Joni Ernst’s Rapid Rise in the Senate

The Iowa senator and Iraq War veteran has become a leading voice for Republicans on national security.

Brett Carlsen / AP

DES MOINES, Iowa — There were times, as Joni Ernst paraded the 1,200-pound steer down the dung-spotted road at the Iowa State Fair, that the diminutive senator seemed to lose control. But each time the big bovine tried to bowl her over, she’d drop her trademark broad smile, dig in her boots, and shove her shoulder into his glossy brown-and-white fur. Almost before you’d noticed it was gone, Ernst’s grin was back, and the steer kept plodding forward toward Governor Terry Branstad’s annual auction, one of the fair’s most popular events.

As Ernst and her charge, named Elvis, waited to enter the pavilion, a massive black steer ahead of them broke loose, snorting as he spun around in a panic, weighing where to burst through the human ring that quickly formed around him. For a moment, a rampage seemed imminent. But as Ernst looked calmly on, a hand caught the rival steer’s harness and wrestled it back in line. She and Elvis went on to win the “Showmanship Award” and $6,000 for charity.

“You’ve got to follow that dream,” read the red T-shirts of “Team Elvis.” “Wherever that dream may lead…”

On that August day, Ernst’s home turf seemed a long way from the shiny tables of the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington. But that’s precisely why her party is calling on her: to secure the support of the Iowa caucus in the 2016 drive for The White House, and to draw two key constituencies toward the demographically disadvantaged GOP — women voters and veterans.

‘Let’s Make ’Em Squeal’

Ernst scored one of the biggest upsets of the 2014 midterms, helping the Republicans win the Senate majority by flipping the retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin’s seat with 52.2 percent of the vote. “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Washington … let’s make ’em squeal,” she said in her best-known campaign video, which also featured pigs and the words “mother, soldier, conservative.” For the 2015 state fair, Iowa’s first woman senator donned working boots. But she is, in a sense, always wearing combat boots as the first female veteran in the history of the upper chamber.

Ernst joined the U.S. Army Reserves after graduating from college. In 2003, she commanded a company of 150 Iowa Army National Guardsman who ran convoys through Kuwait into southern Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. She still serves in the Guard, having risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel.

In a 2014 debate, she reminded listeners that she’d delivered supplies to Logistics Base Seitz, at Baghdad International Airport, and Tallil Air Base, some 300 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. “They see me as someone who has actually served with boots on the ground, not just as a soldier, but as a leader,” she told Defense One at the time. “Somebody who has credibility.”

It’s rare for a freshman to be selected to the powerful Armed Services Committee, whose seats are often doled out by seniority, but Ernst was an obvious choice for the new Republican majority. John McCain, the committee’s chairman, Vietnam veteran, and perennial national-security megaphone, has taken to mentoring Ernst and two other Republicans who served in the military post-9/11. Their experience in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lend the GOP an I was there credibility as the party criticizes the Obama administration for what it has deemed a feckless, unmoored foreign policy.

“Not only in Iowa, of course, but all across the U.S., it’s intensified because the rhetoric coming from the administration, which was ‘degrade and destroy ISIS,’ has gone absolutely nowhere,” Ernst said last month in an interview in her Capitol Hill office.

Days later and half a continent away, she was wearing a red apron at the Iowa Pork Producers tent, a popular candidate stop. She poured another iced tea for a Vietnam veteran. “Thank you for your service,” she said. He responded, “Thank you for your service.”

Those words pack a punch back in Washington. In the current Congress, 101 of Congress’ 535 members are current or former members of the military. Just 26 have served since 9/11.

“We know what it’s like to serve alongside a specialist or a private, and too often we see the focus of Washington, D.C., is a panel with a four-star or three-star general in front of us,” Ernst said. “We are providing the American people this value of input for their sons and daughters, and the impact that these high-level decisions have on private Joe Smith and his family.”

Ernst says she’s particularly close to Tom Cotton, another post-9/11 veteran who joined her in the Senate and on the Armed Services Committee last year. They texted each other often during the 2014 campaign, seeking updates on each other’s races and advice. Upon joining the Senate, the Arkansas Republican wasted no time spearheading a letter to Iran’s leader signed by 47 of his party’s 54 senators.

