WASHINGTON -- Joni Ernst burst onto the political scene last year when she went from state lawmaker to U.S. senator. A military veteran with a folksy twist, Ernst, the junior senator from Iowa, will deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night.
Being selected to deliver the response has become a prominent spot for up-and-coming politicians. While it brings young leaders an opportunity to shine, it also brings increased scrutiny -- think of the panning of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal or the strange water moment for Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.
Ernst is very much a newcomer to the political world. She hasn’t even delivered her maiden Senate floor speech yet. She has voted in the Senate only three times. But as the 2016 primary campaign begins to warm up, it’s not surprising that Republican leadership will avoid appearing to choose favorites from that crowd and go with a relatively unknown figure.
Here is what you need to know about Joni Ernst:
1. Pig castration: Ernst made her first public, national splash when she released a campaign ad that declared she wanted to make Washington “squeal.” “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm,” Ernst begins the ad. “When I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
The pig castration ad inspired many jokes even after Ernst won election. Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham gave Ernst a castration tool as a gift for her election. Mounted on a board, it included a plaque that read “Make 'Em Squeal, Joni.”
2. Military career: Ernst spent more than a decade in the Army Reserve and the Iowa National Guard. She served during Operation Iraqi Freedom and made her military service a central part of her campaign.
Ernst was a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard. She was stationed in Kuwait to run logistics for the National Guard unit during their deployment in Iraq. Ernst’s husband, Gail, retired from the military as a command sergeant major and Army Ranger.
Her ability to talk about her time in the military will give her credibility when discussing foreign relations in response to Obama. The lame duck president has made foreign policy a focal point for his last two years -- mostly because he doesn't need congressional approval to make sweeping changes. Ernst will be able to talk about the current fights in Iraq and Syria with credibility despite being very new to Congress.
3. Role as a woman candidate: Ernst played a key role in the 2014 midterm elections in the Republican effort to appeal to more women voters. Republicans fielded several female candidates who they hoped could help them overcome the deficit of women backing the GOP.
This will be the second year in a row that a woman has delivered the Republican response to Obama. Last year, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Ore., had the honor. She touted her role as a mother, talking with the press in the lead-up to her speech about having an infant while serving in Congress. McMorris Rodgers’ speech was highly praised.
Ernst made her motherhood part of her selling pitch in her election. She spoke often about her daughter and the perspective that parenthood offered her as an elected official. However, she wasn’t able to win enough women voters to take her to victory. Even though she beat challenger Bruce Braley decisively, the Democrat won the majority of women.
She again will be able to highlight that during her response speech. And Republicans hope swing voter moms who are starting to make up their minds about 2016 will be listening.
4. Appealing to the tea party: Ernst carries another benefit to the establishment Republicans who selected her to deliver the State of the Union response -- she appeals to tea party supporters around the country. Congressional Republican leadership is trying to walk a delicate balance. While they were able to pick up control of the Senate, conservative elements in the party already have begun to express concern about whether the leadership will deliver on promises like trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act and holding the line on spending increases.
Ernst picked up the endorsement of tea party groups during her campaign. And she holds a number of conservative positions -- she’s pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-spending increases. She has proposed eliminating the IRS, the Department of Education and the EPA. She will be able to speak with authority about conservative ideals.
“Sen. Ernst will explain what the new Congress plans to do and is already doing to change, and what it is already doing to return Washington’s focus to the concerns of the middle class and away from the demands of the political class,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told reporters last week, according to POLITICO.