- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2015

She’s a freshman senator with less than two weeks in office in Washington and no bills yet to her name, but Republicans are hoping Sen. Joni Ernst can overcome the curse of the GOP State of the Union response Tuesday night.

Newly elected from Iowa, Mrs. Ernst won one of the toughest elections last year, helping deliver the Senate to Republicans for the first time in eight years and drawing a road map for how to harness tea party power and to defuse Democrats’ “war on women” attack.

But it’s her outsider’s perspective that Republican leaders said they hope to harness in tapping her to deliver the GOP’s official response to President Obama’s address on Tuesday.

“Americans voted for change. And Senator Ernst will explain what the new Congress plans to do, and what it is already doing to return Washington’s focus to the concerns of the middle class and away from the demands of the political class,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican and the GOP’s new leader in the Senate, who combined with House Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio have 54 years’ experience in Washington.

She rose to prominence with a striking campaign ad highlighting how she “grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” and pledged to bring that pork-cutting talent to Capitol Hill, where she vowed to “make ‘em squeal.”

There haven’t been many opportunities yet, with Congress just beginning to get down to business on its first major bill, to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which she has joined as one of five-dozen co-sponsors.

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Allan Lichtman, a professor of American political history at American University, said the GOP likely tapped Mrs. Ernst because of the political importance of Iowa, which will kick off the 2016 presidential race with the caucuses, and because she could help soften the party’s image with women.

“They know they’re not doing all that well with women and minorities, so they’ve tended to pick women and minorities,” he said, alluding to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who delivered the last two GOP responses.

Mr. Lichtman said as a military veteran and a woman, “she’s not on the, you know, the wild fringe of the Republican Party.”

But he also said she should be aware of the difficulties past official response-givers have faced. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a widely panned response in 2009 that continues to haunt his presidential aspirations, while Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who spoke in 2010, was recently sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges. Meanwhile Mr. Rubio still faces ribbing for taking a sip of water during his 2013 response.

“Nothing negative about Joni Ernst, but Joni, beware. You know, your political career may be a lot shorter than you think it is,” Mr. Lichtman said.

Tea party groups doubt that will come to pass, saying they believe she’s one of the rare Washington politicians who appeals to the various wings of the Republican party, winning support from the likes of both 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, an establishment favorite, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, a conservative tea party icon.

AUDIO: Seth McLaughlin with Andy Parks

“She’s a common-sense conservative, and I can think of no one better to contrast the values of personal freedom, economic freedom and a debt-free future with the president’s big-government agenda,” said Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots.

For her part, Mrs. Ernst said that she “never would have imagined” that she would have the chance to rebut Mr. Obama, and that voters have entrusted Republicans to craft policies that will put “America on a better path.”

“During this Congress, we must help grow a vibrant economy, see to it that our veterans receive promised quality care and that our military has the tools to defend our nation’s security, and ensure the federal government begins to run more effectively and efficiently,” Mrs. Ernst said.

Republican leaders didn’t want Mrs. Ernst to get too far ahead of herself, however.

At the press conference last week when they announced her, a reporter tried to ask her a question at the end, but Mr. Boehner waved it off.

“No, no,” he said, while shaking his head, drawing the event to a close.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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