DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Joni Ernst, a mother from farm country and Iraq war veteran who was little known outside her rural legislative district only months ago, surprisingly won Iowa's Republican Senate primary going away and now appears well positioned to compete for a seat that could help determine whether the GOP wins control of Congress.
The 43-year-old state lawmaker projected a just-folks personality, backed by a blitz of clever TV advertising, to sweep the five-candidate GOP race and become one of the unexpected stars of the primary season. Now she faces a tougher test against a four-term Democratic congressman, Bruce Braley, who has more than $2.3 million in the bank, compared with her $100,000, and a slight edge in the polls. The winner will succeed Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring after five terms.
"She oozes personality, and a likable Republican in a swing state is hard to beat," said national GOP pollster and strategist Greg Strimple, who is not advising the Ernst campaign.
Ernst, who defeated four male opponents in turning a once-close race into a rout, emphasized her background growing up on a farm and her National Guard service in Iraq to stand apart from the field. Her ads showing her mingling with hogs and firing a handgun at a shooting range went viral in the political world.
"She's really authentic. What you see is what you get," said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican and friend of Ernst's.
Republican strategists hope the smiling, gun-toting, motorcycle-riding image plays as well against Braley, a 56-year-old lawyer, as it did against Mark Jacobs, the former energy company CEO who was her chief competitor in the primary.
The race for Iowa's first open Senate seat in 40 years comes as Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate majority. Braley seems more vulnerable than he did earlier this year, and both parties, along with outside groups, are expected to make the contest among the most expensive in the nation.
In the ad that boosted Ernst's rise, she likens her experience castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up to cutting government spending. "Let's make 'em squeal," she says smiling.
Wednesday, Braley began airing ads challenging Ernst's boasts. The ad says Ernst never wrote legislation to cut spending and backed higher spending in the Legislature.
"Sen. Ernst's ads are clever," said Braley's campaign manager, Sarah Benzing. "It's important for Iowans to get to know the real Joni Ernst."
If elected, Ernst will be the first woman elected to Congress from Iowa.
Petite with a sensibly short haircut, Ernst grew up in small-town Red Oak and enlisted in the Iowa National Guard after attending Iowa State University. She won a state Senate seat in 2010. As a colonel commanding a transportation company, she led daily convoys of 60 trucks from Kuwait into Iraq in 2003 and 2004.
While trying to chip away at Ernst's image, Braley will be fighting his own message problems. He was recorded in January before an audience of lawyers questioning the idea that Republican six-term senior Sen. Charles Grassley, who is not a lawyer, would be chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee if the GOP wins control of the chamber.
Jeff Link, Braley's senior adviser, said Ernst has benefited by being "the most likable" in the GOP field.
Link said the campaign will try to raise voters' questions about her record. "We think she's out of step," Link said. "What we need to do is highlight her positions."
In the general election, Ernst will have to appeal to a more moderate electorate. Iowa Republican Doug Gross, who supported Jacobs, questioned an Ernst ad that features her firing a handgun at an indoor shooting range, which he said might not play well with suburban women voters.
"The question is what do the Democrats do with that in the fall?" Gross said.
Ernst made clear Wednesday that her campaign will be about her life. "Hard work. Strong character. Love of country. That is Iowa," she said. "This is home to me. And home means everything."