Not so long ago, Joni Ernst was an obscure Iowa state legislator, struggling to get traction in a crowded GOP Senate primary. Her leading Republican rival had millions of his own money to spend. Another opponent was a former U.S attorney with high-profile conservative connections. A third challenger, a conservative talk-show host, was generating enthusiasm with the grassroots.
It all meant Ernst couldn't raise cash and was barely registering in early polling.
But with one viral television spot touting her experience castrating pigs, her fortunes changed. The ad, where Ernst argues her background will help her "cut pork in Washington," received attention far beyond inside-the-Beltway political circles. It was featured on The Tonight Show and The Colbert Report and it landed more than 531,000 YouTube hits. Now, several weeks later, Ernst holds critical momentum in the run-up to the June 3 primary, winning endorsements from Mitt Romney to Sarah Palin. Her once-paltry fundraising has boomed since the ad campaign, and she now leads in the latest primary polls.
It's a sign of how important television ads that can break through the clutter are in today's media-saturated environment, especially for Senate challengers who aren't established figures. Despite the newfound emphasis placed on microtargeting to rally the base, the reality in Senate races is that persuasion matters a lot. One catchy ad can make all the difference in launching a successful campaign. And the Iowa Senate race is one of the most important races in the country, a swing-state battleground that could determine whether Republicans win unified control of Congress.