IA-Sen: Five quick thoughts on Joni Ernst's crushing victory

I thought State Senator Joni Ernst would win the U.S. Senate primary outright, but I never thought she’d take more than 56 percent of the vote. A more detailed post on Mark Jacobs’ collapse will come later, but for now, here is my first take on the Ernst triumph.

1. Once Jacobs entered the race, Ernst’s strategists were the only people who recognized that the key battle was to become the anti-Jacobs.

I lean toward the view that after spending 30 years out of state, Jacobs never had a chance, no matter how much money he was prepared to spend. His messaging wasn’t the best, and it hurt when his “cap and trade” comments were leaked, but I don’t think a self-funding candidate who lived most of his life far from Iowa could win a statewide primary here.

For a few months, Ernst’s campaign attacked Jacobs so often in press releases that it was almost comical. The tactic worked. Someone was bound to benefit from massive outside spending against Jacobs (including $200,000 from one hedge fund executive alone). Ernst and her advisers positioned her to take the advantage.  

It’s ludicrous that the Senate Conservatives Fund ended up backing the same candidate supported by Mitt Romney, a conservative so principled that she changed her positions on the gas tax and biofuels mandate as soon as she sensed political danger. They saw Ernst as the only credible alternative to Jacobs.  

Groups like the Chamber of Commerce and National Rifle Association piled on when they sensed Ernst had the momentum.

Side note: if a Democrat used the kind of rhetoric Ernst used against Jacobs, Republicans would scream “class warfare.” For instance, she talked about how she and her husband live in a house they bought for $80,000, while Jacobs lives in a house most Iowans could never dream of owning.

2. Ernst got big assists from Sam Clovis and Matt Whitaker.

Their poor fundraising during the third and fourth quarters of 2013 convinced the big Republican money and conservative interest groups to look elsewhere. Maybe it’s not Clovis’ fault that Bob Vander Plaats dragged his feet for so long. Maybe it’s not Whitaker’s fault that prominent Republicans from the “Liberty” faction didn’t rule out running for Senate until late last year. But you need to show you’re in a position to run and win a statewide race, and they didn’t.

I believe that with more money in the bank, either Whitaker or Clovis could have scored the Senate Conservatives Fund endorsement.

The same two rivals also failed to challenge Ernst at the various candidate forums and debates. I didn’t watch every debate, but from what I saw, both of them seemed to have a better command of the federal issues than Ernst. For some reason, they didn’t try to punch holes in her scripted and occasionally illogical comments. They played into her strategy of looking like the the most electable candidate.

3. The fortuitous timing of the “Squeal” ad cannot be underestimated.

It’s not every day a candidate references castration in a television commercial. Ernst was bound to get some attention from that spot. But before conservative advocacy groups dropped a bomb on Bruce Braley, conventional wisdom was developing that Iowa’s Senate seat was low on the GOP target list. Suddenly, the world saw Braley dissing Senator Chuck Grassley while standing in front of a drinks cart.

I can’t help wondering whether anyone on Ernst’s team got a heads up that it would be a good idea to start running their first tv ad on March 25.

4. Ernst’s general election message will look a lot like her final pre-primary tv ad.

I expect the “Make ‘Em Squeal” campaign bus to get a makeover, pronto. We won’t see Ernst wearing leather at the shooting range anymore either.

During last night’s victory speech, Ernst echoed several phrases from the tv ad “Long Way,” which her campaign launched on May 27.

My transcript:

Ernst speaks to camera, standing in front of house: I’m Joni Ernst, and I approved this message, because this is home.

Ernst’s voice: I grew up walking beans on our family farm. [Viewer sees footage of a soybean field, then a flag flying, words on screen: CONSERVATIVE JONI ERNST]

The church I grew up in is the church where our daughter was baptized. [footage of beautiful church, CONSERVATIVE JONI ERNST remains on screen]

Hard work, love of country, this is where I learned America’s greatness comes from people, not government. [Viewer sees footage of rural landscape, then children raising a flag, then “Welcome to Red Oak” sign, CONSERVATIVE JONI ERNST remains on screen]

Ernst speaks to camera again: It’s a long way from Red Oak to Washington, but I’m asking for your vote because I’ll take our values there instead of the other way around.

The general election version will replace “conservative Joni Ernst” with “mother, soldier, small-town Iowan” or some such, adding a few more details she mentioned in her victory speech. The church she grew up in also happens to be the church where she was married and where she teaches Sunday school.

5. Going negative against Ernst will be tricky.

Jacobs shot himself in the foot by using the term “AWOL” to describe Ernst’s many missed votes in the Iowa Senate. You don’t call an Iraq War veteran AWOL. If Braley’s team plans to question why Ernst spent a bunch of days away from the State Capitol during the legislative session (not always during National Guard drills), they had better tread carefully. She will be ready to claim sympathy.

Already during last night’s victory speech, Ernst was positioning herself as the target of unfair attacks. I don’t have the verbatim quote, but she implied that she has been criticized for not being an attorney. “I may not be a lawyer, but I have Iowa values” could resonate with people who may not realize that no one ever faulted Ernst for not being a lawyer.

After last week’s KCCI-TV debate, the Iowa Democratic Party pounced on Ernst for calling the recent mass shooting in Santa Barbara an “unfortunate accident,” but she will explain that away as a slip of the tongue.

Issue stands Ernst took during the GOP primary present some avenues for attack. As I mentioned above, she flip-flopped on the gas tax and the Renewable Fuels Standard. During the KCCI debate, she named the Clean Water Act as an example of a federal regulation that should be removed because it’s bad for business. She also said she would have voted against the Farm Bill–although Grassley’s own vote against that bill gave her some cover.

Any relevant comments are welcome in this thread.

P.S. – I grew up attending the same synagogue where my husband and I were married, where our kids were consecrated, and our family are still active members. It didn’t make me a conservative.

  • Re: "Peep" bad start for Braley messaging on Ernst

    The Braley campaign started off the general election on the wrong foot with their “Peep” commercial.  

    Since when do progressive Democrats attack Republicans for failing to cut spending?????

    Then they throw State Senator Steve Sodders out there to talk about pig mutilation.  

    The Braley campaign needs to have a “possessed” commercial with a pretty little girl talking about her church and family and Iowa values and then have the voice of “Zuul” from Ghostbusters come out of her saying, “I’ll eliminate the minimum wage, I’m in favor of old people paying for their own Medicare, and I’m going to vote to cut everybody’s monthly Social Security checks.”  

    What Ernst is peddling is sweetness and light so that we ignore her positions on the issues.  If Braley doesn’t start highlighting the evil of her positions, it is going to be a very long summer and fall.

    • Ernst

      I don’t get “sweetness and light” out of her ads shooting guns and castrating pigs. There’s plenty of time for the campaign to expose Joni and for Joni to expose Joni.

    • Braley "peep" ad


      I agree!  That ad angle will hurt more than help.  

      The zuul character would be great!

      The gunslinging pig cutter angle died on primary day, and we are already seeing her Sunday school teacher ad. We need to accentuate our positives, and stay away from negativity.

    • I don't like the ad either

      I just didn’t finish my post in time to put it up today. Like you say, it validates and reinforces a Republican frame instead of painting her as an extremist.

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