Is the GOP Grooming Joni Ernst for the VP Nomination?
Later tonight, recently sworn-in Senator Joni Ernst will grace television screens and live-streams nation-wide as she gives the official Republican rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union. It’s a heady task for the freshman Senator. And one that has some wondering about whether Republicans may be setting her up for something bigger.
What’s that you say? Hypothesizing on a freshman Senator being the Vice President two weeks into her job is wild speculation? Hey, this is Iowa. If you haven’t noticed, wild speculation is kind of our thing.
Five of the six Republican responders to Barack Obama have harbored national ambitions. However, two have deferred (Paul Ryan and Mitch Daniels), two may run this year, but faltered badly in their rebuttal debuts (Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio), and one is going to prison (Bob McDonnell). So even if she does have some awfully bad luck to overcome, it’s not crazy to think that there might be more to giving Ernst this plum assignment then meets the eye.
Because when you think about it, all the advantages that Ernst brought to the Iowa Senate race are the same qualities a presidential nominee would look for in a running mate. Need to add some excitement to the ticket? Get a straight-shooting, balls-cutting, authority-defying farm girl. Diversity? If your opponent is Hillary Clinton, you could cut into her lead with women by appealing to rural women and soccer moms. Concerned Ernst isn’t experienced enough? Well, if the biggest worry about taking over the presidency in a crisis is being Commander-in-Chief, then Ernst has a military background to guide her. Plus Ernst will have a chance to personally meet every presidential candidate in Iowa and build a rapport with them.
The comparisons to Sarah Palin are tempting. Female, hard-core conservative with a flair for the dramatics. But Ernst has two important things going for her Palin didn’t: she doesn’t “go rogue” and she has legitimate military credibility. On the other hand, Palin’s eccentricities seemed authentic and genuine. Ernst’s castrating shtick seemed stage-managed. Or at least it did early on, where her delivery in her ads was stiff.
That’s the danger for Ernst tonight. Be over-coached, deliver a performance panned for its dullness and return to obscurity. Or – much worse – play into the waiting stereotype of a wide-eyed Tea Party-er. Because while everyone praises the Squeal ad as a genius tactic (and well-deserved – it completely changed the race), many fail to mention just how insanely risky it was. In the days after it premiered, it looked like the ridicule might overtake her. Late night mocked her. But the campaign stuck with it and weathered the storm, correctly inferring that Iowans would lap it up. And they did. And Democrats failed to spin it into a negative. But that was Iowa. This is different. This is the national stage.
Before saying a word, some of the national media is chomping at the bit to pigeonhole Ernst as a wacko, gun-toting, conspiracy-theory redneck. Newsweek chose a picture that apparently casts her as a Dementor sucking out someone’s soul. They’re waiting to pounce. And a lot of times, they win at what they do. So I’m surprised Ernst is willing to take the risk.
In the long run, it could be a good thing for Iowa Democrats. The safest course of action for Ernst is to keep her head down, focus on constituency work, and not make waves. Spend six years avoiding tough questions. Run for reelection without a hint of ideology, positioning yourself as a farm girl who went to Washington. Easy, right?
Instead, she’s walking into the lion’s den that’s devoured countless ambitious politicians before her. Ernst is skilled at dodging the Iowa press. Attract a trail of national reporters, however, and Iowans and the nation may hear more of just how far from the mainstream Ernst’s right-wing views are.
For me, I’ll be watching closely for a different reason. I honestly still want to figure which Ernst Iowa really elected as their Senator. During the campaign, her narrative swung from a Palin-esque Tea Party Harley-rider to a humble public servant and veteran who loved to hug people. Her campaign slogan was literally “Mother, Soldier, [Insert best-polling message of the month].” Does she really believe those crazy things she said early on, or was she just hamming it up to win the primary? Does she have genuine ambition, or is she an empty puppet propped up by skilled consultants and the Koch-backed money that gave her her start? If she does well, and the VP chatter starts, these are important things to know.
Whether she falters or flies, I hope we get to see the “real” Joni Ernst tonight. Because I still have no idea who she is.
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