Iowa’s freshman senator, Joni Ernst, will be in the national spotlight Tuesday night when she gives the Republican Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union address. “I am truly honored,” she said on Facebook after being chosen by the GOP leadership.
Yet few people outside of Iowa really know who she is or what she stands for, beyond the broadest strokes — and a few pig jokes.
Ernst, 44, a former state senator, won a decisive election last November to fill the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, coming from behind to beat Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley 52.2 to 43.7. Even before that, she made headlines when she declared in a popular ad, “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.”
One thing is clear: In the high-profile, high-risk task she’s been given, she has her work cut out for her. “She can’t do any worse than any of the other GOPers who have been given the unenviable task in the past,” said Craig Shirley, a Ronald Reagan biographer and conservative strategist, referring to the difficulties experienced by both Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal when they delivered the response. “The choices by the GOP to respond to the State of the Union have been more miss than hit over the years, but they are hoping that this selection will be a socko hit for once.”
Here are 21 things most Americans don’t know about Ernst as she heads for the limelight on Tuesday night:
1. Born July 1, 1970, she grew up on a farm in Red Oak, Iowa, and was valedictorian of her 1988 graduating class at Stanton High School in Stanton, Iowa. “I grew up walking beans and feeding hogs,” she has said. “My mom made all of my clothes. We went to church every week.” (She is Lutheran.)
2. Enrolling at Iowa State University, she entered the Army ROTC program. “We didn’t have much money,” says Ernst in her bio, “so I was fortunate to be able to attend college with the help of academic and leadership scholarships.” She also earned money for school by working construction jobs with her father during the summer.
3. In her sophomore year, she led a peer group on an agricultural exchange visit to the Ukraine. “She was responsible for the planning, coordination and execution of the entire travel, itinerary, lodging, feeding and care of the group,” her husband, Gail Ernst, said years later. He added, “This trip fostered more foreign diplomacy and friendship toward the U.S. than all the years of political attempts at diplomacy.”
4. During her college years she also volunteered at a safehouse for battered and abused women and children in Ames. “Answering a beeper call at mostly inconvenient and late hours, Joni would head to a hospital police station or safehouse to give comfort to a woman or child in need of support. This was accomplished without deterring her from a full class schedule and the ROTC commitment as well,” her husband has noted.
5. After graduating in 1992 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, she earned a master’s in public administration from Columbus State College (formerly Columbus College) in 1995.
6. She was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers upon her college graduation. As of 2014, she served 21 years between the Army Reserve and the National Guard. Currently she’s a lieutenant colonel in the logistics branch and commands the 185th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion at Camp Dodge, the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard.
8. She and her husband have a daughter, Libby. Ernst also has two stepdaughters (her husband’s children from his first marriage). The couple has six grandchildren.
9. She has long been teaching Sunday school in the same church in which she was baptized and married. “I live in the very house where one of my best friends grew up,” she has said. “And when I mow our lawn, I look at the same sidewalks and yards where we used to play.”
10. She served in the Iowa Senate from January 2011 until late last year. She was Montgomery County auditor from 2005 to 2011.
11. She served as Montgomery County chair of the Romney for President campaign in 2011-2012, and before that worked as co-chair of the GOP in the same county, from 2006 to 2012.
13. She earned an “A” rating from the NRA, is Army-qualified on the 9 mm, is licensed to carry a firearm in Iowa, and does carry. “Iowans can be confident that when Joni Ernst goes to Washington, she will continue to fully protect their constitutional right to bear arms,” said one of her campaign statements last year.
14. She is pro-life, believes that human life begins at conception, and says there should be no taxpayer funding for abortion.
15. She has proposed eliminating the IRS, the EPA and the Dept. of Education — all as ways to reduce federal spending. “I do believe our children are better educated when it’s coming from the state,” she’s said.
17. She supports replacing Obamacare with what she has called “common sense, free-market alternatives.”
18. She is in favor of a constitutional amendment that requires a balanced federal budget and reductions to entitlement as well as discretionary spending.
19. She believes in lowering taxes and favors scrapping the current tax code because of its many loopholes.
20. Ernst campaigned on being a “normal, everyday” Iowan and criticized Braley, a trial lawyer, for being "a litigious individual" — there was an alleged dispute over a neighbor's chickens — who was out of touch with "the Iowa way."
21. Ernst is the first woman ever to represent Iowa in either house of Congress.
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