Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) is enjoying a meteoric rise.
Just weeks removed from being a first-term state senator, she’s now preparing to give the GOP’s response to President Obama’s State of the Union address.
It’s the first time a newly sworn-in senator will deliver the Republican remarks, but GOP leaders have good reasons for tapping the fast-rising star.
National Republicans are singing Ernst’s praises as she prepares to go combat boot to toe with Obama. And with an eye on 2016, they point out her presence as a blue-collar former soldier and farmer sets up well as a counterweight to Hillary Clinton.
“Sen. Ernst offers a pull yourself up from your bootstraps, self-reliant background that is in direct contrast to the government-centric policies that will be offered by the president, and a compelling counterweight to the female frontrunner of the Democratic Party,” said GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.
“Compelling messengers make for persuasive messages. Sen. Ernst is the genuine article. The ‘War on Women’ is out; the ‘War for Women’ is in.”
Ernst is part of a new class of female Republicans entering Congress that leaders are looking to promote.
“She's a great new face for the party,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), a longtime behind-the-scenes GOP power player who joined Ernst as a new member of Congress earlier this month. “She's a great leader for us, as a veteran, as a hard-working taxpayer who knows what people are going through, coming from the Midwest.”
Ernst impressed many with her dominant electoral performance last year. Beginning the race as a little-known state legislator, she cruised through a five-way primary, uniting an often-fractious Republican base and ultimately crushing Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) in the general election.
Her “make ‘em squeal” ad, where she joked about cutting congressional pork like she used to castrate hogs, was the most memorable of the election cycle.
“She's the full-spectrum conservative that has eluded us in a lot of races and her genuineness and Iowan hospitality made her a great candidate and make her a great senator. I don't think anyone is surprised that leadership thought she'd be a great voice for Republicans in countering the president's state of the union address,” said Tim Albrecht, an Iowa-based strategist close to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) who did some work on Ernst’s campaign.
“She's not seeking this national profile. The national profile is seeking her because she's so refreshing,” he added.
Strategists point out that Ernst enjoyed quiet backing from Branstad that helped her in the primary and that Braley was a fatally flawed candidate in a terrible year for Democrats. But even her biggest detractors admit she ran a terrific race and tip their hats to her personal charm.
“She's a great human being, she's a really good person and I really admire her because she's such a quality individual,” said Sam Clovis, an influential Iowa conservative and one of the men Ernst defeated in the primary. “I think it's great they've picked her [for the GOP response]… She's a rising star, she's got all the things you want on television and she'll do a good job.”
Ernst said she was “truly honored” to be picked to give the speech and hinted that she’d weave in her personal background while focusing on foreign policy, veterans’ issues and the economy.
“During this Congress, we must help grow a vibrant economy, see to it that our veterans receive promised quality care and that our military has the tools to defend our nation's security, and ensure the federal government begins to run more effectively and efficiently,” she said in a statement to The Hill.
The freshman senator is already asserting herself as a major Iowa GOP power player as she looks to entrench herself in the pivotal swing state. She’s launching a 99-county annual tour of the state this weekend — a schedule mirrored on one two of her mentors, Branstad and Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), have followed assiduously for years.
Her first annual “Roast and Ride” fundraiser in June will undoubtedly be a draw for presidential contenders. And while she’s pledged to remain neutral in the Iowa caucuses, she will be closely watched in the race and could be an important surrogate as eventual GOP nominee tries to win the state in November.
“She will be one of the most important people in Iowa heading into next year's caucus and general election for President. All serious Republican candidates will seek her advice and endorsement,” predicted Conway.