DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Joni Ernst, a mother from farm country and Iraq war veteran who was little known outside her rural legislative district only months ago, surprisingly won Iowa's Republican Senate primary going away and now appears well positioned to compete for a seat that could help determine whether the GOP wins control of Congress.
The 43-year-old state lawmaker projected a just-folks personality, backed by a blitz of clever TV advertising, to sweep the five-candidate GOP race and become one of the unexpected stars of the primary season. Now she faces a tougher test against a four-term Democratic congressman, Bruce Braley, who has more than $2.3 million in the bank, compared with her $100,000, and a slight edge in the polls. The winner will succeed Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who is retiring after five terms.
"She oozes personality, and a likable Republican in a swing state is hard to beat," said national GOP pollster and strategist Greg Strimple, who is not advising the Ernst campaign.
Ernst, who defeated four male opponents in turning a once-close race into a rout, emphasized her background growing up on a farm and her National Guard service in Iraq to stand apart from the field. Her ads showing her mingling with hogs and firing a handgun at a shooting range went viral in the political world.
"She's really authentic. What you see is what you get," said Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican and friend of Ernst's.
Republican strategists hope the smiling, gun-toting, motorcycle-riding image plays as well against Braley, a 56-year-old lawyer, as it did against Mark Jacobs, the former energy company CEO who was her chief competitor in the primary.
The race for Iowa's first open Senate seat in 40 years comes as Republicans need to gain six seats to win the Senate majority. Braley seems more vulnerable than he did earlier this year, and both parties, along with outside groups, are expected to make the contest among the most expensive in the nation.