When Iowan Senate candidate Joni Ernst ran her now-infamous campaign ad that glorified her experience castrating hogs and promised to make big spenders "squeal," it seemed unlikely that she would find herself the first woman elected to federal office from the state. But now, not only has the freshman senator made her way to Washington, but the GOP has also selected Ernst to deliver the response to Tuesday's State of the Union address, a distinct honor generally reserved for rising stars of the Republican party. The 44-year-old senator is a newcomer to the Capitol, but her unique résumé, which boasts a bevy of firsts for the Senate, makes her an interesting choice for the GOP as the 114th Congress gets underway. And more importantly, it's a clear ploy for the female vote as Hillary Clinton (probably) gears up for her presidential bid.
Running as a "mother, soldier, and Conservative," Ernst's defeat of Democratic opponent Bruce Baley marked the first time a Republican had taken the seat in three decades. Capitalizing upon public dissatisfaction with President Obama's performance and his ever unpopular Affordable Care Act, Ernst became the quintessential Republican candidate, emphasizing the need to cut spending, repeal Obamacare, and balance the budget. But of course, she maintained one crucial difference — being a woman.
It is no secret that the GOP has a long standing history of difficulties with the modern woman. After all, as a party that capitalizes upon the importance of traditional family values, it is no wonder that many Republican ideals seem to remain entrenched in pre-suffrage times. But Joni Ernst, in some ways, breaks the stereotypical Republican mold, and she's cracking the party's gilded glass ceiling. Not only is Ernst the first woman from Iowa to serve in the United States Congress, but she is also the first female veteran in the country to hold a seat in the Senate. She remains a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, and frequently touted her military record during the campaign cycle. And despite Clinton's laundry list of accomplishments, in this area, Ernst has her beat.
Raised on an Iowa farm (where she, remember, castrated lots of hogs), Ernst is, in many ways, the female version of John McCain's "Joe the Plumber," making her the ideal, anti-Hillary choice for the GOP, which continues to alienate a significant number of female voters. As Speaker of the House John Boehner noted Thursday, "Sen. Ernst's life is a quintessential 'only-in-America' story." Though Republicans declared that the party had squashed any remaining rumors about a "War on Women" with their sweeping victory in the midterms, using the GOP takeover of Congress as a tell-tale sign of the party's newfound appeal with the ladies, exit polls showed that women still preferred the Democratic party by a margin of five points. In fact, among minority women, the difference was even more pronounced, with 91 percent of black women and 67 percent of Latina and Hispanic women choosing Democratic candidates at the polls.
So, despite the Republicans' impressive performance in November, they still have considerable ground to recover when it comes to non-white, non-male voters. Enter Joni Ernst.
Falling in line with Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in her furious criticism of Barack Obama, the GOP seems to be trying out a new strategy — since far-right conservatives like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have already made clear their disdain of President Obama, Republicans now seem to be turning to a different megaphone from which to broadcast their message, this time in female form. With both Palin and Bachmann falling into the shadows of the party, the GOP is in desperate need of another woman to serve as the poster child for their we-have-women-in-our-party-too campaign. As a newcomer to Congress and a "folksy," relatable figure, Ernst carries little of the Washington baggage that often accompanies more established members of the legislative branch. But despite her newness to Washington, her ideas remain solidly in-line with the traditional Republican platform.
After announcing that Ernst would be delivering the response, Boehner gave a slight preview (or review, rather) of the message the GOP would be (re)delivering come Tuesday:
She knows that our federal government is too big, our spending is too high, and our tax code is broken. And, she knows first-hand the sacrifices our men and women in uniform make to keep us all safe in a dangerous world.
New Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) echoed these sentiments, noting,
Sen. Ernst brings a unique perspective to the Senate. She is a mother, a soldier and an independent leader who serves in Washington because Americans voted for change in the last election, and Joni understands that middle-class Americans want Congress to get back to work and that they want Washington to get refocused on their concerns, instead of those of the political class.
Of course, another aspect of Ernst's so-called "unique perspective" might lie in her co-sponsorship of a "personhood bill" in her home state, and her endorsement of a federal bill of the same nature, which would effectively wipe out the possibility of abortion across the country. The bill would give the same legal personhood rights to fetuses as it does to those out of the womb, thereby outlawing abortion without exception and also affecting the status of in-vitro fertilization and certain types of birth control.
Furthermore, while Ernst's straightforward approach clearly won her the support of Iowa voters, her candor in her criticism of President Obama might set the tone for a distinctly partisan 114th Congress. Ernst, who is open to the possibility of impeaching Obama, has also gone "so far to call him a 'dictator,'" as Democratic Chairman Scott Brennan pointed out in a statement on Thursday. Of course, some political finger-pointing and blame-gaming is always expected at such high profile speaking events, but the extent to which Ernst chooses to bash Obama might quickly set the stage for how the last two years of the president's tenure will play out.
Unfortunately for Ernst, while the primetime speaking opportunity is considered a great honor and a chance at making considerable personal political progress, past Republican responders have ridden their responses to their political graves, effectively ending otherwise promising careers. The first ill-fated responder came in 2009 with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, whose speech was considered a complete flop and all but eliminated his viability as a 2012 and 2016 presidential candidate. Then came Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, whose speech wasn't so bad, but whose personal ethics are apparently appalling, as he was recently sentenced to two years in prison on corruption charges.
These two were followed by Paul Ryan, who didn't manage to make it into the White House as the vice president in 2012; Mitch Daniels, who is no longer even involved in politics; and Sen. Marco Rubio, who has also become less relevant in recent months, and is no longer considered a top contender for the GOP's 2016 ticket. Last year's response giver, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rogers, essentially lied in her speech, citing faulty "evidence" that was meant to serve as reasoning for repealing Obamacare.
Of course, none of this is to say that Sen. Ernst will meet the same fate as her predecessors — after all, she's already achieved a number of notable firsts. So I hope you make 'em squeal on Tuesday, Sen. Ernst — just make sure it's in the way you intended.
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