Is it possible to be the anti-establishment candidate in a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate and be the choice of the Republican establishment in your state at the same time? By definition, this would seem impossible. Yet, State Senator Joni Ernst has managed to be the establishment backed, anti-establishment candidate in Iowa’s Republican U.S. Senate primary.
Iowa’s Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds was an early endorser of Ernst’s campaign, and Governor Terry Branstad has reportedly been helpful behind the scenes, especially in the fundraising department. Ernst has also been backed by national Republican establishment figures like Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain, and Sen. Marco Rubio.
On the other hand, the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group known for going against the establishment grain, has backed Ernst. The Senate Majority Fund is backing a primary challenger to Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Other groups like She PAC and the Susan B. Anthony list are also backing Ernst, as is former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.
Ernst gained statewide notoriety and national attention in recent weeks when her campaign produced two unusual television commercials. The first ad, which went viral because it focused on the castration of pigs, was discussed everywhere from local coffee shops around Iowa to the Tonight Show stage in New York City. The Ernst campaign put little money behind the ad, but it got plenty of earned media attention.
The campaign’s second ad, entitled “shot,” features a leather-clad Ernst on her Harley-Davidson motorcycle heading to an indoor gun range. The ad features Ernst shooting her Smith & Wesson 9mm handgun into the camera, with the announcer saying that she will, “unload” on Obamacare.
Ernst’s catchy TV spots make it clear as to who her targeted audience is: Tea Party conservatives, Second Amendment activists, and conservative primary voters. In other words, not the establishment types who are consulting and supporting her campaign for the U.S. Senate. Her ads also provide a clue as to how her campaign thinks she’s going to win the June 3rd primary and hopefully surpass the 35 percent threshold to avoid the nomination being determined at the Republican state convention.
With the Republican primary on June 3rd less than a month away, the Republican U.S. Senate primary has become more spirited, especially between the to perceived frontrunners – Ernst, and businessman Mark Jacobs. Ernst has repeatedly jabbed Jacobs for the past couple months, even creating an anti-Jacobs website, but Jacobs has just now acknowledged her attacks and is countering with his own website focusing on Ernst voting record in the Iowa Senate.
While the conventional wisdom is that Jacobs and Ernst are in a tight primary battle, the decision by the Ernst campaign to produce two television ads that seem targeted directly at the Tea Party indicates that what she is really looking to do is peel off support from Sam Clovis, the most conservative candidate in the race, and former U.S. Attorney Matt Whitaker, who also has some appeal with conservative voters. Both Clovis and Whitaker have failed to marshal the type of money it takes to advertise in a statewide primary. Thus, Ernst is wisely positioning herself as the conservative alternative to Jacobs.
Ernst is able to appeal to conservative voters that may currently prefer Clovis or Whitaker because she is largely unknown and undefined. The Republican primary is just 27 days away, and Ernst’s record, which includes votes in favor of higher taxes, remains unknown to most voters. That seems hard to imagine in a Republican primary for an open U.S. Senate seat, but Ernst has been allowed to fly under the radar because she, Clovis and Whitaker have all focused their criticism on Jacobs. They have painted Jacobs as some sort of rich, out-of-state, liberal boogieman, but Ernst’s record in the Iowa Senate raises plenty of questions when examined.
Ernst’s record includes a vote in favor of raising the gas tax by 10 cents and a vote in favor of taxing goods purchased on the internet. Those votes seem out of step with the priorities of a conservative group like the Senate Conservatives Fund, yet they and other conservative groups are standing behind the only candidate in the race with an actual record of raising taxes. One would also think that her refusal to support a federal marriage amendment, a position which she stated in a debate in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, would also make social conservatives question her conservative bonafides.
Ironically, it’s been the Iowa Democratic Party, not her Republican primary opponents or the state’s well-known social conservative kingmakers, who have raised questions about Ernst’s record. Earlier this week, the Iowa Democratic Party thanked Ernst for voting “to make sure Obamacare worked in Iowa.”
The Iowa Democrats were referencing Ernst’s vote on Senate File 395. The bill made a number of changes to Iowa code that were required by the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Ernst voted in favor of the bill even though it conflicts with the image she is selling voters on in her latest television ad that states that she plans to “unload” on Obamacare when she gets to Washington. If Ernst didn’t unload on Obamacare when she had the opportunity to do so as a state senator, how can we trust that she will do it as our United States Senator?
The Ernst campaign has claimed that the wide array of Republicans that are backing her candidacy is an indication that she has become the consensus candidate in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. That may very well be the case, but it could also be because her Republican opponents have failed to make her explain the record she has established in the Iowa Senate since first being elected in 2011.
If a candidate like Sam Clovis or Matt Whitaker is to have any chance at winning the Republican primary next month, he must find a way to consolidate the conservative vote behind his candidacy. Their decision to needle Jacobs, who by most accounts isn’t even courting staunch conservatives in the primary, has been a huge miscalculation. Jacobs seems like an easy target to campaign against, but it’s Ernst who they must compete with to get conservative voters.
While nobody likes negative campaigning, it is important for Republicans to thoroughly vet their candidates in contested primaries. As we saw in the 2010 Republican congressional primary in the 3rd District, Democrats love nothing more than the opportunity to demoralize Republican voters about their nominee as soon as the primary campaign is over. Only one candidate – Jacobs – seems to have been vetted in the Republican U.S. Senate primary, while Ernst and the others have not had their past and record scrutinized.
Frankly, I don’t know what Clovis, Jacobs, and Whitaker are waiting for. If they think that some outside group is going to air Ernst’s dirty laundry for them, they are fooling themselves. In forum after forum, Ernst’s opponents have had the opportunity to bring up her support of gas tax, yet they all seem scared to pull the trigger. With one month left to go in the campaign, it’s time for one of Ernst’s opponents to make her defend her record.
If Ernst’s opponents fail to draw a distinction between themselves and her, it will not matter that Ernst’s record doesn’t match the rhetoric and packaging of her TV ads. Ignoring Ernst’s record has already helped her become the anti-establishment, establishment candidate. If someone really wants to challenge her for the Republican nomination, they better engage Ernst, and quickly. Otherwise, it seems likely that she will be the Republican nominee in June.
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