Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) parlayed her unusual support from establishment Republicans and conservatives to win Iowa’s GOP Senate nomination outright on Tuesday, surpassing the 35% threshold needed to avoid a June 14 nominating convention, where nothing would have been guaranteed.
The Associated Press called the race after Ernst had 53.7% of the vote with just under 20% of the precincts reporting.
She will face Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA), who won the Democratic nomination uncontested, to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA). Ernst will try to become the first female to be elected to federal office in Iowa.
Perhaps giving 2016 GOP presidential hopefuls a roadmap, Ernst successfully navigated the GOP civil war to earn the support of Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the Senate Conservatives Fund, and the Chamber of Commerce. In the state, she had the support of the Iowa Republican Governor Terry Branstad’s machinery.
Ernst had a commanding 18-point lead in the Des Moines Register poll the weekend before the primary, but her 36% support was just barely above the 35% threshold she needed to surpass to avoid the convention.
Sam Clovis, the former talk radio host, was in second. Clovis was endorsed by social conservatives like the Family Leader’s Bob Vander Plaats and former GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who won Iowa in 2012. Citizens United also bought ads for Clovis the week before the primary. But Ernst had the support of Palin, who endorsed her when she was trailing Jacobs by double digits in some polls and gave her the credibility she needed with Iowa’s conservative voters that hold her in high esteem.
Mark Jacobs, a more liberal businessman, was in third. He outspent his opponents but failed to get traction and define his opponents, particularly Ernst. Former U.S. Attorney and Iowa football player Matt Whitaker, who was endorsed by Texas Governor Rick Perry, was in fourth.
Ernst’s hog castration ad gave her the name recognition and buzz in Iowa and across the nation. But that ad may be even more important now that she is the GOP nominee running against Braley, who was caught on video denigrating Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) as just “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.” Iowans now know she grew up on a farm — and also rides a Harley to a shooting range.
As Breitbart News reported, Republicans need six seats to take back the Senate, and they may have coalesced around Ernst because they saw her as the best candidate to go one-on-one against Braley. As former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is even viewed favorably in the state by 90% of “somewhat liberal” voters, noted, Democrats will not be able to play the “war on women” car against the Iraq War veteran who still serves in the National Guard. And they will also not be able to play the “income inequality”/populist card against her in light of Braley’s comments, which is something they could have done against someone like Jacobs.
And since Ernst was supported by conservatives and establishment Republicans, she will not have to deal with establishment Republicans withholding resources or conservatives sitting home, freeing her up to win over independent voters and Democrats in the fall.
David Yepsin, the longtime sage of Iowa politics who is now at the Paul Simon Center, told the Register that Braley’s comments about farmers will come back to “hurt him” in the fall.
“There are a lot of people who don’t have law degrees,” he said then. “It comes off as elitist.”
Braley has been a slight favorite in the race because Republicans had not chosen their nominee. Republicans have one now in Ernst, who may instantly make the race more competitive in a state in which 53% of voters disapprove of President Barack Obama.