Iowa’s Joni Ernst: The Next Rubio?

Cliff Smith Attorney
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: A young, little known state legislator from an important swing state enters a race for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. While a protege of an influential and popular Governor and part of a demographic group their party has struggled with, the candidate is none-the-less shunned by the national party and finds fundraising difficult.

Then, the frontrunner, a high-profile former trial lawyer who has been lapping the competition in fundraising, makes some missteps that break their aura of inevitability. The young upstart is well received by the party’s grassroots. Throw in some pitch-perfect ads and the candidate becomes a cause célèbre by the party’s base and shortly thereafter is embraced by the party establishment. A surge to the forefront quickly follows.

Of course, the above applies to now-Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Before Rubio became the most influential Hispanic politician in the nation, a respected senator, and a possible candidate for president, he was a struggling young state representative who entered what seemed to be an unwinnable race. While he was a protege of former Governor Jeb Bush, who worked quietly behind the scenes for him, Rubio was struggling to raise money against the overwhelming favorite, Governor Charlie Crist, a former trial lawyer who was lapping the entire field in fundraising. However, once Crist’s notorious unreliability leads to several missteps, and a pitch-perfect introduction to the Republican base on the part of Rubio, the dynamics of the race began to change, getting him a second look from the party’s establishment. His campaign launched into the stratosphere.

Now, compare this to State Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa.

Ernst, a youthful 43 and a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa National Guard, is a favorite of Governor Terry Branstad, a popular and influential Governor. Nonetheless, she entered into the race for Iowa’s open senate seat against Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, without much enthusiasm from the party bigwigs. They wanted someone with a higher profile and more name recognition, who could match the fundraising power of Braley, a former President of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association. After higher-profile candidates, such as Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds and Rep. Tom Latham turned them down, most of them were hoping that self-funding former energy CEO Mark Jacobs could make a race out of it.

All of that changed about two months ago. Braley’s fundraising prowess as a fundraiser proved to be a double-edged sword. At a fundraising stop with his trial lawyer friends, in Texas no less, Braley was caught on tape disparaging Chuck Grassley (R), Iowa’s wildly popular senior Senator, as a “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” This, in Braley’s uncensored opinion, rendered the wildly popular Grassley, who routinely wins two thirds of the vote, unfit to be chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Instead, Braley assured the trial lawyers that if he won the race, they would have someone in the Senate with “your background, your experience, your voice” who had been “fighting tort reform for 30 years.”

It’s not smart to disparage the number one industry in your state, particularly not in a posh hotel, in another state, next to a table filled with booze. It’s even worse when you are part of one of the least popular professions in America.

In what can only be considered miraculous timing, the same day the video of Braley’s gaffe leaked, Ernst released her first TV ad in which she introduced herself by telling voters “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” which, she argued, made her the candidate to cut pork in the budget. She invited voters to help her make the politicians in Washington “squeal.”

This down-home, conservative-populist message contrasted sharply with Braley’s elitist, out-of-touch gaffe, and the timing instantly launched Ernst into the limelight. While the ad buy was small, it went viral on the internet and became a hit amongst the late night comedians. Jimmy Fallon told his audience, “I don’t know what she’s running for but just give her the job!”

Since then, most everything has turned up roses for Ernst. Party bigwigs like Mitt Romney and Chris Christie have helped her raise money. She’s also been endorsed by a phalanx of prominent Republican women, such as Sarah Palin, and Senator Deb Fischer and former Governor Kay Orr of next-door Nebraska. Her follow-up ads have been a hit as well, particularly one showing her riding a Harley and target shooting. The NRA has endorsed her, as has the Chamber of Commerce. Not surprisingly, she’s rocketed to the top of the polls. When her main primary opponent, Mark Jacobs, accused her of being “AWOL” from the legislature, John McCain leaped to her defense, particularly in light of her military record.

Oh, and to top it all off, Marco Rubio has endorsed her too.

Of course, there are important differences. While Republicans have struggled with women, Ernst won’t be the first or only anything the way Rubio was. Nor will she have divided opposition the way Rubio did, which led to his easy win. She’s also less accustomed to the spotlight, serving in the state senate for 3 years while Rubio had been speaker of the Florida House. Still, by rocketing to the forefront she’s taken a sleepy race Republicans were likely to lose and put them in serious contention.

Even if she’s not the next Rubio, it is very rare for Iowa to boot out high-profile incumbents, regardless of party. Grassley and retiring Senator Tom Harken (D) have served side by side for 30 years. If Ernst is victorious, she may be an important part of the Republican caucus for a long time.