For Joni Ernst, homespun Obama response was full of political calculation

For Republicans, having freshman Sen. Joni Ernst deliver their response to President Obama's State of the Union speech made a lot of sense, and she did a workmanlike job.

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.

You can take Joni Ernst out of Iowa, send her to Washington, and give her a big speech to deliver, but you can’t take the Iowa out of Joni Ernst.

And why would Republicans want to?

The freshman senator’s GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday was workmanlike and avoided the gaffes that beset previous Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida ("water" gate) and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota ("cameragate").

What was most conspicuous about Senator Ernst's speech was Iowa. From her rural hometown of Red Oak, to her girlhood growing up with one good pair of shoes, to her service in the Iowa Army National Guard, Ernst’s home-state references hold advantages for the GOP and the senator.

That made sense for her – and for the party – for a number of reasons.

First, think 2016, and Iowa as the launching pad for presidential hopefuls. “Iowa’s a swing state, so it’s strategically important,” says Dianne Bystrom, director of the Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University in Ames. “I think she’s going to have a big role in carrying various campaign events.”

In November, Ernst helped turn Iowa from purple to red, giving the state its second GOP senator. Her famous “make ’em squeal” ad about castrating hogs and cutting pork propelled her from a crowded primary field, and she then went on to take a seat that had been held by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin for 30 years.

Ernst is considered a rising star in Republican circles, already being talked about as a potential vice presidential candidate – not this cycle, but eventually. Now, though, she’s got her welcome mat out for possible GOP presidential contenders, many of whom helped with her campaign.

In June, for instance, she’ll hold her first annual barbeque – Joni’s Roast and Ride – a political fundraiser to attract dollars and candidates. Featuring Harley motorcycles and roast pork, her two trademarks, it’s her version of the famous Harkin Steak Fry, which was a must for Democratic hopefuls.

Ernst says she won’t endorse anyone before the Iowa caucuses, but she’s certainly using her star power to further her party, including sending out a fundraising appeal to her federal political action committee on the heels of her response Tuesday.

Her speech’s reliance on the Hawkeye state was also a safe – and useful – rhetorical device, commented Ms. Bystrom. With only two weeks in the Senate under her belt, Ernst talked about what she knew, and it had the added benefit of connecting her, and thus the GOP, with average Americans.

“An ordinary Iowan like me has had some truly extraordinary experiences” because of the sacrifices of her parents and grandparents, said Ernst. In one of the more memorable moments of the speech, Ernst spoke of how her mother used to wrap Ernst's only pair of good shoes in bread bags on rainy days to keep them dry. It taught the young girl frugality. But it also helped her efforts to establish the new GOP Congress as working for Americans who are having trouble keeping up.

Bystrom sees another possible benefit in choosing Ernst – as an Iowan – to give the GOP response. She is the state’s first elected woman to Congress, and that has the potential to motivate other women to run for elected office.

“When a state elects its first woman to Congress or its first woman governor, there tends to be more women running,” she says. It can even have an impact beyond the state, which would be helpful to Republicans, who lag behind Democrats in recruiting female candidates.

“If you want more women in politics, then you need to encourage more Republican women to run, because the Democratic Party has been on the ascent” with women candidates, she says.

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