DES MOINES, Iowa–State Sen. Joni Ernst defeated Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley (D-IA) here, likely becoming the Republican pickup that handed the GOP control of the Senate.
Ernst emerged from relative obscurity in March with a television ad that made her instantly famous, introducing herself as someone who grew up “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” to make a point about cutting government pork barrel spending.
“Thanks to all of you we are heading to Washington, and we are going to make ’em squeal!” Ernst said in a victory speech here.
Alone among Republican primary challengers in the cycle, Ernst threaded the needle between the GOP Establishment and the restive conservative base, receiving the endorsements of both Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, the Chamber of Commerce and the Senate Conservatives Fund.
Now there is already early speculation that she could become a key messenger for Republicans in the 2016 cycle and comes to Washington as one of the GOP’s most senior and impressive female office holders.
Braley, the Democratic candidate, suffered throughout the campaign from unforced errors such as mocking Iowa’s senior Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley as a “farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” at a closed-door fundraiser with trail lawyers in Texas.
In a moment emblematic of his campaign, Braley’s birthday celebration was interrupted by news of a poll from the Des Moines Register showing Ernst up seven points in the closing days of the race.
In the state senate, Ernst had a highly conservative voting record, so much so that in the closing weeks of the campaign liberal journalists expressed outrage that she was, in their view, escaping scrutiny for her views.
After winning the primary, she largely adopted a moderate tone, eschewing hardline rhetoric but sticking to positions such as pushing to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency.
“She might be the most conservative officeholder in terms of record that Iowa’s nominated in quite some time,” said Steve Deace, a well-connected conservative radio host in Iowa.
In the closing weeks of the race, Ernst embarked on a tour of all of Iowa’s 99 counties, even traveling deep into the middle of the night on election eve, including to a college party where fraternity brothers drowned out protesters with chants of “Joni! Joni!”
Ernst grew up on a small farm in rural Iowa. A Lt. Col. In the Iowa National Guard, she served in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and frequently touted her military service on the campaign trail.