In the rural Iowa town of Red Oak, the names and addresses of the 29 people who signed a petition to remove a candidate from the ballot in a local election were read on the radio repeatedly in 2004. The speaker’s voice dripped with outrage that citizens would try to keep someone from running for office.
“I thought they were going to burn someone’s house down,” Barry Loving, a Red Oak resident who heard the broadcasts, told The Daily Beast.
The candidate those 29 people wanted off the ballot was Joni Ernst, who is currently the Republican nominee for Senate in Iowa and running as the epitome of “Iowa nice”. Her race against Democrat Bruce Braley is currently one of the closest races in the country and could determine control of the Senate. And while Ernst paints herself as the candidate of small town values and attacks her opponent for his supposed lack of civility, she comes from a political background that’s more “House of Cards” than “Little House on the Prairie.”
Ernst won her race for Montgomery County auditor, a deceptively powerful position in local Hawkeye State politics, in 2005. Shortly afterwards, a group of veterans sitting on a local board who had signed the petition were forced out of office, an event they said was directly linked to their support of Ernst’s election opponent.
The county veterans’ commission then was composed of one full time employee making just over $7 an hour and three other part time members who received $25 a month. Their job was to help struggling veterans in the rural county, which had become famous during World War II when Red Oak suffered the highest casualty rate of any town in the United States. Its members were all older veterans, two of whom had signed the petition to remove Ernst from the ballot.
The first commission member to be forced out was Claude Peterson, a Vietnam vet who had signed the petition. Peterson’s reappointment to the commission, which he had served on since 1982, suddenly became caught up in a debate about whether to add additional members to the board. The county supervisors responsible for selecting members of the board, almost all of whom were allies of Ernst, voted against his reappointment. In the aftermath of that decision, Dale Watt, the longtime head of the veterans commission, resigned, as did the other two members.
Watt, another petition signer who was recovering from having a gangrenous gall bladder removed, had served in the post for 14 years. He cited Ernst and her husband Gail in his reasons for resignation, specifically for how they had treated Peterson. In his resignation, Watt claimed that he had never heard a single complaint about his conduct in office until he signed the petition, when Gail Ernst began telling people that Watt hadn’t helped him with a back injury claim. Watt never did anything to regain his position, although it bothered him for the rest of his life. Peterson, meanwhile, filed a lawsuit to try to get his old job back, although he tried to downplay what happened to The Daily Beast, saying “it was just a volunteer job anyway, no big deal and [Ernst] just wanted her people in.” He still seemed disappointed that, in his view, Ernst had injected politics into a job that had never before been political.
“I guess people want power,” Peterson said. “They want to be in control.”
The alleged power play had its roots in Ernst’s election to the county auditor post the year before. Her predecessor in the auditor position, Connie Magneson, was a deeply divisive figure in the little community known for her prickly personality. And her influence extended to the veterans’ commission, which was stacked with what one local reporter termed her “cronies.”
Pro- and anti-Magneson factions brought tape recorders to increasingly rowdy meetings of the county board of supervisors. In fact, tensions had grown so great that one county supervisor, Margaret Stoldorf, pressed assault charges against Magneson.
While almost everyone in deep red Montgomery County is a Republican, Stoldorf characterized many in the Magneson camp as “Republicans in name only” who just adopted the party label because it was easier for them to get elected as members of the GOP. This criticism was echoed by Glen Benskin, a county supervisor at the time and lifelong family friend of Ernst, who described the petition signers as “heretical Democrats.” Others criticized Magneson’s competence as well.
Those who wanted Magneson out of office looked for a challenger to the incumbent auditor, and found the perfect candidate in young emergency manager and veteran named Joni Ernst.
The problem was that Ernst was in Kuwait with the 1168 Transportation Company, a National Guard supply unit that she commanded. Although the unit was due back before the June primary election, she had to file the paperwork while deployed overseas, which created complications.
Federal law forbids active duty personnel from holding public office while serving, and 29 residents of the county, including Watt and Peterson from the veterans’ commission, filed a petition seeking to remove Ernst from the ballot. Ernst insisted that she had permission from her commanding officers to seek the office, although it eventually came out later that she didn’t actually get formal permission until a month after declaring her candidacy.
The local radio station, which was owned by Ernst supporter Jerry Dietz, mounted an all-out crusade on Ernst’s behalf. The names and addresses of Ernst’s opponents were repeatedly read aloud on air, and a county panel unanimously decided that Ernst could run. Ernst actually had to withdraw from the campaign though after it was discovered her emergency management position with the county also precluded a run, but her name was already on the ballot and she won anyway. After a county convention officially made her the GOP nominee, Ernst cruised to victory in the general election again against Magneson, who ran as an independent.
According to her supporters, Ernst’s election restored harmony in county politics. She was re-elected without opposition in 2008, and won a special election for the state senate in 2011. But the events around her entry into politics belie her image as the friendly woman next door in small town Iowa. While Ernst has spent much of the campaign attacking her opponent for allegedly threatening a lawsuit against a neighbor, she got her start in politics in a town that was defined at the time by bitterness and bickering. But, then again, the fault may be inherent in the town. “Red Oak’s not a very nice place, I’m afraid,” one resident told the Beast. “Too many un-nice people.”