Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst will deliver the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, an opportunity reserved for the party’s fastest rising stars. Though she's been in the Senate just two weeks, Ernst is on pace to become not only a key voice in Congress, but a major player when it comes to picking the next Republican presidential nominee.
Her career has already been full of “firsts.” Here’s a look at what to know about the GOP’s choice to respond to the president:
Ernst is the first woman ever elected to Congress from Iowa
She made history last November by becoming the first woman ever elected to Congress from Iowa after she won an open Senate seat vacated by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. In fact, Ernst became the first woman ever to win statewide there when she defeated Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley.
She is also the first female combat veteran to serve in the Senate
Ernst has served a combined 21 years in the U.S. Army Reserves and Iowa National Guard, including 14 months in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard and reported for training just days after her election. Ernst also revealed during her 2014 campaign that she was sexually harassed while serving and vowed to take on the issue in the Senate.
Ernst “grew up walking beans and feeding hogs”
Ernst grew up on a farm, another attribute she made a core tenent of her campaign to appeal to Iowa’s rural voters. It was especially effective after Braley was caught on tape dismissing Iowa’s GOP Sen. Chuck Grassley as “a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school, never practiced law.”
She had one of the most memorable campaign ads of 2014
Last year marked the first time in 40 years Iowa had an open Senate seat. It led to a crowded field and Ernst, a little-known state senator, was struggling to gain traction. That changed last March when she released her first television ad touting her experience “castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” and promising to make the big spenders in Washington “squeal.” She shot to the top of the polls and quickly “make ‘em squeal” became a rallying cry for her campaign.
She’s becoming a presidential kingmaker
Her campaign quickly drew the support of a number of potential Republican presidential candidates in 2016. The rising star will continue to be courted for the influence she holds in the state with the opening contest of the presidential race. Earlier this month she announced a “Hogs and Harleys” fundraiser for June, which is likely to bring a slew of GOP presidential candidates to the Hawkeye State to pay her homage.
“Joni Ernst will be a sought-after sounding board by every 2016 candidate because she understands how to win in a tough swing state like Iowa,” Iowa Republican strategist Tim Albrecht said.
She’s a tea party favorite who won the seat of retiring liberal icon
Though she was endorsed by the tea party and enjoyed support from Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Ernst was able to snag the seat of retiring liberal icon Tom Harkin. The conservative was able to appeal to enough Iowans to easily win the general election and has promised to be an independent voice representing the needs of her state.
She’s the first Senate freshman the GOP have chosen for their response
Ernst will only have been a senator for two weeks when she delivers her response Tuesday night. Republicans have never chosen a member of Congress with such little time in office to deliver their response. It has been a cursed assignment in recent years, though Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has so far escaped the bad fortunes bestowed upon Republicans like Marco Rubio (awkward water incident) and Bob McDonnell (reporting to jail Feb. 9).