URBANDALE, Iowa – Joni Ernst was lagging behind in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate here in Iowa.
She was a relative unknown in a crowded field led by a wealthy businessman. Then she started talking about castrating hogs.
Ernst spent just $9,000 to air her first television ad, but her testimonial – I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm – and her promise to apply those pork-cutting skills to make ’em squeal in Washington transformed her candidacy.
In the first three days, her 30-second spot was viewed nearly 400,000 times on YouTube and became the talk of cable news, catapulting the state senator from rural Red Oak into the top tier.
Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard who says she proudly carries a pistol in her purse, followed up last week with her second ad, in which she steps off her Harley-Davidson and, wearing a black leather jacket, fires multiple shots with expert precision at a shooting-range target.
The narrator says she’s aiming for President Barack Obama’s health care law.
It is very edgy. I will admit that, Ernst said.
With three weeks before the June 3 primary, polls show Ernst gaining on Mark Jacobs, a retired Reliant Energy chief executive who moved back to his native Iowa from Texas two years ago. He has poured at least $1.6 million of his own money into the campaign and had been the early favorite to win the nomination.
Not long ago, the seat being vacated by the retiring Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin appeared likely to stay in Democratic hands. But national Republicans have grown bullish about adding Iowa to the long list of Democratic-held Senate seats they could pick up in November’s midterm elections.
GOP officials in Washington say either Ernst or Jacobs would present a good contrast with the presumptive Democratic nominee, Rep. Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman and former trial lawyer.
With Ernst’s newfound stature comes growing scrutiny. After she told the Des Moines Register on Friday that she has reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, Iowa Democrats pounced with a statement saying Ernst was perpetuating a myth and that her denial of the facts is very troubling.
Ernst’s hogs ad came about almost by accident. Last year, when she sat down with her advisers to develop a stump speech, she mentioned almost as an aside that one of her chores growing up on the family’s farm in southwestern Iowa was castrating hogs. This startled her media consultant, Todd Harris.
That fall at a debate, Ernst tested a one-liner about castrating hogs. The crowd lit up. With the campaign behind in fundraising, Harris and his partners at Something Else Strategies thought that building a provocative ad around that line might get her attention they could not afford to buy.
Ernst said the ad underscores what she sees as the biggest difference between her and Jacobs: their lifestyles.
I still am a normal Iowan, she said. He is a very wealthy man. I live in a home that I bought for $80,000. He lives in a home that most Iowans would never dream of owning.
Jacobs argues that he, too, had a normal Iowan upbringing before moving away for work. He said his jobs as a teenager, delivering newspapers and scrubbing pots and pans at a Hy-Vee deli, taught him the value of a dollar. He said he became the kind of chief executive who rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty traipsing around power plants in jeans and steel-toed boots.
In this last stretch of campaigning, Ernst is on her Make ’Em Squeal tour, driving around in a mini-Winnebago emblazoned with her picture. On the rear, above the image of a pig, it says, Honk if you want to make D.C. squeal.
People are honking, Ernst said. They know about the ads.