For Joni Ernst, Iowa nice isn’t just a saying, it’s a campaign strategy.
In a Midwestern state where being neighborly and friendly is perhaps the supreme virtue, the Republican state senator has turned a U.S. Senate race once considered a lock for Democrats into a dead heat by ignoring issues and just focusing on being the nicest candidate running.
Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard who served in Iraq, secured victory in a competitive primary by staking out unapologetically conservative positions in order not only to win but to receive the 35 percent of the vote necessary to avoid a state nominating convention. For the general election, Ernst, who rose to national attention with a television commercial in which she talked about castrating pigs, now seems intent on softening her right-wing image while working to portray her opponent, Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley as, well, a jerk.
Braley has come under attack during the campaign for suggesting that Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley shouldn’t chair the Senate Judiciary Committee because he’s a farmer who didn’t attend law school, and for allegedly threatening to sue a neighbor when her chickens repeatedly wandered into his yard. But the Democrat also has gone on the offensive, attempting to paint Ernst as a right-wing extremist for comments she has made in favor of nullification and impeaching Obama.
At the Iowa State Fair on Friday, Ernst made a relatively rare appearance on the campaign trail to put her “Iowa nice” strategy to the test. The one major political setpiece of the day was a speech to a large crowd at the Des Moines Register’s soapbox, where Ernst put on a masterful performance. She prefaced her remarks by stating that she was not going to give “a campaign political speech.” Of course, that was exactly what she proceeded to do, giving a heartfelt tribute to veterans and those in the armed services and taking only the slightest detour into the VA scandal.
The first-term Iowa state senator reflected on her service in Iraq and talked up about the accomplishments of the unit she led, the 1168th Transportation Company, before getting choked up telling the story of a fellow Iowan, Jamie Kearney, whom she counseled into joining the National Guard and who was killed in action while deployed in Iraq. Ernst’s speech didn’t just provoke a strong reaction from the crowd but managed to quiet the crowds of protesters in the audience, many of whom held signs saying “Oil Companies for Joni.” They’d showed up ready to heckle at the same location where Mitt Romney was goaded into saying, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Instead, throughout her speech, the signs slowly sagged.
Most of the crowd was made up of a surprising number of fellow veterans, many of whom had served with Ernst overseas. Dave Bredensteiner of Bedford, who served under the lieutenant colonel in Iraq, praised her effusively as an excellent leader. Although Bredensteiner said he almost certainly would have supported Ernst if he hadn’t known her—he described himself as a Rick Perry/Sarah Palin Republican, not a Mitch McConnell/John McCain Republican—he was effusive about his former CO, whom he described as always being a good officer who worked tirelessly.
“As a woman, you don’t get to be a lieutenant colonel without having some real leadership skills,” said Branstad.
Don Pugsley, a heavily tattooed Army veteran from Des Moines and a longtime volunteer for the Ernst campaign, said he found it particularly noteworthy that everyone under Ernst’s command came back safely from Iraq. “One hundred fifty Iowans went in, and 150 came back,” he said. Pugsley acknowledged that part of it might have been luck, but he said he thought the GOP Senate candidate deserved credit, too. He also noted how positively Ernst had been received on the campaign trail, with the only exception, he said, when the patrons of a gay bar came out to heckle her during a parade.
Ernst is just as popular among Iowa politicians, who see her as the party’s best chance to win a Senate seat that has been held by outgoing incumbent Tom Harkin for 30 years. Rep. Steve King kvelled to The Daily Beast about the Republican nominee’s credentials. “She’s a lieutenant colonel, she’s a mom, she’s a grandma, she’s a good shot, she knows agriculture and livestock…If I were Bruce Braley, I’d wonder how I could attack her.” But, King added, with Ernst’s impressive résumé, “where do you find the chink and how try to undermine Joni Ernst?”
Iowa’s five-term governor, Terry Branstad, appeared to share King’s enthusiasm and suggested that Ernst’s gender made her accomplishments all the more rare. “As a woman, you don’t get to be a lieutenant colonel without having some real leadership skills,” said Branstad. He contrasted her favorably with Braley, saying that while she was “humble and hardworking” and had “the right background, right temperament,” the congressman had an “entitlement attitude.”
Ernst echoed those statements when she spoke to reporters, putting aside Iowa nice to note that Braley “doesn’t like it that I am a strong independent female leader” and scoffing at his campaign’s attacks on issues like her opposition to a raise in the minimum wage or mooting Obama’s impeachment as “a distraction.” She cited no specific examples of Braley’s gaffes, saying, “I don’t have to elaborate on [how out of touch Braley is]. Look at the statements he has made.” She then seemed to realize it was time to be nice again and pivoted back to her small-town roots, boasting, “I live in a house that one of my best friends grew up in back in Red Oak, Iowa.”
The GOP Senate nominee generally radiated a sunny disposition with reporters, though. It appeared nothing could wipe a smile off of her face, whether she was proclaiming that she felt “fantastic” about her race or dodging a question about whether she’d support McConnell as Republican leader in the Senate if elected by saying, “I am not there yet. We will see who comes through these elections and who doesn’t.”
Yet Ernst never quite looked like a political natural. While she greeted a woman who had won a raffle to spend the day with her like a long-lost sister, Ernst never quite threw herself into the crowds at the State Fair like other politicians often do. Instead, she appeared almost to fade into the crowd at times.
The one time Ernst seemed to feel most at home at the fair was when, walking down an empty road with cars parked down the side of it, she ran into an old friend from Red Oak. Alan Spencer, a high school ag teacher, was in his socks, getting ready to take a nap in his van before he saw Ernst. They embraced as they ran down the list of Red Oak residents at the fair. Ernst knew one, didn’t know another, and was sure a third was friends with her cousin.
Afterward, Spencer reminisced to The Daily Beast about a woman he first got to know well on a 1989 student exchange to the then-Soviet Union. On that trip, as a 16-year-old, he was perhaps the youngest there, while Ernst was already in college. He described her then as “a mother hen who took care of everyone.” He was proud of Ernst and her accomplishments. After all, he had never known a politician before they had gotten elected to anything.
But Spencer may still not ever know a U.S. senator. The race is neck-and-neck in the polls, and the Hawkeye State has supported the Democratic presidential nominee in four of the past five presidential elections. In the meantime, he was still hoping that she’d pull it off. After all, he was a Republican and she was nice.