Ernst Campaign Is Case Study for 2016 Aspirants

This cycle, no candidate has navigated the GOP “civil war” better than Joni Ernst.

Ernst received the endorsement of Sarah Palin and hit the campaign trail with Mitt Romney. Senate Conservatives Fund backed her, and so did the Chamber of Commerce.

Ahead of Tuesday's Iowa GOP Senate primary, Ernst has a commanding 18-point lead in the Des Moines Register poll, but securing the nomination isn't certain. With 36% of the vote to liberal Republican businessman Mark Jacobs' 18%, Ernst is barely above the 35% threshold she must surpass in order to avoid a nominating convention on June 14. Though Ernst and Sam Clovis would be advantaged at a convention, nothing would be guaranteed when 2,000 fickle delegates meet.

It's a remarkable success story that might make a good case study for aspiring 2016 candidates. Notably, Ernst and Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio share a top consultant in Todd Harris, who has been helping Ernst navigate the rough waters of the 2014 primary cycle.

However, one key issue divides Ernst and Rubio: immigration. Ernst has been fairly emphatic in her opposition to amnesty, while Rubio – despite campaigning with similar rhetoric to Ernst – shepherded the “Gang of Eight” bill through the Senate.

Ernst has roared to the front of the pack by cobbling together an alliance of politicians and groups that usually just flat-out don't like each other, especially when it comes to granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.

During the final Iowa Republican Senate debate last week, Ernst made clear where she stood on immigration, an issue that has especially divided Republicans this election cycle.

"I don't support amnesty," she declared. "No amnesty."

Yet the Chamber of Commerce, which has vowed to spend $50 million to push for comprehensive immigration reform, has endorsed her. And the next day, Mitt Romney campaigned for Ernst in Iowa and told reporters that Congress needed to pass amnesty legislation before 2016. Rubio, meanwhile, has also given her considerable support along with his PAC.

Republicans need to gain six seats to take back the Senate, and establishment Republicans have supported Ernst over Jacobs, who has poured in millions to self-fund his campaign, because they think she is more electable and can better unify the party, which is what Rubio also said on Monday. And so have Tea Partiers and conservatives like Palin, the Senate Conservatives Fund, SHE-Pac, and the Susan B. Anthony Fund. 

"This seat will give Harry Reid the retirement that he deserves," Palin said at a rally for Ernst last month. Palin, who remains one of the most popular politicians in Iowa (even 90% of "somewhat liberal" Iowans view Palin favorably) emphasized that Democrats would not be able to play the phony "war on women" card against Ernst, an Iraq War veteran who still serves in the National Guard.

Ernst became a household name with her hog castration ad, and Republicans may have seen her as an even better contrast candidate to Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), who is running unopposed for his party's Senate nomination, when a video surfaced in which Braley denigrated Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as just "a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school." It became clear that Braley's "elitist" remarks would make it difficult for Democrats to play the populist card against Ernst, who grew up on a farm and rides a Harley to a shooting range.  

She is close to that one-on-one matchup with Braley, but 16% of likely GOP primary voters are undecided and 75% of voters could change their minds, according to the Iowa Poll. And three candidates are working feverishly to prevent Ernst from getting to 35%.

Jacobs, who has been losing steam in polling, is running a barrage of negative direct-mail pieces against Ernst.

Former U.S. Attorney and Iowa football player Matt Whitaker brought in Texas Governor Rick Perry to campaign for him last week. Whitaker is at 13% in the polls and is up with a TV spot highlighting his football career.

Sam Clovis, the former talk radio host, has been endorsed by social conservatives like the Family Leader's Bob Vander Plaats, former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012, and Citizens United, which has bought ads for Clovis the week before the primary. Clovis sits at 11% in the final Register poll.

According to the Register, Ernst's lead "is significant across all demographics, factions and geographies," and she "does well with both men and women, with every age group, with the tea party and born-again Christians and with voters in every congressional district, including the 4th, Iowa's most conservative district."

Before he became the face of the Senate's amnesty bill, Rubio was positioned to get similar support. In a February 2013 Public Policy Polling poll, Rubio led the field of potential GOP presidential candidates in Iowa with 22% support. But four months after he embraced the Senate's amnesty bill, he dropped to 5th place in Iowa. In the most recent Public Policy Poll Iowa poll of potential 2016 contenders, Rubio is in 8th place with just 4% of the vote.

Rubio tried to sell amnesty, and Iowans and conservatives did not buy it. A Quinnipiac poll in December of 2013 found that 46% of Iowans would be "less likely" to vote for a candidate who supports amnesty while only "24% said they would be more likely." Among Republican voters surveyed, 63% said they would be less likely to support a candidate who supports amnesty while only 13% said they would be more likely.

Rubio's favorability ratings are still fairly good – 51-10 had a favorable opinion of him in the PPP poll, for example – but it's hard to look at his fall from the top echelon of the horse race as having to do with anything but immigration.

Rubio's easiest path back to front of the 2016 pack will be to harness the support of the Tea Partiers who elected him and felt betrayed by his embrace of amnesty legislation and establishment Republicans who favor a more muscular foreign policy. But winning back conservatives in the state that holds the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses will not be easy, especially since Rubio has indicated that the Senate will "absolutely" take up immigration legislation next year -- as the 2016 cycle heats up.


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