The Senate races in Colorado and Iowa are key contests in Tuesday’s midterms, say reporters and pundits alike. Indeed, if one party wins both elections, it will very likely control the Senate in the 114th Congress.
But the importance of those contests extends well beyond the media’s horse-race coverage. The Republican candidates for those two seats – Cory Gardner in Colorado and Joni Ernst in Iowa – are unusually talented politicians who, if elected, could help reshape the GOP for a generation.
Both Gardner and Ernst are young, energetic, savvy candidates in purple-to-blue states. As U.S. Senators, each would immediately become the most prominent up-and-coming Republican official in his or her state. They would boost the GOP’s 2016 presidential prospects in contested Colorado and Iowa, which have a combined 15 electoral votes. And if Ernst is elected, she could be a kingmaker in Iowa’s crucial first-in-the nation Republican caucuses.
Perhaps most importantly, Gardner and Ernst are excellent models of successful outreach to and popularity with both the Tea Party and mainstream wings of the GOP. Since that’s the most important challenge Republicans currently face, either candidate would gain a national spotlight very quickly.
The political skills of the 40-year-old Gardner are impressive. When he was still a state representative, the Denver Post dubbed him the “idea man” of the Colorado Republican Party. He defeated an incumbent member of Congress in 2010 by eleven points, and was re-elected two years later without opposition.
After two terms in the House representing Eastern Colorado, Gardner entered the statewide Senate primary race in March, exciting Republicans locally and nationwide. Many of them had worried that controversial 2010 Senate nominee Ken Buck would get the nod again – and lose. But Buck and the two other major candidates quickly dropped out, paving the way for Gardner’s easy nomination – and thus an immediate ability to focus on the flaws of incumbent Democratic Senator Mark Udall.
Udall has recently been mocked as “Mark Uterus” for his attempt to ride the women’s vote to re-election with a reproductive-issues obsession, to the exclusion of virtually every other matter. But Gardner has remained sunny and respectful – hardly the caricature of a conniving man who wants to control women’s bodies. And he deflated attacks on his birth-control positions by outflanking Udall on the left with a fresh proposal that oral contraceptives be available over the counter.
The normally liberal Denver Post endorsed the Republican this year, saying Congress needs “fresh leadership, energy, and ideas, and Cory Gardner can help provide them in the U.S. Senate.”
All this while embracing conservative positions on Obamacare, guns, abortion, same-sex marriage, regulation, and the Keystone pipeline.
Ernst, 44, offers similar promise as a politician and public servant. A year ago, Republicans openly fretted that no candidate would win 35 percent of the vote in the Iowa primary for Senate, thus allowing the quirky state Republican convention to choose an unelectable candidate.
Then came the hog castration ad.
That TV spot, the most memorable and effective in any race this year, highlighted Ernst’s ability to remove porcine testicles, a talent Iowans respect. It humorously suggested that her skill could help “cut pork” and otherwise upend Washington’s tired old ways. “Let’s make ‘em squeal,” she said with a smile; and the ad went viral, gaining attention in the national media and catapulting her to a stunning primary win with more than 56 percent of the vote.
She has support from all segments of the GOP, with endorsements from both Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney. That’s no small feat in today’s fractured party.
If elected, she will join four to seven other women as Republican U.S. Senators (depending on election results in Michigan, Oregon, and West Virginia). As that caucus grows, it complicates, nay undermines, the ability of the Democrats to use the “war on women” to gain votes.
On the stump, Ernst has emphasized her extensive military career (including tours in Kuwait and Iraq), her optimistic outlook, and her love of Iowa lifestyles.
And like Gardner, her positions are strongly conservative. She has endorsed right-of-center policies on guns, taxes, education, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, Obamacare, and abortion. She’s even begun challenging the number-one sacred cow (sorry!) of Iowa politics – subsidies for ethanol. Last year, Ernst indicated that people should be able to “choose products that work for them and not have them mandated by the United States government.” Saying that in Iowa, even for a hog castrator, takes balls.
So Tuesday’s races in Colorado and Iowa deserve particular attention. Even a trade-off, such as Ernst winning Iowa while lackluster Sen. Pat Roberts loses Kansas, would represent a significant net gain for the Republican Party, which would exchange a Senator of the past for a Senator of the future.
An unusually charismatic and talented candidate who wins a Senate seat can give his or her party just the boost it needs. For example, a decade ago, the frontrunner in a primary for the U.S. Senate suddenly dropped out of the race, paving the way for the nomination and election of a previously obscure state senator. The state was Illinois, and the candidate was Barack Obama. You know the rest.
David Benkof is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and a frequent contributor to the Daily Caller. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof); or E-mail him at DavidBenkof@gmail.com.