Hershey, Pa. — One of the stars of this week’s joint Senate-House Republican retreat is Iowa senator Joni Ernst. While she was here, it was announced she would be giving the official GOP response to President Obama’s State of the Union address next Tuesday — the first time a newly sworn-in member of Congress has been accorded that honor.
The 44-year-old Ernst became famous last year by running a unapologetically conservative campaign and capturing an open Democratic seat in Iowa, a state that has voted Republican for president only once in the last 30 years.
“I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” was the signature line of a TV commercial Ernst ran on touting her ability to cut federal pork-barrel spending. “The ad just touched a nerve and brought in more earned media than anyone could imagine,” she told me over breakfast at the retreat. “People like direct and plain-speaking candidates.” She acknowledged that last year it also helped her that she was running against Democrat Bruce Braley, a trial lawyer who made fun of the fact that Iowa’s senior senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, was a farmer rather than a lawyer.
Ernst will try to employ her communication skills in crafting her response to Obama’s message. She is not only likely to highlight Obama’s proposed 7 percent increase in federal spending in his budget but also his failures as in foreign policy. Ernst is a former colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and has served overseas in Iraq. Her background allows her to speak authoritatively on both domestic and foreign policy and reach out to women voters at the same time.
Ernst is also speaking on January 23rd at the Iowa Freedom Summit being held in Des Moines by Representative Steve King and Citizens United. Most of the potential Republican presidential-candidate field will speak there and Ernst is scheduled to kick things off in the morning. No doubt every candidate will be wooing her for support, but Ernst says she is determined to remain neutral. “I want to promote Iowa’s role in the presidential selection process and I can best do that by not playing favorites,” she told me.