“It is so refreshing to look at them and know in my mind that they get it,” Ernst said of her colleagues. “Tom Cotton is a door-kicker. His experiences in Iraq are very different. I was driving through Iraq working through the logistics piece, pushing forward the beans … I love that Senator McCain really includes us in so many of the discussions. It’s very powerful.’”

Ernst, while softer spoken than Cotton, is not without passion. She recently pushed General Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Obama administration’s argument that opponents of the Iran deal are war-mongers.

“Who is advising the president, then, that we must go to war if this deal is not signed?” Ernst asked Dempsey.

“At no time did that come up in our conversation nor did I make that comment,” Dempsey responded. “I can’t answer that.”

Ernst later asked her Guard adjutant general what he’d ask Secretary of State John Kerry. “‘Why are we doing this knowing that Iran has killed so many Americans?’” she recounted. “You can’t separate the fact that the dollars that are going to flow into Iran will be used for terrorist proxies, will be used to get conventional, ballistic weapons, with lasting ramifications.”

With the blessing of party leaders, she’s steadily worked her way into the center of the most vibrant national security debates. In her maiden floor speech, she introduced her first piece of legislation, the Prioritizing Veterans’ Access to Mental Health Care Act. One of her most recent proposals—a measure granting Obama temporary emergency authority to directly train and equip Kurdish Peshmerga—was co-sponsored by a senior Foreign Relations Democrat, Barbara Boxer; and three Republican senators running for president: Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio.

The government of Iraq and the Obama administration opposed the amendment as a threat to Iraqi sovereignty, and it fell six votes short in June. But officials are increasingly looking at ways to expand the involvement of Kurdish fighters as one of the few bright spots in the stalemated fight against the Islamic State.

‘This Is Not a War on Women’

Party leaders have also welcomed Ernst’s emergence as the public—and importantly, the female—face behind the most recent Republican push to defund Planned Parenthood in the wake of several controversial videos released by an anti-abortion group.

Opponents say the fight wastes time as the deadline nears for congressional action to avert a shutdown. Even the Republican leadership has urged action, lest the public blame the party for an inability to govern. But several Republican members have welcomed the scenario. That debate resumes Monday, with a vote expected Tuesday.

Ernst bristles at the suggestion that Republicans are waging a “war on women.”

“That’s tired,” she said while weaving through the state fair crowd, pausing to wave and say hello at constituents who called out Joni! “They try and use that, but I’m a great example here—I’m a woman; I’ve been to war. This is not a war on women.”

Ernst also consistently talks about the dangers of budgetary brinksmanship for national security.

When deployed, Ernst said, she bought hundred-dollar tarps for her company of truck drivers and mechanics to use in the rainy season. “Our own camp commander said, ‘You can’t do that—we have private contractors that must do it.’ We were told to take the tarps off,” she recalled. They came in and installed the same tarps—for $1,000 per tent, Ernst said. “I could not believe it,” she said. “That’s a waste, and we need to get rid of that.”

Ernst said post-9/11 veterans in Congress have a better understanding of how the 2011 budget caps affect the military. “Where do we, as a Republican and someone who wants to be fiscally conservative, find a balance between protecting our taxpayers, and making sure we’re able to fund our national defense and do it in a smart way? Well, sequester right now is not the smart way.”

The GOP’s leaders are happy to have another veteran championing a “strong on defense” message. To Ernst, it’s personal as well. She gets emotional when she talks about the opportunities the military gave her. She gushed about two women in the final stages of the Army’s Ranger school, remembering the stereotypes she herself had to overcome. Ernst said she wanted to be there when they got the fabled Ranger tab, but ultimately, she couldn’t attend—she was at her own annual two-week training at Camp Dodge.

Ernst will retire around June 2016 so she can focus on her family—her husband is a former Army Ranger—and her burgeoning career in Washington. Already, she’s being aggressively courted by 2016 candidates. She said she won’t be making an endorsement. (Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was the only presidential hopeful she escorted around the fair, though she did offer the same to all the candidates.)

But it’s obvious the end to her military career is bittersweet. “It’s time to put the boots in the closet and move on,” she said, “but I will still serve them through my role here in the Senate.”