GUTHRIE CENTER, Iowa—In her campaign appearances, GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst is composed, courteous, and emphatically unthreatening.
Her speeches focus less on ideology than biography, especially her experience commanding a transport company for the Iowa Army National Guard in the second Iraq War. Now a state senator, she talks less about Washington's failures than the success of what she calls "the Iowa way." Her grandest rhetorical flourish comes when she promises "common sense "¦ good government "¦ working for the people of Iowa."
And yet Ernst is proposing policies that would massively retrench and reshape the federal government, from eliminating the Education Department to partially privatizing Social Security. In the contrast between her mild manner and sweepingly ambitious agenda, Ernst embodies the pattern for the GOP Senate candidates most likely to join the upper chamber after next week's election.
In the Republican class of 2014, gone is the belligerence and rhetorical recklessness that doomed such Senate tea-party challengers as Sharron Angle in 2010 and Todd Akin in 2012. Yet a look at the candidates' agendas this year finds an almost indivisible consensus behind deeply conservative positions among the 14 nonincumbent Senate Republican contenders with a plausible chance of winning. (The 14 include the challengers for the 11 most threatened Democratic seats and the GOP nominees for Republican open seats in Georgia, Nebraska, and Oklahoma.)
In this uniformly right-leaning group, Ernst may be the most conservative of all. Many Republicans have shifted into opposition toward the Common Core education standards; Ernst would shut down the entire Education Department. While virtually all Republicans oppose raising the federal minimum wage as President Obama has urged, Ernst trumps them by proposing to repeal it completely. ("I don't believe the federal government should be involved in setting the minimum wage," she said flatly this spring.) And while all 14 GOP contenders promise to fight the proposed Environmental Protection Agency climate regulations limiting power-plant carbon emissions, Ernst would eliminate the EPA itself—a position rarely heard.
Ernst may hold the pole position on conservative aspiration, but the other Republicans racing toward the Senate are not far behind. With only slight nuance, all have pledged to repeal the Affordable Care Act (except West Virginia's Shelley Moore Capito, who says the issue is largely settled). Other than Terri Lynn Land in Michigan, who is the least likely to win, none of the 14 has endorsed the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are driving global climate change. Of the 14, only Land and New Hampshire's Scott Brown have left open any possibility of supporting expanded background checks for gun purchases, such as the plan Senate Republicans blocked with a filibuster last year. All 14 personally oppose gay marriage, though in a sign of shifting attitudes about half say they would let states decide.
On immigration reform, which passed the Senate but died in the GOP-controlled House, the group's unity slightly splinters. Ernst and Reps. Cory Gardner and James Lankford, the party's nominees in Colorado and Oklahoma, respectively, indicate they would allow young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents to remain (though Gardner voted once and Lankford twice to revoke President Obama's executive action providing such protection).
A few have suggested they might eventually support some legal status for the larger group of 11 million undocumented immigrants. But none has endorsed the pathway to citizenship for that group included in the bipartisan 2013 Senate immigration bill—and most have loudly condemned it as "amnesty." Even campaigning last week with GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the Senate legislation's architects, Ernst was unequivocal in insisting on "no path to citizenship."
While some analysts have theorized that a GOP Senate takeover would encourage the party to cut more deals with President Obama, the unswervingly conservative tilt of the Republicans likely to join the upper chamber points instead toward continued—even heightened—confrontation. This powerful ideological infusion could also intimidate potential 2016 GOP presidential candidates looking to broaden the party's appeal by rethinking its positions on issues like immigration or climate.
In this year of electoral silver linings for Republicans, that's the cloud concerning Graham. "In 2015, if we don't show progress as a party on immigration "¦ I think we continue to dig a hole with the fastest-growing demographic in America, and our chances of winning the White House are virtually zero," he told me in Iowa. Likewise a Republican alternative on climate, he says, "is something lacking in the party for a demographic that we're doing poorly with: young people."
The common message for the contenders likely to join him in the Senate, Graham says, is to keep their eyes on a finish line beyond their own victories. "If we don't do well in 2015 and 2016, the goal of obtaining the White House becomes less likely," he says. "So to those who get elected, I hope you realize that the ultimate prize for the Republican Party would be to have the White House. And what we do in Congress determines whether or not that's possible."