Republicans may have reason to think they have struck it bigger than big with Tuesday's Senate primary win in Iowa of dream candidate Joni Ernst — a young, brash and telegenic mother, National Guard officer and Iraq veteran whose Army unit ran convoys from Kuwait into Iraq.
Iowa Republican officials say they couldn't ask for much more in their struggle to put one of their own into the U.S. Senate seat that retiring liberal Democrat Tom Harkin has held since Walter Mondale was his party's standard-bearer.
Mrs. Ernst is anything but a shoo-in for November — she trailed Democratic primary winner Bruce Braley by 5 percentage points in the most recent polling. But she has things going for her that the Democrats can't match, Republicans insist.
"The military stuff is real," said her friend and former Iowa Republican Party Chairman Kayne Robinson. "She's a lieutenant colonel who commands the largest Iowa National Guard unit and served in Iraq."
"She understands what's ahead, where trial lawyers will quickly try to define her," Mr. Robinson said. "She took risks with TV advertising and speeches necessary to overcome massive self-funding and the flood of Texas big business dollars" for Mark Jacobs, who spent the most money in the crowded Republican primary field but only finished third.
Confirmed conservatives in her state say Mrs. Ernst is the real, brash deal, describing her as a great living story of a new face of conservatism.
"She makes a natural connection with audiences and with individuals like [U.S. Sen. Chuck] Grassley — sort of homespun comfortable style," Mr. Robinson said.
Sen. Grassley, a powerful GOP fixture in the Senate, agreed.
"She proved herself to be a strong and appealing candidate," he said. "I thought she could get a significant portion of the vote in the primary. She exceeded expectations and is showing she can unify Republicans."
Echoing what objective analysts noted about the breadth of her reach across the party's diverse spectrum, Mr. Grassley, considered a conservative stalwart when he arrived in the Senate in the 1981, said Mrs. Ernst "has real appeal to all Iowans from across the state."
She aired campaign ads about her being a rifle-shooting hog farmer who castrated her pigs and so knows how to cut pork spending and would, by implication, know how to cut off the spendthrift glands in the U.S. Senate. Meanwhile, Mr. Braley was caught on tape making unflattering remarks about farmers — in, yes, Iowa.
The 43-year-old Mrs. Ernst is described by Republicans who know her as brash but also as telegenic and not off-putting to any of the often mutually antagonistic interest groups that make up the GOP electoral coalition. She managed to get such disparate interest groups as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and Club for Growth to wade into a primary and back her.
"I voted for her in the primary because I thought she was the most conservative person," said Iowa Republican National Committee member Steve Scheffler, a conservative evangelical leader in the state. "She is pretty rock-solid in her record. And genuinely down to earth."
For a party that has a nearly constant "gender" gap, the female angle also is vital to the Ernst-Iowa story. If elected, she would be the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa.
"I have always believed that the first woman Iowa sends to Washington would be a conservative, and Jodi fits the bill," Iowa House Majority Leader Linda Upmeyer said.
On Wednesday, Democrats indicated a part of their plan of attack, releasing an ad that says Mrs. Ernst, a former rural-area state legislator, never wrote actual legislation that cut spending and actually voted to raise it.
"Sen. Ernst's ads are clever," said Braley's campaign manager, Sarah Benzing. "It's important for Iowans to get to know the real Joni Ernst."
Republicans dismiss such criticism and cite her record.
"I knew her when she was a county auditor [in] Montgomery County," Mr. Robinson said. "And in Iowa those offices pay very little and operate with very small resources, which set the stage for her fiscal tightness."
"If a county officer goes to the board of supervisors in a small county and asks for money, that officer gets roasted," Mr. Robinson added.
Mr. Robinson describes Mrs. Ernst as a "serious conservative not only interested in tax cuts but cutting the scope of government."
Frugality may be necessary in the campaign though, as Mr. Braley has more than $2.3 million in the bank, compared to her $100,000.
Mrs. Ernst's appeal seems genuine rather than pandering. One morning many years ago, her friends in college, including fellow College Republican Mike St. Clair, awoke surprised to find she had gone off to have a fling at skydiving.
"So it wasn't surprising to us that she later married an Army Ranger who made a career out of jumping out of airplanes," said Mr. St. Clair, now an Iowa lobbyist.
Also, Mr. Robinson, a former National Rifle Association president, says she's "very comfortable with guns and is open about it, having a permit to carry and shoots regularly. She rides motorcycles, was raised on a farm and knows farming and ag issues inside and out."
But Mr. Robinson also said she is "not pliable and will be difficult to push around by the big boys in the Senate 'club.'"
"I think if enough resources can be found to counter early Braley efforts to define her, she will be a good bet to win November," Mr. Robinson predicted.
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