Joni Ernst has been elected as the next U.S. Senator from Iowa. The Republican, a state Senator from Red Oak, defeated Democrat U.S. Representative Bruce Braley in one of the nation’s closest watched elections.
Ernst will fill the seat currently occupied by Senator Tom Harkin. Harkin, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1985, announced in January 2013 that he would retire at the end of his term in January 2015.
Recent polls had shown Ernst pulling ahead, a poll released by the Des Moines Register this weekend showed her with a seven point lead. A Quinnipiac University poll released Monday showed the race was tied at 47%.
Ernst will be sworn in to the Senate in January.
In 1989, a teenage college student from Iowa completed an agricultural exchange on a family farm in the Soviet state of Ukraine. Not surprisingly, as Joni Ernst retells it, the experience gave her a profound new appreciation for her home country — one that has colored her career choices to this day.
“It was just such a difference between the United States and the opportunity we had and what that family had in Ukraine,” she told RealClearPolitics, citing the farm’s lack of basic utilities such as a telephone and running water. (Residents had to use an outhouse behind the chicken coop, and the family shared a single bicycle in the absence of a car. Farm work was done through manual labor, supported by horses and wagons.) “That made such an impression on me when I came back to the United States and it was a matter of ‘Oh, I love my country.’”
[…]Ernst’s campaign is putting its focus on the candidate’s varied life experiences, including 21 years in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Iowa Army National Guard and being a mother of three and grandmother of six. Indeed, Romney’s endorsement highlighted her history as a “mother, soldier and proven conservative.”
A company commander in Kuwait and southern Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 (and now a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard), Ernst says the grim realities she witnessed in Ukraine long ago sparked her interest in giving back to and supporting her own country.
“I felt that the military was a great way for me to do that, to defend the freedoms and opportunities that we have here in the United States,” she explained. “I’ve loved it.”
Nonetheless, Ernst recounts the hardships of serving in the Iraqi desert, including driving convoys in 142-degree temperatures and sandstorms that would sweep over the region. The situation was “just [a] pretty difficult environment, but you just adapt and you just roll with it,” she recalled. “It was the greatest of experiences and it was the worst of experiences.”
Those experiences are what drew some of Ernst’s supporters to her side. Ruben Garza, an officer in the Iowa Army National Guard, said he sees the candidate’s service as apt preparation for the U.S. Senate. “When you’re a military leader, your actions and your words are highly scrutinized and you’re expected to do what you say. I would expect, [if] Senator Ernst says she’s going to achieve something, she’s going to put 110 percent effort into achieving that.”
Her personal story goes far beyond the Iraqi desert, of course. It can be traced back to the cornfields of Stanton, a farming town of about 700 in southwestern Iowa. The town’s premier landmark is a water tower modeled after a traditional Swedish coffeepot, complete with a colorful floral design, handle and spout. Erected during Stanton’s centennial in 1970, the tower is both a nod to the town’s 19th-century Swedish immigrant heritage and a tribute to native daughter Virginia Christine, an actress featured in 1960s television commercials for Folgers Coffee.
Joni Culver, the second daughter of a farming couple, was born the same year the water tower was erected. Ernst and her campaign like to highlight her roots as a farmer’s daughter, and she cited this aspect of her life when arguing for reduced government spending during a debate with other Republican candidates for the Senate: “As a farmer’s daughter, who grew up in southwest Iowa castrating hogs with her dad, I can go to Washington and cut pork,” she said to cheers from the audience.
Among those familiar with Ernst during those early years is her sixth-grade teacher and campaign supporter, Rick Gustafson. He compares the candidate’s upbringing to “Little House on the Prairie,” where Mrs. Culver would sew young Joni’s and her older sister’s clothes. (He still has a pillow Ernst’s mother gave him, embroidered with the names of all 23 students in his class.) Moreover, Gustafson remembers his former pupil’s strong work ethic and that she learned to drive her father’s tractor, as well as being a model student in class.
“Joni was one of those rare students that had high intellect, very, very good academic ability, and also had a high integrity in terms of doing the right things,” Gustafson told RCP. “She had all those and showed all those qualities at that time, even though she was still in those formative years.”
Ernst first expressed that love by joining the Army Reserves and the National Guard, and she hopes to express it further by serving in the U.S. Senate. What makes her ambition especially noteworthy is that, should she win the GOP primary on June 3 and the general election in November, Ernst would become the first woman from Iowa to serve in Congress. Given the state’s long track record of moderate, independent-minded politics, one might be astonished to learn that only Iowa and Mississippi have yet to elect a woman to federal office or governor.
I think she has the background to be the first woman President one day! She is also pro-life.