CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — Joni Ernst, U.S. Senate candidate, has a banana, a cup of coffee, and a 31-foot RV painted with American flags, landscapes of corn, and hogs.
She also has Iowa stretching vastly out in front of her. Seven counties today, eight counties yesterday, 99 counties in 44 days, and a tour she’s calling “Iowa Knows Best” that is intended to persuade Iowans to send her to Washington so she can show the federal government a better way: “the Iowa way.” The Iowa way is fiscal responsibility, she has been telling the people on this tour. The Iowa way is cutting taxes and balancing budgets. “The Iowa way is working,” she says at most stops — it’s the rest of the country that’s broken.
“Let’s take a look here,” Ernst says, boarding the RV, setting her breakfast on the table and scanning the morning’s itinerary. First stop: Linn County, and the Iowa Federation of Republican Women.
“Ready?” asks the campaign staffer who does the driving.
Ernst, 44, the biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangy, twinkly farm girl and mother whose ads emphasize her knowledge of hog castration (“Make ’em squeal, Joni!” yell her fans) puts down the itinerary and nods. Ready, she tells the driver — and a tour she feels will help determine not only an election but also the soul of Iowa is rolling again.
A year ago she was nobody, a small-town Republican state senator with a vision of filling a U.S. Senate seat that had, for 30 years, belonged to a liberal Democrat. Now, she is seen nationally as a rising star in a field of duds — if she can pull off an upset in a race few expected her, or any Republican, to win. With a little more than a week before the election, she maintained a slim lead in the polls in one of the country’s closest races, within hoping distance of becoming the state’s first female senator and ahead of the expected Democratic shoo-in, Rep. Bruce Braley. The White House had sent out Michelle Obama to campaign for Braley a week before and, Ernst loves to tell people, the first lady mispronounced his name.
The RV pulls up to Linn County’s Victory Office, where the Federation of Republican Women is having breakfast. Almost immediately, Ernst falls into a hug with a white-haired fan.
Norma and her husband have been to see Ernst at several previous rallies.
“I’m so proud of you,” Norma says. “You’ve worked so hard!”
Ernst looks into her eyes and nods. “We’re gonna do this.”
Inside the meet-and-greet, Ernst takes the floor and talks about the ways of Iowa.
“I can tell you that the Iowa way – the Iowa way is to find out that there is a problem and acknowledge it and address it head-on,” she says, scolding Democrats for blaming fiscal problems on the George W. Bush administration.
“We are putting more of our friends and family to work,” she says, as the audience punctuates the speech with cheers. “It’s those Iowa values. The Iowa way.
“I do believe in the Iowa way. Iowans helping Iowans. Iowans finding solutions for problems.
“God bless you. God bless Iowa. God bless America.”
“Well, let’s just start off,” the radio interviewer says to Ernst. He’s standing in her RV, which is parked in front of a Monroe County steakhouse. “How about you tell us a little bit about yourself, who you are, and what you’re all about?”
“You bet,” Ernst says into the microphone. “I grew up in southwest Iowa, on a farm north of Stanton, Iowa, which is a tiny little town, a farming community. I went to Iowa State University and joined Army ROTC while I was there, and just have had such a phenomenal life. I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
The interviewer nods as Ernst talks about her passion for civil service and her desire to help Iowa.
“Absolutely,” he says. “Everyone loves Iowa.”
The “Iowa way” is something that makes sense to Ernst’s supporters on this tour. Especially this leg of it, which goes through some of the state’s most rural parts: past farmhouses, grain elevators, crop dusters, and to places that value thrift, self-reliance, lack of pretension.
In Ida County: “I got my Obama bailout,” one farmer says to his seatmate in the Ida Grove Recreation Center. He spells it: “B-A-L-E. Like a hay bale?” He’s got his bale out in his yard.
In Harrison County: “I just finished my bean harvest,” another farmer tells another seatmate at another recreation center. “Good bean crop.”
“Oh, it was good? What do you think they’re making?”
“That’s a good bean.”
At that stop, Deborah Nelson, a convenience store owner, approaches Ernst with a written list of topics on which she wants clarification: Abortion. Immigration. Obamacare. The Farm Bill.
Ernst tells Nelson that she is antiabortion. That she would work to replace Obama’s health-care program. That she will always, always support the military — Ernst herself served in Kuwait in 2003, and she’s still a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard.
“I just wake up every day and I’m scared,” Nelson says as Ernst moves on to talk to other supporters. This race seems so important, Nelson says, and the gulf between Ernst and Bruce Braley seems so wide. Both candidates have traversed the state, but supporters on Ernst’s tour point out that this weekend, while Joni is out here with them, Braley is in more liberal Iowa City with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass). “I think Joni has the principles that Iowa has,” Nelson says. At least the western part, she says. “This part.”
The other part of Iowa is the city part, Nelson says. It’s the part that made Iowa the first Midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage, and the part that lobbies for environmental regulations, and the part that Braley seems to be speaking to. The conservative positions that are important to Nelson are the same ones that make Ernst a polarizing candidate to other voters. She proposed dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department. She supported a “personhood” amendment to give legal rights to fetuses from the time of fertilization — though she later tried to back away from it.
