No matter what happens in Tuesday’s Republican Senate primary in Iowa, candidate Joni Ernst has already done something no other candidate has accomplished this primary cycle so far: She’s united the GOP.
In recent weeks, Ernst, an Iowa state senator and Iraq War veteran, has won the support of a number of high-profile people from both sides of the GOP spectrum — which have spent much of the primary season warring against each other rather than the Democrats.
Since making a name for herself along with the help of a few celebrated campaign advertisements, Ernst has stood on stage with Sarah Palin, campaigned with Mitt Romney and received money from both the Chamber of Commerce and the Senate Conservatives Fund – a feat few other candidates this cycle have managed to achieve.
What makes Ernst, who is completely unknown nationally, so appealing to both sides of the GOP?
Interviews with supporters, detractors and academics revealed three areas where Ernst has been most successful, and has been able to separate herself from her contemporaries: a consistent campaign; a compelling biography; and really good timing.
Steve Deace, an Iowa-based conservative radio host who is supporting Steve Clovis, one of Ernst’s the four opponents in the race, said Ernst has made the most of a very successful introduction to voters this cycle.
“Her campaign deserves credit for masterfully crafting a winning persona,” he said. “Often consultants have ruined GOP candidates, but Ernst’s have served her.”
Ernst burst onto the national stage in April with an ad titled “Squeal,” in which she described how her roots as an Iowa farm girl – including learning how to castrate pigs – would help her “cut pork” in Washington. In a second ad, which featured the candidate shooting, the Ernst ad tells viewers she “carries more than lipstick in her purse,” and promised when she gets to Washington she’ll “unload” on Obamacare.
“Squeal” in particular was played on cable news from the morning shows into the late-night hours – raising Ernst’s profile and attracting the attention of GOP donors.
“Her TV ads underscore her consistent communication message that she is a ‘mother, soldier and true conservative’ with creativity,” Dianne Bystrom, the director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “No matter what you think of the message, you will remember the Ernst TV ads.”
Voters are continuing to respond positively to Ernst, according to recent polls.
A Des Moines Register poll released Sunday shows Ernst had opened up a 2-to-1 lead on her competitors, drawing the support of 36 percent of likely GOP primary voters, while her closest competitor, businessman Mark Jacobs, had the support of 18 percent of those surveyed.
The three other Republicans in the race – talk radio host and conservative favorite Clovis, former U.S. attorney Matt Whitaker, and car dealership manager Scott Schaben – received 11 percent, 13 percent and 2 percent respectively.
Still, with 16 percent of the electorate undecided, the numbers could shift come Tuesday.
“She captured a bit of lightning in a bottle with her ads and the national attention,” said Christopher B. Budzisz, associate professor of politics and director of the Loras College poll. “She parlayed that all pretty effectively into polling support and campaign contributions.”
In a May 15 Loras College poll, Ernst received 30.8 percent of the vote with 29.2 percent undecided.
Bystrom said the consistency of Ernst’s message and how she has courted voters over the past two months has also played a role in the race.
“Ernst has run a good campaign, with a clear, consistent and clever communication strategy,” she said. “In a low information Senate race, where voters knew little about the candidates, Ernst has benefited from the endorsements of mainstream Republicans, conservatives and state newspapers.”
Budzisz said her biography hasn’t hurt either.
A self-described “Iowa farm girl” from Red Oak, Iowa, who became a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and later a state senator, Ernst has made her unique biography a centerpiece of the campaign.
“I think she doesn’t strike many as a ‘typical politician,’ yet she also doesn’t quite seem like too much of a firebrand or too much of an outsider as some of the tea party-aligned candidates seem to some in the GOP mainstream,” Budzisz said. “She ties much of her message and issue positions back to her biography.”
One Republican operative, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely about the race, said Ernst has also been aided by Republican hesitation with Jacobs and conservatives who wanted “anyone but Jacobs” to win.
“Ernst is the establishment/government candidate,” the operative said. “They don’t like Jacobs because they don’t know him. His wealth also probably scares them because it’s not like he needs any favors.”
The timing of her rise has also been crucial.
In March, Democratic candidate Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) was caught on tape criticizing Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) as a “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
The same day that Braley apologized for the remark, Ernst released “Squeal.”
“Right at the moment when the spotlight shined on the race, with the Braley gaffe, Joni was just starting to make her own introduction,” said David Kochel, a longtime Iowa operative and Ernst campaign consultant. “ Which was a really strong constrast to Braley.”
Still, both Deace and the Republican operative expressed doubts about how Ernst would fair under the scrutiny of the general election, particularly in light of her comments during a recent debate about getting rid of the Clean Water Act, her lack of knowledge about immigration reform, and other comments that they criticized as a sign of political naivety/inexperience.
“My fear is that the general election race may be over as soon as we have a nominee,” the operative said. “ Most other Republicans haven’t even contemplated what the general will look like.”