Team Romney Looms Large in Iowa

Joni Ernst is the front-runner in the GOP Senate primary thanks to an important — and controversial — contribution from the former presidential nominee and his circle.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MARCH 15: Former Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney delivers remarks during the second day of the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) March 15, 2013 in National Harbor, Maryland. The American conservative Union held its annual conference in the suburb of Washington, DC, to rally conservatives and generate ideas. 
National Journal
Andrea Drusch
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Andrea Drusch
June 2, 2014, 4:01 p.m.

If state Sen. Joni Ernst wins Tues­day’s Iowa Re­pub­lic­an primary for the Sen­ate — and she’s ex­pec­ted to do just that — most will cred­it her late cam­paign surge on the at­ten­tion-grabbing ad in which the former farm girl talks know­ingly about cas­trat­ing hogs.

But ac­cord­ing to some Re­pub­lic­ans, any ex­plan­a­tion of Ernst’s sud­den rise to the top should start with a cer­tain former Mas­sachu­setts gov­ernor who re­cently spent a lot of time court­ing the Hawkeye State’s Re­pub­lic­an voters. In fact, some of Mitt Rom­ney’s former staffers have played such es­sen­tial and timely roles in Ernst’s rise that some of her crit­ics see it al­most as a con­spir­acy.

In­deed, Ernst has built a net­work of the former pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate’s alumni. Her cam­paign man­ager, Derek Flowers, was a Rom­ney field staffer in 2008. A con­sult­ing group she hired, Red­wave Com­mu­nic­a­tions, is run by former Rom­ney seni­or ad­viser Dav­id Kochel, who has been heav­ily in­volved in her cam­paign. Her cam­paign treas­urer, Brad­ley Crate, was the Rom­ney cam­paign’s chief fin­an­cial of­ficer in 2012.

Rom­ney him­self hasn’t been far from the cam­paign, either, en­dors­ing Ernst’s can­did­acy early on, be­ing fea­tured in a TV ad run on her be­half by the Cham­ber of Com­merce, and — just last week — mak­ing a rare ap­pear­ance on the cam­paign trail.

But the con­nec­tion that rankles her crit­ics the most is not a cam­paign hire or an en­dorse­ment; it’s the tim­ing of a vir­al video of pre­sumptive Demo­crat­ic nom­in­ee Rep. Bruce Bra­ley speak­ing de­ris­ively about farm­ers to a group of law­yers on the same day as Ernst’s “squeal” ad was re­leased.

Amer­ica Rising, a Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion re­search group headed by former Rom­ney 2012 cam­paign man­ager Matt Rhoades, helped turn a once sleepy race in­to a mar­quee con­test with that video, which came out just as Ernst launched the TV ad that helped drive her cam­paign to the top of the GOP primary polls.

To Ernst op­pon­ents, the co­in­cid­ent­al tim­ing didn’t pass the smell test. Ernst’s hog-cas­tra­tion ad ran only on Des Moines cable chan­nels, but it re­ceived na­tion­al at­ten­tion in part be­cause Bra­ley’s gaffe had shone a spot­light on the race.

“I don’t be­lieve in co­in­cid­ence,” said Iowa GOP op­er­at­ive Chris­toph­er Rants, who sup­ports a dif­fer­ent Re­pub­lic­an run­ning in the Sen­ate primary, Mark Jac­obs. “Look at the people who run Amer­ica Rising, the tim­ing of the re­lease of the Bra­ley video, which was im­me­di­ately picked up by Rom­ney act­iv­ists here in Iowa who are sup­port­ing her, and 48 hours later here’s Joni in the hog barn.”

How Mitt Rom­ney got the ball rolling for Joni Ernst’s Sen­ate bid

How Mitt Romney got the ball rolling for Joni Ernst's Senate bid

Click on the circles in the timeline for more in­form­a­tion. Red circles in­clude videos.

Both Amer­ica Rising and Ernst’s cam­paign deny any co­ordin­a­tion. A timeline of the GOP field’s re­sponses ap­pear as though her rival busi­ness­man Mark Jac­obs may have been the first can­did­ate aware of the video (which floated around among Re­pub­lic­ans for sev­er­al days be­fore it was pub­lished on­line) put­ting out a state­ment rap­idly after it was re­leased.

Rom­ney’s alumni are also sprinkled throughout the cam­paigns of Ernst’s com­pet­it­ors as well. Amer­ica Rising staffers have close ties with both Jac­obs and former U.S. At­tor­ney Matt Whi­taker’s cam­paigns.

But Ernst is Rom­ney’s per­son­ally chosen can­did­ate, whom he en­dorsed three weeks be­fore any of her oth­er ma­jor nods.

“I tell you, in Wash­ing­ton, if you want them not just to squeal, but if you want real change, you want someone to shake things up, Joni Ernst will shake things up in Wash­ing­ton,” Rom­ney told a crowd of Ernst sup­port­ers in Ce­dar Rap­ids on Fri­day, ac­cord­ing to the Des Moines Re­gister.

Along with Iowa Gov. Terry Bran­stad, Rom­ney helped give the can­did­ate an early boost that put her in a good po­s­i­tion for na­tion­al at­ten­tion — in­clud­ing the Cham­ber of Com­merce’s en­dorse­ment and sup­port from the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund, which of­ten stands op­posed to the Cham­ber in primar­ies — that rolled in after the Bra­ley video. The in­flu­en­tial Bran­stad had made clear be­fore the Re­pub­lic­an primary began that he wanted to help elect a first fe­male can­did­ate to fed­er­al of­fice in the Hawkeye State’s his­tory, and both Ernst and Bran­stad had en­dorsed Rom­ney in his own elec­tion.

The en­su­ing en­dorse­ments from out­side groups per­plexed some con­ser­vat­ives who saw her com­pet­it­ors as the nat­ur­al fit for those or­gan­iz­a­tions.

Chuck Laud­ner, cam­paign dir­ect­or for Ernst’s con­ser­vat­ive rival Sam Clo­vis, said he thought the Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund had chosen Ernst based on her quick rise after the ad without hav­ing vet­ted her con­ser­vat­ive cre­den­tials.

“I think [Sen­ate Con­ser­vat­ives Fund] would have been [Clo­vis sup­port­ers] if they would have glued their heels, but I think they made a rash de­cision based on the na­tion­al at­ten­tion that ad got and a sense of ur­gency to do something,” Laud­ner said. “They fi­nally put an ad up this week, but they haven’t really done any­thing for her.”

Jeff Roe, a con­sult­ant for U.S. At­tor­ney Matt Whi­taker’s cam­paign called the align­ment of groups be­hind Ernst “stun­ning.”

“There must have been some dog whistle go off that only cer­tain people can hear, be­cause the fire power just isn’t there,” Roe said.

Alex Roarty contributed to this article.
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