Joni Ernst makes the cut to rebut Obamas big speech – Politico
HERSHEY, Pa. — Joni Ernst promised last year to make Washington “squeal.” On Tuesday, she’ll have her chance.
Ernst, who pulled off a resounding victory in last fall’s Iowa Senate race after a memorable television ad about castrating hogs, will deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address next week.
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The decision by GOP leaders to select the former state senator, who had begun her uphill campaign as a no-name candidate, was an obvious choice in many ways. A conservative woman and Iraq war veteran who hails from a swing state and has a compelling life story, the 44-year-old Ernst can help sell the Republican message to female and younger voters who have voted in large numbers for Democrats in recent elections.
“Americans voted for change,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told reporters here at a congressional Republican summit. “And 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.”
Yet it is also a gamble of sorts for the little-known Ernst. Members of both parties have long stumbled in responding to State of the Union addresses, given the challenges in pushing back against a president who routinely receives numerous standing ovations and roaring applause from both houses of Congress.
There will be no live audience for Ernst, yet she’ll have to deliver a punchy speech with memorable lines on national television. And she’ll have to avoid the gaffes that can dog up-and-comers — like Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, whose 2009 response was widely panned and set back his national ambitions, and the awkward moment in 2013 when Florida Sen. Marco Rubio paused, grabbed his water bottle and took a swig to heal his dry mouth. It was later parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
Speaking to reporters at a GOP retreat here, McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said Ernst’s life story and solid victory last November will make her a compelling speaker next Tuesday night. McConnell called her the party’s “perfect” messenger.
Ernst, standing next to the two casually dressed GOP leaders, said she was “humbled” to get the prime-time assignment.
“Our folks back home sent us to Washington, D.C., with a clear mission. And that mission is to get to work. That mission is to craft and implement good policies and good solutions,” Ernst said. “We want to ensure that the America we are building leaves a stronger economy and more opportunity for our children and our grandchildren.”
Since Obama took office, Republican leaders have made strategic decisions over the years select figures who could help cut into Democrats’ advantages with voters who are younger, female and minorities. Not only have they selected the Indian American Jindal and the Cuban American Rubio, but last year Republicans selected the most senior GOP woman in House leadership — Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington state — to deliver the prime-time address.
In Ernst, Republicans see a fresh-faced senator with a bright political future. She pulled off one of the most improbable victories in the last cycle, taking a seat Democrats had held for 30 years and defeating by 9 points a top Democratic recruit, then-Rep. Bruce Braley, for the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin. A cash-strapped Ernst emerged from a crowded primary after one of her ads — titled “Squeal” — drew national attention for promoting how she grew up “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” and promising to cut the pork out of Washington.
“Washington’s full of big spenders,” she said in the ad, with hogs in the background. “Let’s make ’em squeal.”
At the same time, she had to defend controversial positions like her call to abolish the Environmental Protection Agency, saying in one debate with Braley that “our states know best how to protect their natural resources.” She also stirred nervousness in Iowa’s corn ethanol industry for saying that from a “philosophical standpoint,” she opposes taxpayer subsidies for specific business sectors.
Ernst was aided by Braley’s series of unforced errors, including his description of Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school.”
Ernst, the first-ever female senator from Iowa, served in both the National Guard and Army Reserve and spent time in Kuwait during the early part of the Iraq War.
When a reporter tried to follow up with Ernst after Thursday’s announcement, Boehner jokingly batted the question away.
“No,” Boehner said to laughter from the press corps.