Tapping on glass ceilings and feting 2024 contenders: Behind Ernst’s GOP surge
The Iowa senator took herself out of the running for vice president in 2016, now she’s the highest ranked woman in her conference and hosting presidential candidates like Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) gives an interview in her office on Capitol Hill May 17, 2023. | Photos by Francis Chung/POLITICO
Joni Ernst sees WMDs as the secret to expanding the Republican Party’s appeal.
No, she doesn’t mean that kind of weapon: “Women. Millennials. And Dudes with beards and tattoos. WMDs,” the Iowa senator explained in an interview.
The acronym is ubiquitous in her office, a reminder of the work that lies ahead for the party to make inroads with those constituencies in 2024. And Ernst is stepping into a central role as her state becomes ground zero for a fight to define the GOP’s future — a multi-candidate effort to topple former President Donald Trump from his primary frontrunner spot.
On June 3, she will host the Roast and Ride, an Iowa cattle call that takes place partly on motorcycles and features several top-tier presidential primary contenders. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis will attend the event, according to a person familiar with the schedule, one of his highest-profile scheduled appearances after his presidential campaign launch last week. Ernst also has invited Trump, who’s bitterly attacking DeSantis, though the former president’s presence is uncertain.
Altogether, it’s a sign of the 52-year-old Ernst’s rising political fortunes: After succeeding Democrat Tom Harkin, she now has a presidential candidate forum to rival the former senator’s Iowa Steak Fry. Colleagues see her on a steady climb in the party, possibly to heights never reached by a Republican woman in congressional leadership, and she’s regularly mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick.
“She could definitely be the first [female] whip. If not something more,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a close friend of Ernst’s from their work on combating military sexual assault.
First, there’s 2024. Ernst’s upcoming event will also feature Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) — another personal friend of hers — former Vice President Mike Pence, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy and former California gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder. She also had lunch with DeSantis in March.
With the presidential contest heating up, Ernst may yet face more forks in the road. She took herself out of contention as a running mate in 2016, when Trump was the nominee. It was a crucial moment in the campaign and in her career, an opportunity that she has no regrets about passing on.
Yet Ernst could easily find herself on the 2024 nominee’s short list, and she isn’t slamming that door.
“I will say I’m not pursuing anything. I will do what is right to defend my country, keep my country safe and continue to work for Iowans,” she said. “I have been driven to serve and I’ll continue to serve in whatever capacity I’m called to.”
She’s breaking through on her own, rising this year to become the Senate’s No. 4 Republican and only the second woman in chamber history to chair the GOP policy committee. For a party struggling to grow its reach in presidential elections as well as with suburban women, it’s a meaningful elevation of a woman in leadership. And now Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) is right behind Ernst at No. 5.
Ernst is in line to chair the Senate Republican Conference come 2025, due to term limits on the leaders above her. The only other woman to rise that high: former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine … 50 years ago.
She said she would consider seeking the No. 3 role, for which Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said she’s a lock: “Without a doubt.” If she wins reelection in 2026 and maintains support in the conference, she could be the first female GOP whip in congressional history.
Her current job involves legislative strategy and the stewardship of weekly party lunches. That’s tougher than it sounds: She oversees a 49-member conference with plenty of different ideas about how to run things and enough frustrated conservatives to spark a challenge to Mitch McConnell’s leadership late last year.
As for her personal style, her Iowa-appropriate corny humor often comes through on the Senate floor in gags like a “Price is Up” game show wheel or an Internet Uno meme. That patter isn’t typical in staid Washington, but Ernst says it’s part of how she tries to reach young people, suburban women and, yes, biker dudes.
“We really need to go where we’re not. And I can go where we’re not,” she explained.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) put it another way: Ernst “is particularly effective with demographic groups that sometimes a bunch of us middle-aged white guys have a hard time connecting with.”
All of that will be tested over the next 12 months. Ernst is in a tricky spot as a rising Republican leader from an early-voting state who is focused on broadening the party’s tent. She’s staying neutral in the presidential contest and vowing to support the eventual GOP nominee, which means not joining Thune in support of Scott.
When it comes to the biggest question hanging over the primary, however, she forcefully rebuts the notion that Trump owns the GOP: “Our party is so much more than Donald Trump. Our party is the party of Tim Scott and Joni Ernst and John Thune and Marsha Blackburn. And we have got a breadth of ideas and a positive outlook.”
And when she talks about the new day she wants to see in the GOP, her vision doesn’t exactly sound like another Trump presidency.
“We need to look forward,” she said. “You have to have a candidate that will speak about and inspire people to be engaged and involved and talk about the goodness of America and how we bring people together, not: ‘How do we divide us.’”
Ernst’s raised some eyebrows with her voting record, despite the frequent partisan rhetoric required of a party leader. She did not support last Congress’ bipartisan infrastructure law but took the minority position in her party to back a Biden-era gun safety law and same-sex marriage protections.
Those votes made her life harder with conservative voters as she travels the state’s 99 counties each year.
“If the bill had been titled ‘conservative religious liberties bill,’ and it’s the same text. Republicans would have been: ‘Good on you, Joni,’” she said of the same-sex marriage bill.
And when it comes to her gun vote, she said: “I’ve asked people in Iowa, how many of you are now denied the right to obtain a weapon? What weapons did we take out of the system?” The answer is often crickets, she said.
Those moves didn’t alter her reputation among Iowa Democrats, though. They see a Republican partisan holding the seat once held by iconic progressive Harkin. Summing up her bipartisan votes, state Rep. J.D. Scholten said: “To say that she would be a potential moderate on key issues? I don’t see that happening.”
Scholten notched a high-water mark for Iowa Democrats, by nearly ousting then-GOP Rep. Steve King in 2018 as the party won the state’s three other House seats. But Iowa’s entire delegation is Republican now, and Ernst helped make that happen.
Take Rep. Ashley Hinson. After defending her statehouse seat in 2018, Hinson was cleaning up yard signs when she got a call from Ernst asking her to run for the U.S. House.
After deliberating, Hinson eventually launched what appeared to be a long-shot campaign — and won. Now it’s Ernst who may face a big decision: Will she keep ascending in the Senate or make her mark on a different stage?
Hinson’s answer: “The world is Sen. Ernst’s oyster.”