Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, will have been in the Senate for just two weeks before she delivers the GOP's response to the State of the Union Tuesday — and Republicans already predict her influence in the party will extend well beyond that in the coming months.
“I think she’s going to play a very important role,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, said in a Monday phone interview. “No. 1, Republicans need more female leaders, so she falls into that category. Another thing is she’s got a commanding personality, and it’s backed up by her military experience as a commander. So she’s been a leader in a previous life and that is gonna be natural for her to lead in Iowa.” Ernst, who grew up on a farm, burst onto the national scene just 10 months ago with an ad that compared castrating hogs to cutting pork on Capitol Hill. From there, she took off : Ernst easily won the primary and trounced the Democratic nominee, then-Rep. Bruce Braley, to become the first woman ever elected to federal office from Iowa.
In this short time, it's already clear national Republicans intend to give her a prominent party role. She's one of six female Republicans in the Senate, and a veteran with a winning manner. Before she was sworn into the Senate, she was putting her star power to use, campaigning for now-Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., in his runoff with the incumbent, Democrat Mary L. Landrieu.
But back in Iowa as well, Ernst has enraptured Republicans in a way that few other politicians have done. Her friendly, effusive personality has been winning people over.
“I don’t think 'love' is too strong a word," said Jamie Johnson, a member of the Iowa GOP’s State Central Committee. "I really believe Republicans in this state genuinely love Joni."
As the junior senator from the state that holds the first presidential caucuses every four years, Ernst could wield major influence in the party's future. Ernst has said she does not plan to endorse any Republican presidential hopeful in advance of the Iowa caucuses, but her actions suggest she wants to play a big role in the conversation.
Over the weekend, she kicked off a tour of Iowa's 99 counties . She has announced plans for an annual barbecue — Joni’s Roast and Ride — a political fundraiser Iowa Republicans expect will rival the annual steak fry hosted by her predecessor, former Sen. Tom Harkin. The barbecue will serve as a way for Iowans to meet the presidential hopefuls.
“Even if she’s not endorsing, she’s certainly smartly setting herself up to be a player,” said Iowa Republican consultant Cory Crowley.
Republicans expect presidential hopefuls will line up for photos with Ernst.
“They’re all going to want to be seen with her,” said Iowa Republican Doug Gross, who has been involved in a number of presidential campaigns.
That was the case during her Senate race last year.
Both Mitt Romney and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., endorsed her in the primary . After she clinched the nomination, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry held events with Ernst. Other would-be presidential hopefuls appeared at events with her or talked her up when they made pilgrimages to the state.
Ernst could also serve as a resource for candidates seeking advice on the caucuses, a role both Grassley and Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad have filled over the years.
“I think candidates coming into Iowa would be wise to call her,” said Iowa Republican consultant Bob Haus, who is involved with Perry’s potential presidential bid.
Republicans expect she could get involved in down-ballot races as well. During her Senate campaign, Ernst proved to be a prodigious fundraiser, pulling in $11.8 million between July 1 and Election Day. For the next four years, when she is not facing re-election, Republicans think she could put her rainmaking skills to use helping other Republicans.
“She’s very much a team player,” said Johnson, adding he expects her to be “very active” in helping other Republicans within the state.
In particular, Republicans say Ernst could play a role in the Republican push to take control of the Iowa Senate, where she served before running for federal office.
Republicans say where Ernst’s future goes from here depends on what she wants to do.
“She’ll quickly become an institution” in Iowa politics, said Crowley. “Iowa’s not big on kicking out incumbents. If she keeps on this path that she’s on, she’ll probably be in there as long as she wants to be.”
On the other hand, she could set her sights higher.
“She is now on track to be on a national ticket [as the vice presidential nominee] in six to ten years,” said Johnson.
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