Ernst’s SOTU Task: Widen the GOP Tent Without Stumbling
Policy + Politics

Ernst’s SOTU Task: Widen the GOP Tent Without Stumbling

She’s from Iowa, she’s a woman, she’s a veteran – and she’s not part of the Washington establishment. By tapping Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa to deliver the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech next week, GOP leaders have chosen a fresh-faced lawmaker with certifiable star power to help them broaden their party’s appeal. 

The choice, announced Thursday, will put at center stage the first female senator from Iowa and the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate. Ernst soared to prominence last summer and won the seat of retiring Sen. Tom Harkin after recalling how she castrated pigs on her family farm in Red Oak – and after promising to make Washington’s big spenders squeal. 

Related: Voters Go Hog Wild for Joni Ernst in Iowa 

“Growing up on a Southwest Iowa farm years ago, I never, never would have imagined that I would have this opportunity,” Ernst, 44, said during a joint appearance with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) in Hershey, Pennsylvania on Thursday. 

“Americans voted for change and Senator 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,” McConnell said.

But the opportunity for a prime-time speech is a double-edged sword, and while some have found the platform useful for reaching a larger national audience, others have stumbled badly and borne the scars for years afterward.

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave a widely panned rejoinder to the president’s economic speech in February 2009, after being touted as a “new voice” of the GOP and mentioned as a possible presidential or vice presidential candidate. His speech was deemed amateurish and rambling.   

Related: Five Important Fresh Faces in the 114th Congress

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who also harbors presidential ambitions, rendered his 2013 GOP response prime material for a late-night TV skit when he became dry-mouthed and reached off-camera for water.

Last year, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) delivered the response and devoted what some felt was an inordinate amount of time to her personal history and family. Rodgers also got some unwelcome competition that night from Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), a leading Tea Party figure, who delivered a rival speech.

“Here is the good news for Joni Ernst,” said Larry J. Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. “She’ll get loads of publicity on the day of the SOTU. She’ll be put on the political community’s radar screen to a greater extent than she is already.”

Related: McConnell Previews GOP Agenda of Compromise, Confrontation  

“The bad news: If she does well, it will be forgotten in half a day,” he added. “If she does poorly, the negative reviews will stay with her forever and will find a place in every profile article right through to her obituary.” 

Folksy but shrewd, Ernst overcame historical voting trends to defeat former  Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley for Harkin’s Senate seat. With proper preparation and a strong script to follow, she is almost certain to hit all the high notes of her party’s talking points in a relatively brief response. 

“I don’t expect any spectacular rhetorical fireworks,” said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist. “She’s got to be on message for the leadership, and if the message is, ‘Well, we’re sort of moderating, making deals, we’re not fanatics and so on,’ that’s probably the message we’re going to get from her. 

“It’s the McConnell message,” Baker added. “I think it will be expressed pretty straightforwardly.”

Related: 7 Promises Obama Will Make at the State of the Union 

Ernst brings a solid background to her new job. The former county auditor and state legislator served in the U.S. Army Reserves and the Iowa National Guard for 21 years, and in 2003 did a stint as company commander during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She also embraces “Iowa values,” or self-reliance and limits on federal intervention in local and state matters – especially in education. She campaigned vowing to scale back or eliminate the Department of Education, and she believes in redirecting many federal agency roles to state and local government.

Ernst’s Senate arrival comes at an opportune time. After the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee said the party should renew its focus on women-oriented policy and outreach. Last summer, the GOP outside groups Crossroads GPS and the American Action Network prepared an report entitled, “Republicans and Women Voters: Huge Challenges, Real Opportunities,” It confirmed many of the problems that Republican leaders had complained about for years.

Related: Democrats Just Lost the Phony War on Women

The report, obtained by Politico, cited polling showing that married women without a college degree were the only women who reliably prefer Republicans to Democrats. The report suggested ways to garner more female votes but essentially concluded the party was stuck in the past, according to Politico.

Ernst is in an elite group of women who made it to the Senate. In the history of the Senate, only 44 women have ever served, and many were appointed or elected to their deceased husbands’ seats.

Today, 20 women serve in the Senate, including six Republicans. A number of them, including Sens. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Susan Collins of Maine, are prominent in congressional policymaking.

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