Fort Dodge, Iowa — It’s 1 a.m., freezing cold, spitting rain, and pitch black outside a deserted convenience store in the rural, north-central part of the state. This is a place where no sane person would ever choose to hold a political event. Unless you’re Joni Ernst.
Fifteen minutes behind schedule, the GOP Senate candidate’s campaign bus winds into the darkened parking lot. Bitter Iowa November winds howl as the perpetually cheerful politician bounces off her bus. This insomniac stop is one of twelve Ernst has made today, in a 24-hour tour-de-crazy.
Inside, under fluorescent lighting and blanketed with the aroma of roller dogs, stand 17 faithful Ernst supporters, all here to see underdog-turned-frontrunner in what’s maybe the nation’s most valuable Senate contest.
Upon entering, Ernst lets out a muffled scream and clasps her head. “Oh my goodness. Look at you all!”
Some earlier stops today brought out hundreds, but Ernst seems just as content with a handful of supporters huddled between the donut rack and a prepaid-cell-phone kiosk.
This schedule is no surprise to those familiar with Ernst’s campaign: She’s visited all 99 of Iowa’s counties in the last few weeks and has kept up a ferocious schedule.
Iowa political consultant Gina Noll, who has campaigned with Ernst, says it’s often hard to keep up. “She just goes and goes and goes,” Noll says. “I don’t know where she gets it.”
With neon beer coolers humming behind her, Ernst delivers on the warm folksy charm that she’s become known for.
First, she hugs every. Single. Person. In. The. Store.
“Just shake it off Joni,” one man says to her. Joni does a hip swing and chirps “shake it!” Another guy, possibly not comprehending what he’s saying, barks: “Harkin was right, you are attractive.”
Remember: 1 a.m. gas-station campaign stop.
Ernst signs photos and knick-knacks people give her, and then she gathers everyone in a half circle and gives a mini-stump speech.
“If elected today I would be the first female combat veteran elected to the United States Senate,” she says. “I would also be the first woman Iowa has ever sent to national political office.” The tiny crowd applauds. Ernst then trails off in what could be either a moment of confusion or clarity: “I haven’t thought a lot about that but it’s pretty cool. It is pretty cool . . . pretty cool.”
Ernst regularly downplays her glass-ceiling-breaking potential. In an interview on her campaign bus earlier Monday, she insisted that she was “the right candidate, regardless of gender.”
But what really possesses someone from rural, western Iowa to show up in the middle of the night for a Joni Ernst rally?
Bob Weber: “There’s too many liberal ideas that I don’t believe are good for our country. Joni is kinda like me. Grew up on a farm castrating hogs.”
Jerry Grinstead: “I live in California now but I flew back in just to be here for the election. . . . This is a really important time for our nation.”
David Johnson: “I drove 133 miles to be here today . . . because I want to see Republicans elect the first woman [from Iowa] to Congress.”
Ben 1: “My dad is running for state senate.”
Ben 2: “He’s my buddy, so I came.”
Guy: “I’m running for local office.”
Lady: “I am just here getting coffee.”
And these guys got to speak with Ernst at length about hog castration.
1:44 a.m.: Ernst eats a convenience-store slice of sausage pizza, bundles up, and hops back on the bus. She is headed to a 3:45 a.m. stop at a Sioux City diner two hours away.
The rapid rise of Joni Ernst has been a master class in retail politics. A year ago, she was an obscure state senator, fighting in a comically crowded GOP contest to become the likely loser in the race for for the seat vacated by Tom Harkin — a reliable liberal with a sitting Democratic congressman ready to take his place. Now, depending on your poll, she is either seven points ahead or in a dead heat against a handpicked, seasoned opponent — either way, it’s impressive.
Today, we will know whether Ernst will become Iowa’s first female senator. For now, no one can say she hasn’t worked for it.
— Benny Johnson is digital director at National Review.