WEST DES MOINES, Iowa—“It’s a long way from Red Oak to Washington, from the biscuit line at Hardee’s to the United States Senate,” Joni Ernst exulted on Tuesday night to a ballroom filled to capacity with her supporters. The soon-to-be freshman U.S. senator then paused before delivering her trademark line, the one she delivered with relish in a campaign ad that focused on her early-life vocation of hog castration. “Thanks to all of you, we are heading to Washington. And we are going to make ’em squeal!” The crowd, which had already worked itself into a restrained tizzy with the help of $5 beers and a Senate map that was getting redder by the minute, squealed with delight.
That moment of castration-one-liner-induced glee notwithstanding, the Ernst victory party was much more victory than party. The crowd spent the first few hours cheering—albeit not too loudly—every time Ernst’s name showed up on the Fox News ticker. Her supporters skewed to the older side, and the vast majority of them spent the night drinking responsibly and feasting on finger food that included chicken fingers and Chex Mix. The closest thing to flair that I saw all night was a single American flag hat.
Earlier this year, it would’ve been laughable to suggest that a comfortable Ernst win would feel like such a non-event. In many ways, this was the most shocking GOP victory of the 2014 midterms. The 44-year-old Ernst, a state senator since 2011, was able to win a state that Obama took by 6 points over Mitt Romney in 2012 and by nearly 10 against John McCain in 2008. She will become Iowa’s first female U.S. senator and, kind of shockingly, has the Hawkeye State’s women to thank for it. According to CNN, the Republican fought her Democratic opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, almost to a draw among female voters, 48 percent to 49—a major improvement from the 19-point gap Romney faced in 2012. Ernst’s historic victory will also end Iowa’s 30-year run with at least one Democrat in the Senate and, more importantly, helps ensure that Republicans will control the upper chamber next year.
This was supposed to be the Democrats’ race to lose—and in some ways that’s exactly what happened. Buffeted by the in-state name recognition afforded a sitting congressman, Braley entered the race as the favorite to replace his fellow Democrat, retiring Sen. Tom Harkin. But Braley’s early lead in the polls disappeared almost as soon as the general election began. As a four-term congressman running without the benefits of incumbency, Braley failed to generate the type of energy needed to cut through the political headwinds created by an unpopular president and an even more unpopular Congress. Video of him denigrating Iowa’s senior senator, Republican Chuck Grassley, as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school” didn’t help matters, either.
But the bigger story was Ernst, the folksy state senator who talked like a Tea Partier but had the blessing of the GOP establishment. She burst out of the gates with that star-making ad—what a cliché: a candidate trading on her experience castrating hogs to win a Senate race—and stayed there with a campaign heavy on personality and light on policy. The ghosts of presidential elections past (Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee) and future (Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan), joined her on the stump, those bold-faced names helping her campaign paper over views that made her arguably the most conservative candidate on any statewide ballot in the country.
Ernst, as liberals are eager to tell you, has logged some serious time out on the conservative fringes. She’s dabbled in U.N. conspiracy theory, backed a “personhood” amendment, suggested Obama was a “dictator” who needed to be impeached, and vowed that she’d be willing to take up arms against her own government “should they decide that my rights are no longer important.” Her less extreme views—a relative term—include abolishing both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Education.
But to the great frustration of the Braley campaign, Iowans—and much of the media—didn’t seem to notice. As Norm Ornstein argued last week, national outlets were unwilling to question the Beltway’s conventional wisdom that the GOP had avoided anointing Todd Akin-like candidates who were too extreme to win a general election. (Meanwhile, Iowa media, as Alec MacGillis documents, was unable to pick up the slack.) The Ernst campaign eagerly embraced its new, and rather easily won, moderate image with a not-so-subtle makeover that included softening its campaign slogan from “Soldier. Mother. Conservative.” to “Soldier. Mother. Independent Leader.”
The more moderate slogan didn’t come with more moderate policy proposals, but that’s largely because Ernst steered clear of policy on the campaign trail—something she continued to do Tuesday night. “In Washington, politicians are more interested in talking than doing, they ignore problems hoping they’ll just go away,” she told the crowd before ticking off ISIS, the national debt, and the economy as examples of those problems.
If Ernst has solutions to those problems, she’s keeping them to herself for now. The most she had to say on the subject on Tuesday was telling the crowd that Washington needed a heavy dose of what she calls the “Iowa way,” a rather amorphous concept that she says includes things like “honesty, service, and hard work.” Such lines may have suited her well on the campaign trail, but it remains to be seen how that will translate into lawmaking. “We’re taking the Iowa way all the way to Washington,” Ernst promised. Once she does, Iowans and the rest of the country will at last find out exactly what that means.