Joni Ernst: From Castrating Swine to Primetime

Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will deliver the Republican response to the State of the Union on Tuesday and a chance to prove she’s nothing like Sarah Palin.

01.19.15 10:45 AM ET

Joni Ernst is not the next Sarah Palin.

And Tuesday night, she’ll get the chance to prove it.

Ernst, the gun totin’, hog castrating freshman Republican senator from Iowa will give her party’s response to the State of the Union—a tricky, high-profile task that have landed many before her at the bad end of a punchline.

But the prime time address not only gives Ernst a chance to show off her Iowa charm, it gives her the opportunity to shed the comparison to Sarah Palin that she attracted as she campaigned through the Hawkeye State’s 99 counties last year as a populist conservative.

Once called an “onion of crazy” by Democratic National Committee chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schutz (D-Fla.), the Iowa senator first gained national attention in a crowded, if undistinguished, primary field with an television ad about castrating hogs. She followed that up with another advertisement that featured her in safety glasses firing away at a target while the voiceover boasted that she kept “more than lipstick in her purse.”

The ads propelled her to an overwhelming victory in the Republican primary but she started the general election still as an underdog against Democrat Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman who had been long touted as the future of the Hawkeye State’s Democratic Party. It turned out he wasn’t.

As Braley staggered through the campaign with a series of self-inflicted wounds—his campaign never seem to recover from a video found on the Internet of Braley insulting Chuck Grassley, the Hawkeye State’s longtime GOP Senator—Ernst’s well-run campaign overtook him. The result was that in the Republican wave of 2014, Ernst managed to cruise to victory over Braley despite running in a state that Barack Obama had won twice.

But Iowa’s first female Senator did not emerge from the campaign completely unscathed.  She made a number of controversial statements in the course of the campaign—particularly during the primary, which reinforced the Democratic caricature of her as an extremist. She  endorsed nullification, the impeachment of President Obama, and claimed that there actually were WMDs in Iraq. She  warned a United Nations-backed conspiracy could somehow force Iowa farmers off their land.

None of these comments made much of an impact on the race in Iowa.

The wayward remarks were on issues far removed from day-to-day struggles of average voters and while Ernst may have said weird things, she never came across as weird.

She also had the benefit of timing. Ernst’s statements were all made during the Republican primary and in situations where she was facing questions from the press or an audience of voters. These controversial statements were unplanned, and arguably, politically advantageous at the time. By the general election, the press-shy Ernst avoided even newspaper editorial boards in a successful effort to avoid further off-the-cuff gaffes and stay on message.

But, despite this history of controversial remarks, the Republican Party is more than comfortable with Ernst, who was a local elected official  just four years ago,  speaking to the nation in prime time.  

In the State of the Union response, Ernst will be practiced, polished and asked to stick to a script. There will be no “going rogue.” There will be no spontaneous questions to throw the Army National Guard Lt. Colonel off message. Just a disciplined party-line speech. The more forgettable, the better.

As for the similarities to Palin, they are simply superficial with Ernst.

While the freshman senator from small town Iowa could convincingly sell herself as a hockey mom (instead, she’s a volleyball mom), she’s no bomb thrower pushing her own agenda. Ernst won with the backing of both establishment figures and key Tea Party groups and has been embraced by all wings of the party. National viewers seeing her for the first time on Tuesday shouldn’t expect an extremist or a rock star. Instead, Ernst is just another Republican soldier who is ready to do her duty in prime time.