DES MOINES, Iowa—Shortly after Joni Ernst walked onstage to a standing ovation in a banquet room here on Monday afternoon, the Iowa senator told the crowd of roughly 200 gathered in support of Marco Rubio that she was not there to pledge her support to Marco Rubio. “I’m not endorsing,” said Ernst.
That fact was not a surprise—despite being hyped by the Rubio team as the event’s “special guest,” Ernst had previously said she planned to remain neutral in the GOP race—but it didn’t exactly electrify the crowd. The introduction that came next was equally unexciting. The kindest words Ernst was willing to offer about the man she showed up to introduce were that he was a “good friend,” a “father,” and someone who “understands” the threat posed by ISIS.
This was not Sarah Palin’s slam poetry endorsement of Donald Trump—nor was it Joni Ernst’s let’s-make-em-squeal victory speech from two years ago. In fact, despite the overlap between Palin’s mamma grizzly brand and Ernst’s hog-castrating tales, the latter’s performance on Monday was pretty much the polar opposite of the former’s last week.
In Ames, Palin got top billing; in Des Moines, Ernst was the warmup act. Sarah showed up wearing a silver-spangled cardigan that had everyone talking; Joni opted for a traditional jacket-and-pants combo that was destined to go unnoticed. The half-term Alaska governor hooted, hollered, and rhymed for 20-odd minutes. The first-term Iowa senator spoke for about a quarter of that time, using prepared sentences that were as complete as they were boring. (Palin on Trump’s foreign policy: “a commander-in-chief who will let our warriors do their job and go kick ISIS ass.” Ernst on Rubio’s: “he does understand those threats very well.”)
Rubio, of course, would never be mistaken for Trump, nor does he want to be. And he doesn’t need Ernst to act as a Palin-esque hot mess to give him a bump. But, as I explained last week, he does need his friends in the Republican establishment to get off their hands and offer more than a few tepid words of not-an-official-endorsement support if he has any chance at besting Trump or Ted Cruz before it’s too late. Marco can’t save the Republican Party if the GOP doesn’t save him first.
What’s more, Ernst has many reasons to support Rubio. He is the only candidate running who came to her aid two years ago during her five-way fight for the Senate GOP nomination, and he made several trips to Iowa to stump for her that year. As National Review notes, the two senators are also bound by a handful of staffers, including Todd Harris, Rubio’s media consultant who helped put Ernst on the national radar in 2014 with those castration-themed ads. And, as Rubio did his best to point out several times on Monday, the two took similar paths to Washington, beginning their campaigns as outsiders who were ultimately able to unite their party on their way to general election victories in swing states. Yet despite that past and an increasingly certain future, Ernst and the GOP establishment remains officially neutral.