DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Joni Ernst, an Iowa state legislator whose ads about guns and hog castration helped her shore up support among conservatives, won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate Tuesday to set up a fall matchup that Republicans are eyeing as a prime opportunity to pick up a seat.
Once a long shot when better-known party leaders passed on the race, the state senator and Iraq War veteran received enough votes to avoid a nominating convention in the five-way race. Most of the voting in the primary came ahead of severe storms, which curbed turnout and forced some precincts to suspend voting temporarily.
Ernst moves on to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley in a race expected to play a key role in the battle for Senate control.
Five-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin announced last year that he would forego another term, leaving a Senate seat open in Iowa for the first time in 40 years. Republicans have made the traditional swing state one of their top targets.
Braley is more politically tested than Ernst, first elected to the state Senate in 2010. He has won four consecutive terms to the U.S. House, and beat back a challenge in 2010, when an outside group spent more than $1.5 million against him. Braley also starts the race with $2.3 million, while Ernst begins with just over $100,000.
But toughness was the characteristic her campaign projected, starting with ads about her Iowa farm-kid days, castrating hogs. The ads become fodder for late night talk shows, and helped put Ernst in the national discussion.