Why Joni Ernst is a good choice to rebut State of the Union

The first incoming senator to deliver the State of the Union rebuttal in the first month in office has both tea party and GOP backing and is the first female senator with combat experience.

Susan Walsh/AP
Sen. Joni Ernst, (R) of Iowa rehearses her remarks for the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, Tuesday, on Capitol Hill in Washington.

If only someone had thought to bring a step stool when it was announced that freshman Sen. Joni Ernst would deliver the Republican rebuttal to President Obama's State of the Union Address tonight.

Slight of stature, the Iowan was almost completely hidden by a tall podium, her face obscured behind a thicket of TV microphones. And yet, like the lieutenant colonel that she is, Senator Ernst soldiered on – smiling, looking straight ahead, and delivering her remarks with enthusiasm, even though she couldn’t really see her audience.

That snapshot from last week’s Republican retreat, where Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky introduced Ernst to reporters as the “perfect choice” for Tuesday’s GOP rebuttal, mirrors the challenge of following the president in his annual address to Congress and the nation.

Technical difficulties lurk, even while a politician must speak to a camera and try to warm to an unseen audience that may already be dozing from a presidential stemwinder. Is Ernst up to the task?

Republicans think so. This is, after all, the GOP political unknown who broke through a crowded field of primary candidates and then trounced the “shoo-in” Democrat in November – all launched by her ad featuring hogs, her down-on-the-farm castrating skills, and a promise to cut pork and “make ‘em squeal” in Washington. That ad turned her into a GOP rock star.

Ernst is the kind of conservative trailblazer that Republicans want to feature to the nation, supported by both the tea party and GOP establishment.

She’s not just any fresh face, although she is actually the first incoming senator to ever deliver a rebuttal. She’s also Iowa’s first female senator, and the first woman senator with combat experience. Ernst ran convoys from Kuwait into southern Iraq when she was serving with the Iowa Army National Guard in 2003.

That gives her authority to speak on foreign issues, so look for that tonight as she weaves in her military background. It is Ernst’s compelling biography – from farm girl, to mom, to military commander and state senator – as well as her appeal to sought-after female and young voters, that made her the GOP’s top choice for Tuesday night.

Democrats sharply criticize her stand on abortion – that life begins at the point of conception, which has all kinds of restrictive implications for abortion rights. They also point to her view that the Department of Education and the Environmental Protection Agency should be eliminated. 

Yet her drumbeat for lower taxes, less regulation, and repeal of Obamacare sits well with Republicans of all stripes.“Americans voted for change, and Senator Ernst will explain what the new Congress plans to do, and what it is already doing to return Washington's focus to the concerns of the middle class and away from the demands of the political class,” Senator McConnell said Thursday, at the GOP retreat in Hershey, Pa.

That’s not an easy task. One technical mess-up can sink a rebuttal. What people remember from the GOP response by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in 2013 is that he paused awkwardly and reached off-camera for a bottle of water, then took a swig in the middle of his remarks.

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R) of Minnesota, looked into the wrong camera during her 2011 tea party rebuttal – never directly facing viewers.

And it doesn’t help if a person’s delivery doesn’t measure up. Louisiana Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal’s 2009 response was widely panned. The sing-songy, fast-paced cadence distracted from the message.

On the campaign trail and in her ads, Ernst appeared to be near pitch-perfect. She exudes a contagious positive energy. She leans forward, and speaks plainly and clearly, expressing a sort of down-home-ness that connects with people.

Ernst’s rebuttal on TV and the Internet may well be watched and listened to more than the average response, simply because of who she is – and because of the new GOP-controlled Congress.

But it’s still a challenge to follow the president’s speech, and speak to a faceless camera for minutes on end. 

Republicans are capitalizing on who she is, Dennis Goldford, a professor of politics at Drake University in Des Moines, told the Des Moines Register. But, he said,  “no one is going to remember what she said unless somebody comes up with another witty 'Make 'em squeal' line."

Undoubtedly, Republicans mixmasters have worked on such a line.

[Editor's note: The summary of this article has been corrected to clarify that Joni Ernst is the first senator to deliver the GOP rebuttal in her first year.

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