I Read Joni Ernst’s Book So You Don’t Have To

By Elizabeth Meyer

June 10, 2020

One of the benefits of writing a memoir, particularly for a politician, is the ability to tell your own story and influence voters’ perception of you.

In “Daughter of the Heartland: My Ode to the Country That Raised Me,” Joni Ernst says her debut book “is much more” than material for her 2020 reelection campaign. Beyond the endearing personal story and professional accomplishments, however, is a politician who knows she faces a competitive race this fall and must appeal to more than her conservative base in order to win reelection in a swing state.

While the focus of the book is on more than legislative policy and partisan finger-pointing, Ernst is deliberate in framing herself as a bipartisan problem solver who went to Congress to “cut wasteful spending” and “make Washington squeal.”

A closer examination of Ernst’s record in the U.S. Senate, of course, shows her votes align with President Trump’s priorities 91% of the time. Even a Republican super PAC is running an ad against the senator, accusing her of not living up to her “make ’em squeal” promise.

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Her Case For Reelection

The book is broken into five sections: home, service, commitment, leadership, and grit, each focusing on different aspects of her life, including her deployment to Kuwait with the Iowa Army National Guard, serving as the auditor of Montgomery County, moments of despair in her personal life and legislative achievements.

It’s not until the final chapters that Ernst talks about reelection, reminiscing on her campaign kickoff last summer at the “Roast and Ride” in Boone.

“My announcement was a way of putting a stake in the ground, of claiming my place and speaking about my vision,” Ernst says.

(Nowhere in the book does Ernst rail against the “radical socialist left” and Democrats’ threat to society, as she did at the Roast and Ride.)

In reading Ernst’s 220-page memoir, a theme that stood out is the measured way she discusses differences between herself and political opponents, instead of resorting to name-calling, as she has been known to do in public.

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For example, in the book Ernst recounts a trip she took to Ukraine as a college student where she lived on a bare bones collective farm with a host family.

“I think the seeds of my future public service were sown in the awakening that came from exposure to a wider word,” Ernst writes.

The Ukraine trip and the people she met there is a nice anecdote that Ernst often discusses at town hall meetings and other events. Traveling outside the United States and meeting new people gave her confidence at a time she struggled with self-worth, she says. But to hear Ernst tell the story in person, she almost always turns the family’s poverty into an example of how socialism — and in turn, Democratic policies — destroys nations.

“Folks you look at all of these Democratic candidates and you look at those socialists that are serving in the House, that’s not what we should be striving for as a United States,” Ernst said in February at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “I would say none of them are moderate. They are all marching as far to the left as they can get. They are all on that path towards socialism.”

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When talking to voters, Ernst frames her reelection as a fight against radical Democrats and the socialist left — a hard sell against Democrat Theresa Greenfield — but in the book, Ernst names improvements to farming technology as “part of my vision” for the next six years. There are no over-the-top scare tactics, just personal reflections and ideas for the future.

She highlights the conservation efforts of Iowa farmers and advances in precision agriculture, telling readers, “Those are the practical and visionary initiatives I’ll be talking about on the campaign trail.”

The Trump Factor

Ernst does not speak often in the book about Trump, though she does take the opportunity to recount issues they disagree on, like his order to ban transgender people from serving in the military, attempts to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan ahead of schedule, and repeated undermining of the ethanol industry by his Environmental Protection Agency.

While it is not unusual for members of the same party to disagree on certain issues, Ernst, and most Republicans these days, are apt to defend President Trump at all costs.

When describing her meeting with Trump in 2016 about possibly serving as his vice president, Ernst writes: “It was immediately apparent to me that Donald Trump wanted to help people in our country who had been promised help, but were left behind by other politicians and their rhetoric for decades.”

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Ernst talks glowingly in the book about her willingness to stand up for herself and speak out, no matter how politically unpopular.

But when recently given the opportunity to comment on the White House’s use of tear gas on peaceful protestors, Ernst told CNN, “I think we all will do things differently and the president chose one path.”

Personal Struggles

Ernst lets readers into intimate corners of her life, detailing the rape she suffered as a college freshman and decades of mental and emotional abuse by her husband. She doesn’t hold back in recounting the night Gail Ernst assaulted her, the discovery of his multiple affairs and their eventual divorce after 26 years of marriage. Ernst paints the picture of her sleeping on her mother’s couch because her husband kept their home in Red Oak, Iowa, and drained their bank accounts.

Ernst went from a little-known state legislator to the first Iowa woman elected to Congress in the span of four years. Ten days into her first term, she delivered the Republican response to President Barack Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. Ernst was interviewed by Donald Trump as a vice presidential candidate, and in 2018, she was elected by her colleagues to serve as vice chair of the Senate Republican Conference.

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All the while, the public knew nothing of Gail Ernst’s abuse until Cityview, an alternative newspaper in Des Moines, wrote about the details of the couple’s divorce.

“I had never planned to share these details with anyone,” Ernst writes in “Daughter of the Heartland.”

“As far as I was concerned, they would be locked away in the past. Although I had enormous respect for the #MeToo movement, and was proud of women who spoke out, I believe every person is different and deserves a choice about whether to speak out or not. By failing to seal our court documents, Gail denied me that choice.”

Though Ernst did not intend for the difficult aspects of her personal life to become public, she writes “there was something liberating about facing the demons in my past.”

“Once it was out in the open, I decided that embracing what happened to me in my life and talking about it — the rape, the physical and emotional abuse, and the divorce — could help other women who were suffering in silence,” she said. “I wanted them to know that they weren’t alone, and nobody is immune, even a United States senator.”


By Elizabeth Meyer
Posted 6/10/20

Iowa Starting Line is an independently-owned progressive news outlet devoted to providing unique, insightful coverage on Iowa news and politics. We need reader support to continue operating — please donate here. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more coverage.



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