This Is Joni Ernst’s Closing Argument

Iowa Republican uses her military background to hit Bruce Braley on defense, foreign policy issues.

CEDAR RAPIDS, IOWA - OCTOBER 13: Iowa Republican State Senator and U.S. Senate candidate Joni Ernst (C) speaks during a rally with former Massachusetts Gov. and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney (L) on October 11, 2014 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Ernst and Romney met with around 300 supporters at the event, one of many in the final weeks of Ernst's campaign for a U.S. Senate seat. U.S. Representative Bruce Braley (D-IA) and Ernst are virtually tied in polling to replace the seat occupied by retiring U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA). (Photo by David Greedy/Getty Images)
National Journal
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Shane Goldmacher
Oct. 13, 2014, 12:23 p.m.

WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — With three weeks un­til Elec­tion Day and the Iowa Sen­ate race in a vir­tu­al tie, Re­pub­lic­an Joni Ernst is hon­ing in on her mil­it­ary back­ground to make her clos­ing case to voters.

She’s burn­ish­ing her bio­graphy as a lieu­ten­ant col­on­el in the Iowa Na­tion­al Guard at every turn and re­serving her sharpest barbs against Demo­crat­ic op­pon­ent Bruce Bra­ley for mat­ters of na­tion­al se­cur­ity and for­eign af­fairs.

In a speech Sunday night at a West Des Moines rally at­ten­ded by Mitt Rom­ney, Ernst out­lined her strategy ex­pli­citly. “What I’d like to do,” she told a cheer­ing crowd of well more than 100, “is com­pare and con­trast my re­cord when it comes to for­eign af­fairs, for­eign policy, mil­it­ary af­fairs, con­trast that with Con­gress­man Bruce Bra­ley and Pres­id­ent Obama.”

Ernst is do­ing so on the stump and over the air­waves. She’s used testi­mo­ni­als from sol­diers she served with to re­but Demo­crat­ic at­tacks and bol­ster her stand­ing in two re­cent tele­vi­sion spots and one ra­dio ad. In a de­bate Sat­urday with Bra­ley, she poin­tedly de­clared, “I’ve had my boots on the ground.”

With un­rest in the Middle East and across much of the world, Ernst is hop­ing her years in uni­form can help carry her across the fin­ish line first in one of the na­tion’s tight­est and most closely watched races. The Iowa con­test is one of a small hand­ful likely to de­cide con­trol of the Sen­ate.

In his speech, Rom­ney cited Ernst’s Na­tion­al Guard ser­vice as pre­par­a­tion to suc­ceed in Wash­ing­ton. “She has ex­per­i­ence lead­ing,” Rom­ney said. “We send a lot of people to Wash­ing­ton who know how to talk but not a lot of people who know how to lead.”

Though her mil­it­ary back­ground has been on dis­play throughout the cam­paign — the words “Moth­er. Sol­dier. In­de­pend­ent lead­er” are plastered across the RV she uses to tra­verse the state — Ernst has in­creased her fo­cus on it in the clos­ing weeks of the cam­paign.

At the Rom­ney rally, she ac­cused Bra­ley of be­ing “dis­en­gaged from what’s go­ing on around this world.” Nearly one-third of her speech was ded­ic­ated to for­eign and mil­it­ary af­fairs, most of it blis­ter­ing Bra­ley.

Ernst ac­cused him of vot­ing “not once but twice” to de­fund troops in com­bat. “Now he will try and deny it now but what he was do­ing was put­ting polit­ics ahead of our men and wo­men in uni­form and that is ab­so­lutely un­ac­cept­able,” she said.

She skewered Bra­ley’s at­tend­ance re­cord with the House Vet­er­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee (Demo­crats have ac­cused her of ex­cess­ive ab­sences as a state sen­at­or, as well). “He left 120,000 Amer­ic­an vet­er­ans hanging out to dry without the health care not only that they de­served, but they had earned through their hon­or­able ser­vice,” she said.

And she mocked his calls for Con­gress to re­turn to de­bate what to do against the grow­ing Is­lam­ic State, ar­guing he was too late to re­cog­nize the threat. “No kid­ding, Con­gress­man Bra­ley. Where were you two years ago?” she asked.

Bra­ley has pushed back on all fronts, es­pe­cially the ac­cus­a­tion of vot­ing against fund­ing Amer­ic­an troops. “This is a shame­ful and false at­tack. Joni Ernst knows she is mis­lead­ing Iow­ans about Bruce’s re­cord in or­der to hide her out-of-step agenda that puts mil­lion­aires and spe­cial in­terests ahead of Iowa’s fam­il­ies,” said Bra­ley spokes­man Sam Lau. Bra­ley has said his votes on troop-fund­ing meas­ures were on broad­er bills that left lim­it­less timetables for mil­it­ary op­er­a­tions in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan. “As a son of a Mar­ine vet­er­an, Bruce has al­ways sup­por­ted our men and wo­men in uni­form,” Lau said.

On the do­mest­ic front, Ernst, a state sen­at­or, has mostly tried to tuck her­self in­to the slip­stream of pop­u­lar Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Terry Bran­stad, who is also on the bal­lot in Novem­ber, claim­ing his suc­cess in the state, in­clud­ing on taxes and the eco­nomy, as her own.

In a Des Moines Re­gister/Bloomberg Polit­ics poll over the week­end, Bran­stad was one of only two politi­cians in the state to poll above 50 per­cent; the oth­er was former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton.

For his part, Bran­stad stuck to the mil­it­ary script on Sunday in selling Ernst. “John Mc­Cain is the only com­bat vet­er­an in the United States Sen­ate,” he said at the rally. “We have a chance for the first time in his­tory to elect a wo­man com­bat vet­er­an from Red Oak, Iowa.”

The Re­pub­lic­an crowd cheered.

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