate themselves before caucus voters.
After the event at the Des Moines Rotary Club, Ernst’s bus—”Honk if you think Washington is broken!” is printed in large letters on the back—cruised west on I-80 to the Guthrie County Courthouse for a small meet-and-greet with about 15 supporters. After a stump speech that include fart jokes about climate change regulation—”How do you regulate methane coming out of a cow? I haven’t figured that out, I don’t know how the EPA’s going to figure that out”—Ernst pressed the flesh with the small group, greeting people with hugs as if they were old friends, and readily agreeing with the conservative take on any position they asked her about. The crowd ate it up. “We’re Joni Ernst country. And it just don’t get any better,” Myrna Beeber, a retired nurse, told me. Beeber says she plans to vote for Ernst so that her “son in the military has an advocate in Congress,” but others at the event couldn’t offer much else for why they plan to vote for her. “I like her personality,” another retiree, Benny Woodard, told me. “She’s been in Iraq.”
Braley peppers his stump speeches with numbers and policy specifics. But he doesn’t have Ernst’s easy charm. Last week, I watched him mingle amidst a group of old union hands at a United Steel Workers chili cook-off in the industrial outskirts of Des Moines. As one middle-aged union couple quietly enjoyed their meal, Braley walked up and awkwardly attempted small talk. “I’m just like you, I enjoy a lot of crackers in my chili,” he said. The couple stared at their food with disinterest.
Braley was more at ease when he addressed the full room. He complained about tax breaks given to companies that ship jobs overseas. He put forth a simple pitch on how raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour would boost everyone’s fortunes, as 20 percent of the state’s workforce makes below that level. “180,000 of those Iowans are women, half of them are over the age of 30, and almost a third of them have children,” he said at the front of the room as several people lined up to fill up their cup at the keg behind him. “And if you’re working full-time in Iowa and only earning $15,000 a year at a minimum wage job and living in poverty, that’s just not right.”
Last Sunday, I drove to Red Oak, the small town in Iowa’s remote southwest where Ernst grew up. Red Oak is more than 30 miles from any interstate—let alone anything that could begin to qualify as a city—along two-lane highways that wind through cornfields and past grain silos. Downtown consists of one square block with a small park in the middle. The town’s lone coffee shop is closed for renovations.
I had come to Red Oak to talk to Troy Price, the executive director of the Iowa Democratic Party, who had planned to meet some of the few Democrats in this heavily Republican area and make a few calls from a phone bank at the town’s Latino cultural center. But when we pulled up in separate cars at 7 p.m., the door to the Latino Center was shut and the lights were off. Price wasn’t ready to immediately call it quits, so the two of us opened the unlocked door (this is small town Iowa, after all) and we walked around a few empty rooms to make certain there wasn’t a secret backroom where the Democrats had sequestered themselves. After determining that the building was empty, we wandered back out to the street.
Price, mystified by the case of the missing phone bank, was in the middle of a panicked call to make sure Democrats actually exist on Ernst’s home turf when Jason Frerichs, the 37-year-old chair of the Montgomery County Democrats, ambled up and said hello. Frerichs said his handful of volunteers had already packed up for the day. But he was happy to chat, and suggested we walk the half-mile to a nearby Subway sandwich shop. Montgomery is the third unhealthiest county in the state, Frerichs explained, but he has dropped more than 100 pounds in the past year by eating better and exercising.
Frerichs, who moved to Red Oak from Iowa City three years ago, is the sort of Democrat who casually describes the GOP as a “party of white supremacists,” refers to the Republican governor as “Terry Braindead” and says he wants to go across town and stick a Bruce Braley yard sign on Joni Ernst’s lawn. (He hasn’t, but he’s convinced her neighbor to put one up next door.) “I’m not very well liked by the Montgomery County Republican Party,” he explained. Price winced.
When we got to Subway, where he’s clearly a regular, Frerichs went into politicking mode, asking the women behind the counter if they’ve voted yet and telling them that they should be troubled by Ernst’s support for the personhood measure. They told him they are strongly opposed to abortion, and didn’t seem convinced when he noted that the personhood bill could endanger access to birth control.
Midway through our meal, four Ernst staffers walked into the restaurant. They stood out—no one else in Red Oak was dressed business casual—and they carried themselves with the preternatural confidence of youth, like high-school quarterbacks before the big game, or Capitol Hill interns. The Ernst bus was refueling at the gas station next door. Price scrunched in his seat and immediately lowered his voice to barely above a whisper.
When Branstad and Romney’s allies and the GOP establishment tapped Ernst, they “were looking at her resume,” he said. “But her positions”—her extreme views on everything from privatizing Social Security to the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—”weren’t great.” The party suits made a bet that her positions wouldn’t matter when paired with a stirring bio. On Tuesday, they’ll find out if they bet right.