These differences between the candidates represent the fight for Iowa’s future that Ernst talks about at each stop.
In Cherokee County: At an old train depot decorated with patriotic bunting, Ernst tells the audience, “The Iowa way is to acknowledge you have a problem and address it. Let’s stop pointing the finger and let’s start making things happen.”
Afterward, Cherokee residents line up to shake Ernst’s hand, and while they wait, they eat cinnamon rolls from a folding table until there is only one roll left. It’s the one the mayor dropped on the floor. Then somebody decides it wasn’t on the floor for long, and that waste is a terrible thing, and eats it.
“The Iowa way?” Jana Fuller, who has lived elsewhere in the Midwest but likes Iowa best, pauses near the rolls to think about what that means. “If we’re different at all, it’s that we’re earthy. We’re people of the land. Sometimes we’re laughed at because we’re a flyover state, or whatever, but so many people here are intelligent and kind, and everything you’d want to be.”
“How long do you think you spoke in there?” asks Gretchen Hamel, Ernst’s communications director. They’re on the RV, in between counties. Ernst, in a pink cardigan and khakis, sits at the table.
“Ten minutes?” Ernst guesses.
“How long are you going to be next time?”
“Five to six,” Ernst promises.
She never means to talk that long. It’s just that she gets swept up in the moment. She’s a hugger. Hugs everybody. Likes taking pictures. Can’t resist hopping onto someone’s motorcycle for a photo, even when her staff is telling her they really, really need to go.
Ernst says she sometimes feels like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders. “We need to win in Iowa if we want to get America back on what I consider the right track,” she says in an interview. “We have to do this, and there’s no ifs, ands or buts.”
Now, in the RV, is when she usually might check in with her family — her husband and teenage daughter back home in Red Oak. Today a campaign staffer asks a favor. His friend’s daughter has to do a travel project, where people from around the country fill in information about themselves and their states. The staffer wonders if Joni could do a page. She takes the folder.
“What are your hobbies?” she reads out loud. “Campaigning. Campaigning is my latest hobby.”
“Hugging,” a staffer offers.
The RV rolls on. “What are you going to do?” Hamel asks as they approach the next stop.
“Five to six minutes.”
One hour, sixty miles, and one stop later, Ernst’s supporters in Wapello County sit in metal chairs in the county’s GOP headquarters, waiting for the candidate to arrive.
“She probably won’t be here but 15 minutes,” one attendee warns another. “They can’t ever stay for long; they got so many places to be.”
“If you’re waiting on the perfect candidate, Jesus Christ ain’t running,” another attendee, a middle-aged man, says.
“That’s what I tell people,” replies Linda Clark, a retired cosmetologist who came with her year-old granddaughter.
“But Joni’s close, though,” the man says.
“Oh, she’s wonderful.” Clark has been a fan for months. She loves the small-government philosophy that Ernst stands for, and she thinks its great that Ernst would be Iowa’s first female senator. Some people have tried to warn her that Ernst’s position on health care could make it more expensive for women to get birth control, but that doesn’t bother Clark. “I always bought my own birth control anyway,” she says.
Finally, Ernst arrives, waving to the waiting group, stooping to greet Clark’s granddaughter.
“Can you say Joni?” Clark prompts the toddler. “Jo-ni?”
The RV again. It’s late in the day, and the sky is turning pink and orange as Ernst and her staff travel to their final stop of the evening, a chili cook-off in Decatur County. Pop music drifts back from the front seats.
Ernst is asked to explain, again, the Iowa way.
“It’s hard work,” she begins. “It’s personal responsibility.”
It’s the fact that, she says, when floods came to Iowa, emergency shelters were unnecessary because people took in their neighbors themselves.
Years ago, back when she was running for county auditor, there was this man who was a supporter of hers, a farmer and rancher, and a cow knocked against him so hard and so unexpectedly that he had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital, she says.
“It was during harvest. They put a message out on the radio station, and he had more people come out on their tractors and combines to bring his harvest in so that his wife and his children wouldn’t have to worry about it. So they could focus on their dad. The community said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We got it.’ ”
She breaks off. She is crying now, silently, as she remembers this farmer. When she starts to talk again after pausing to wipe her eyes with a clump of tissues, her voice is wobbly.
“And he ended up dying. And he was such a great man. But they didn’t want his wife to worry about it. And that’s what it is. It’s just about taking care of people that you love.”
She nods. The RV keeps moving.
She talks about a few other things: her military career, college years spent volunteering at a women’s shelter. Then the driver calls back that they’re only a few minutes away from the cook-off.
“Time to get dolled up again,” she says, applying a coat of lipstick.
Inside the building holding the cook-off, crockpots of chili line the perimeter of a linoleum-floored room. Women set out Tupperware holding brownies and marshmallow squares at one end of the table, and a man lays out Styrofoam bowls at another. A teenage girl and boy sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in a pure, tremulous and slightly flat key, and people put their hands on their hearts and sing along.
“Our Iowa way is the right approach,” Ernst tells the crowd. The people organizing the chili table stop, cutlery in hands, to listen to her. A mother hushes her child, and an older couple murmurs agreement. Yes, they nod. Yes.
“God bless you,” Ernst says, and the applause begins. “God bless the great state of Iowa. God bless the great United States of America.”