Freshman Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) offered a smoothly delivered, personal and populist message that sought to draw a contrast with President Obama in the official GOP response to Obama’s State of the Union address.
Minutes after Obama touted the economy’s upturn, Ernst cast his presidency as a period of national unrest and economic hardship and said Republicans understand “how difficult these past six years have been.”
“For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about,” she said. “We felt them every day.”
Ernst pledged that the new GOP majority would reform Congress “to make it function again” and would pass “serious job-creation ideas,” naming the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline as a top priority.
She also took a shot at Obama’s health-care law, saying that it was part of a “stale mind-set” and that Republicans would “keep fighting to repeal and replace” it.
But it was military policy where Ernst, an Iraq war veteran and a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard who was wearing camouflage-patterned high heels, sounded most assertive.
A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, she spoke firmly in favor of a foreign policy that promotes U.S. engagement abroad and military strength.
“The forces of violence and oppression don’t care about the innocent,” she said. “We need a comprehensive plan to defeat them.”
Ernst, 44, cast herself on Tuesday as a fresh conservative voice for a party that has stumbled in the past two presidential elections. Her remarks, delivered in the Armed Services Committee’s hearing room on Capitol Hill, echoed her pitch last year on the campaign trail, where she frequently recalled her childhood days in rural southwest Iowa.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who has been in the Senate since 1981, said that although Ernst has been a senator for less than a month, she was a good choice to respond to the president. “It’s good to have a woman there, more nationally for Republicans,” Grassley said in an interview. “A lot of males come off as harsh and uncaring.”
Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.), 34, a House freshman and son of Cuban exiles, read a modified Spanish-language translation of Ernst’s speech in a video that was disseminated to Hispanic media outlets as part of the GOP leadership’s formal counter to the president.
Separately, Rep. Curt Clawson (R-Fla.) gave a speech broadcast online and sponsored by the Tea Party Express, a conservative advocacy group. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a likely 2016 presidential candidate, posted his response in a YouTube video.
As most previous responders have, Ernst spoke from an isolated and staid setting, without the pomp and near-constant applause showered on the president across the street. She stood with Iowa’s state flag and military flags behind her.
Her populist conservatism was evident in nearly every passage and at times explicitly mentioned, including when she talked about the fast-food chain where she worked in her youth. “As a young girl, I plowed the fields of our family farm. I worked construction with my dad. To save for college, I worked the morning biscuit line at Hardee’s,” she said. “We were raised to live simply, not to waste. It was a lesson my mother taught me every rainy morning.
“You see, growing up, I had only one good pair of shoes. So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry. But I was never embarrassed, because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.”