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March 26th, 2014

Did Joni Ernst Just Turn Herself into Christine O’Donnell?

State Senator Joni Ernst got people talking on Tuesday morning when she unveiled her U.S. Senate campaign’s first TV ad in advance of the
Republican June 3rd primary.

The ad features Ernst in a barn full of piglets waiting to be castrated.  The candidate begins the ad by saying, “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork.
”  The ad ends with Ernst saying, “My parents taught us to live within our means. It’s time to force Washington to do the same: to cut wasteful spending, repeal Obamacare, and balance the budget. I’m Joni Ernst and I approve this message because Washington’s full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.”

The thirty-second ad, while touching on a somewhat taboo topic for a television ad, showcased Ernst in a positive light and allowed her to communicate her message of fiscal responsibility, repealing Obamacare, and fighting for a balanced budget.  The problem is that the subject matter that is being discussed by voters in Iowa and political analysts in Washington is castration.

Chuck Todd, the Chief White House Correspondent for NBC News, quickly noted that the word “castrating” was the sixth word out of Ernst’s mouth in the ad.

While the ad has received praise by some Iowans and media types, the national headlines would make any campaign squeal, and like a castrated pig, not for joy.

The headline from ABC News read, “Iowa Senate Candidate Threatens DC With ‘Castration.’” called it, “Here’s the Worst Campaign Ad Today, Thanks to This Hog-Castrating Mom.”  Time Magazine went with, “Iowa Senate Candidate Says Castration Gives her Conservative Cred.”  Politico with kinder to Ernst, but they still chose to use the word “castrate.”  The Politico headline read, “Iowa’s Joni Ernst: I’ll castrate D.C.’s spending.”  And the Washington Post headline read, “Republican Ernst draws on experience ‘castrating hogs’ in Iowa Senate cable ad.”

Needless to say, the national media seems to have enjoyed being able to use the word “castrate,” but not all the media types are down on Ernst’s new TV ad.  The Ernst campaign gave Breitbart News an exclusive on the ad, and thus, instead of focusing on the word “castrate,” they beat up Mark Jacobs, Ernst’s main competitor for the Republican nomination.

Jan Mickelson, the influential morning host on WHO Radio said, “That’s a homerun,” and then shared it on his Facebook page.  Former presidential candidate Herman Cain is also a fan of the ad.  Robert Laurie who writes on Cain’s website said, “All the best GOP campaign commercials contain the words ‘castrating hogs.’”  Herman Cain might not be the best judge of campaign ads, but Cain’s smoking ad went viral just like Ernst’s castration ad.

To be honest, I think it’s a good ad.  Is it funny?  Sure, but the ad gave Ernst some personality, something that at times she can lack.  And frankly, when you are running against a guy who’s been running ads since before Christmas and is simply drowning his opponents in TV and radio ads, the same old cookie-cutter ad just isn’t going to cut it.  The fact that the ad got people’s attention is the sign of a good ad, but we also see that there is a fine line between being clever and being silly.

The risk of the Ernst ad is that it may cause people not to take her seriously.  While Iowa is one of the top agricultural states in America, 64 percent of residents live in urban communities.  The question that deserves to be asked is, how does this ad play with urban women?  From the ones I talked to on Tuesday, it didn’t set very well.

“It reminds me a little of the ‘I’m not a witch,’ ad,” one woman told  “I think you could tell that story in a speech, but I would never use the word castrate in a television or radio ad.  Plus, she seems just a little too happy about castrating pigs,” the 35 year-old added.  Another said that the ad created an image in her head about a mad woman roaming around Washington D.C. castrating legislators.

Those are two tough critiques of the ad, but one thing is abundantly clear – after pushing the fact that she is a mother, solider, and conservative for almost a year now, Ernst is now going to forever be linked to castration much in the same way Christine O’Donnell will forever be linked to her 2010 U.S. Senate ad that began with the words, “I’m not a witch.”   O’Donnell’s “Witch” was also the first ad she run in the general election in 2010 in Delaware.  The ad went viral.  Some people loved it, others laughed, but the result was that people stopped taking her seriously.

Even late night TV is mocking the Ernst ad.  Jimmy Fallon used the ad on the Tonight Show to get some laughs.  Fallon also mocked O’Donnell in 2010 for her “Witch” ad saying, “Christine O’Donnell released a commercial in which she says, ‘I’m not a witch.’ That’s pretty good, though not as effective as her opponent’s slogan, ‘I’m not Christine O’Donnell.'”

It’s too early to know whether or not Ernst’s castration ad will have a positive or negative impact on her campaign.  The attention the ad is getting could help Ernst raise money from conservative and Tea Party voters who seem to really like the ad, but at the same time, it’s probably not going to help her with out-of-state donors and big-time financiers of U.S. Senate campaigns.

For as much attention as the ad has received, the Ernst campaign isn’t putting much money behind the spot.  Ernst is spending just $7,012 to air the ad on Fox News from March 27th through April 9th.  By comparison, the Jacobs campaign is spending $209,875.00 over a similar time frame.  His ad includes statewide cable as well as network TV in the Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, and Sioux City media markets.

Lori Raad’s media firm, Something Else Strategies, produced the ad.  Raad was Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012.  Romney endorsed Ernst earlier this month, and a number of former Romney consultants are working with Ernst.   Derek Flowers, Ernst’s campaign manager, told on Tuesday that while the ad was produced by Ernst’s media team, the concept for the ad came from Ernst herself.

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About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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