Iowa Swings Right, Elects Joni Ernst to Senate

She’s a big change from her progressive predecessor, Democrat Tom Harkin.

Brian Cahn/ZUMA

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis and more, subscribe to Mother Jones' newsletters.


Iowa’s next senator will be Joni Ernst, a one-term state senator who has endorsed personhood for fetuses, supported the government shutdown, said she wants to impeach President Obama, discounts climate change, insisted there were WMDs in Iraq, and once said she believes there’s a nefarious UN plan—Agenda 21—to rob Iowans of their farmland.

It’s hard to overstate just how much of a change she is from the senator she is replacing, Democrat Tom Harkin, a progressive hero during his 30 years in the chamber, who spearheaded the Americans with Disabilities Act and was a longtime champion of health care reform.

Ernst defeated her opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, by playing up the grievances of Iowa’s rural population, which feels under siege from a growing urban population. She also used her military service in Iraq to revive Bush-era terrorism politics.

“What we like to remind folks is that being a woman candidate doesn’t make you a pro-women candidate.”

Ernst is the first woman Iowa has elected to Congress (leaving Mississippi as the only state that’s hasn’t yet put a women either in Congress or the governor’s office). But in getting there, she relied heavily on male voters. Even in polls that put her ahead by wide margins leading up to the election, she was losing female voters by double digits. “What we like to remind folks is that being a woman candidate doesn’t make you a pro-women candidate in all circumstances,” Stephanie Schriock, the president of EMILY’s List, told me during a pre-election event in Des Moines late last month.

Iowa Republicans gathered Tuesday night at a Marriott in West Des Moines to celebrate their successes. (Incumbent Gov. Terry Branstad easily won reelection.) The crowd, packed into a too-small ballroom, erupted in cheers anytime Ernst appeared on the TV screens. Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” piped through the speakers as they waited for Ernst to take the stage.

The last time I’d set foot in this particular hotel was in early 2012, when I watched Rep. Michele Bachmann end her presidential campaign the day after the Iowa caucuses. Bachmann’s drubbing in that contest appeared to represent a repudiation by state Republicans of the Party’s Fox News fringe. Two years later, voters have elected a candidate who represents that very fringe, for while Ernst may be the chosen candidate of the state’s supposed moderates, she readily attaches herself to just about any idea that bubbles up as a Fox News meme. As Tom Harkin put it to me earlier Tuesday afternoon, she’s not quite Ted Cruz, but she’s only an inch or so off.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

Thank you!

We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.