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Joni Ernst, one-time hog castrator, is GOP's newest darling

Joni Ernest won the Republican primary for US Senate in Iowa and now has a chance to take a Democratic-held seat. With viral Internet ads, a compelling story, and good shooting aim, she's united the tea party and GOP establishment behind her.

Charlie Litchfield/The Des Moines Register/AP
Republican US Senate candidate Joni Ernst delivers her remarks at a victory celebration during a primary election night party on Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa.

Meet Joni Ernst, the Republican Party’s newest darling. The one-time farm girl, who grew up castrating hogs, won a resounding victory in Iowa’s GOP Senate primary Tuesday. And she has a strong shot at taking over a seat currently held by a Democrat.

An Ernst victory in November against the Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, would bring the Republicans one step closer to retaking control of the Senate. Three current Democratic seats – in South Dakota, Montana, and West Virginia – are already seen as leaning or likely to go Republican. In all, Republicans need a net gain of six seats to win a majority.

In a party eager to develop female talent, state Senator Ernst is a dream come true. Her campaign began to take off in March with a grabby ad touting her skill castrating hogs – and a desire to cut spending in Washington. The ad went viral on YouTube, and she never looked back.

“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” Ernst says in the ad, which cost $9,000 to produce.

On Tuesday, Ernst crushed the competition with 56 percent of the vote. Her nearest opponent, radio host Sam Clovis, won 18 percent. Ernst and Congressman Braley will compete in November to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D).

In addition to her political experience as a state senator, Ernst also brings military credentials to the table. She is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and served in Iraq and Kuwait. And she rides a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

After the pig ad, she produced another featuring a different kind of hog: She’s shown riding a Harley and using a handgun to take aim at Obamacare and wasteful spending.

"Conservative Joni Ernst: mom, farm girl, and a lieutenant colonel who carries more than just lipstick in her purse," says the voiceover, as Ernst walks into a shooting range and loads a gun. "Joni Ernst will take aim at wasteful spending. And when she sets her sights on Obamacare, Joni's going to unload."

Ernst’s success shows that provocative, entertaining ads can go viral and win widespread attention on the web without having to spend a lot of money on TV. By April, opponent Mark Jacobs – a wealthy businessman – had spent nearly a million dollars on TV and radio ads, but finished third on Tuesday.

Ernst was endorsed by some tea party groups but also won favor from establishment Republicans – a convergence of party goals, unlike the sharp tea party vs. establishment narrative that played out in Mississippi on Tuesday and will continue through the likely primary runoff on June 24.

Ernst needed to win at least 35 percent of the primary vote to avoid sending the nomination to a state GOP convention. That could have handed the nod to an even more conservative candidate.

By winning a decisive majority, Ernst heads into the general election campaign with momentum. Braley stumbled out of the gate by making a derogatory comment about farmers, a no-no in Iowa. He apologized for the remark.

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