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From castrating hogs on a farm in a small town in Iowa to packing heat in her purse, Joni Ernst has become a conservative poster child in the highly contested U.S. Senate race against liberal Democrat Bruce Braley.
Midterm elections are often plagued by low voter turnout. But the Iowa race, along with other competitive contests in Colorado and North Carolina, could have major national repurcussions in potentially shifting the Senate majority from Democratic to Republican. Democrats, along with two independents, currently control the Senate with 55 seats compared with Republicans’s 45. For the power to shift, Republicans — who also control the House — need a net gain of six seats.
Iowa’s two current U.S. senators — Republican Chuck Grassley and Democrat Tom Harkin — have both served since the 1980s. When Harkin unexpectedly announced in January that he would not run for re-election, the state was thrown into a frenzy.
“Iowa is one of the purplest of purple states in the union,” Des Moines Register political columnist Kathie Obradovich said. Despite Grassley’s conservative views and Harkin’s liberal views, “Iowans re-elect them cycle after cycle. A lot of Iowans vote for both of them.”
Republicans want to consolidate power over Iowa’s U.S. Senate seats by voting in Ernst, who could become the state’s first female senator in Washington.
The little-known conservative state senator from the southwest edge of Iowa, facing off against a full slate of Republican candidates during the primaries, made a name for herself when her campaign launched its first TV ad, “Squeal”:
"I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
Joni Ernst. Mother. Soldier. Conservative.
“Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.”
Before the ad, Ernst was even in polls with her fellow GOP contenders Sam Clovis, an economics professor and conservative radio talk show host, and Mark Jacobs, a wealthy retired executive at Reliant Energy with little political experience. While the ad was used by TV talk shows for laughs, it successfully connected Ernst with Iowa’s farmers and rallied the state's conservative base.
Another ad, though less humorous, reached out to gun-rights advocates, highlighting her staunch views on firearms:
She’s not your typical candidate. Conservative Joni Ernst: Mom. Farm girl. And a lieutenant colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse.
Nationally known Republican politicians like Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney supported Ernst, and so did 56 percent of Iowa’s GOP primary voters, making her the party’s nominee for the Senate seat.
Ernst is facing off against Braley, the representative for Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, who did not have a contested primary. The two have been essentially tied. Braley’s campaign, however, has been less polished than Ernst’s.
Like Ernst, he received endorsements from national figures in his party. Michelle Obama gave a speech at one of Braley’s campaign rallies on Oct. 11. But the first lady flubbed his name numerous times. “I am beyond thrilled to be here today to support your next senator from Iowa, our friend Bruce Bailey,” she said at least seven times, until the crowd corrected her. She also mistakenly referred to Braley as a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps.
In January, Braley mocked Grassley, the state’s Republican senator since 1981, by calling him “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Braley’s comments did not go over well in the heavily agricultural state. With almost 90,000 farms in Iowa, the state ranks second in the U.S. for total value of agricultural products sold and first for inventory of hogs and pigs.
In his early years in the House, Braley enjoyed positive ratings from the National Association of Wheat Growers, American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union. But he slipped below a 50 percent rating from American Farm Bureau Federation from 2009 to 2011.