Is Joni Ernst the Next John McCain?

The freshman Iowa senator and Iraq vet is making her way into the GOP’s national-security leadership.

Vice President Joe Biden congratulates Sen. Joni Earnst and her family, daughter Libby Ernst and husband Gail Ernst, during a ceremonial swearing-in in the Old Senate Chamber at the Capitol. 
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Molly O'Toole, Defense One
Sept. 21, 2015, 11:55 a.m.

There were times, as Joni Ernst paraded the 1,200-pound steer down the dung-spot­ted road at the Iowa State Fair, that the di­min­ut­ive sen­at­or seemed to lose con­trol. But each time the big bovine tried to bowl her over, she’d drop her trade­mark broad smile, dig in her boots, and shove her shoulder in­to his glossy brown-and-white fur. Al­most be­fore you’d no­ticed it was gone, Ernst’s grin was back, and the steer kept plod­ding for­ward to­ward Gov. Terry Bran­stad’s an­nu­al auc­tion, one of the fair’s most pop­u­lar events.

As Ernst and her charge, named Elvis, waited to enter the pa­vil­ion, a massive black steer ahead of them broke loose, snort­ing as he spun around in a pan­ic, weigh­ing where to burst through the hu­man ring that quickly formed around him. For a mo­ment, a ram­page seemed im­min­ent. But as Ernst looked calmly on, a hand caught the rival steer’s har­ness and wrestled it back in line. She and Elvis went on to win the “Show­man­ship Award” and $6,000 for char­ity.

“You’ve got to fol­low that dream,” read the red t-shirts of “Team Elvis.” “Wherever that dream may lead …”

On that Au­gust day, Ernst’s home turf seemed a long way from the shiny tables of the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee in Wash­ing­ton. But that’s pre­cisely why her party is call­ing on her: to se­cure the sup­port of the Iowa caucus in the 2016 drive for the White House, and to draw two key con­stitu­en­cies to­ward the demo­graph­ic­ally dis­ad­vant­aged GOP—wo­men voters and vet­er­ans.

“Let’s Make ‘Em Squeal”

Ernst scored one of the biggest up­sets of the 2014 midterms, help­ing the Re­pub­lic­ans win the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity by flip­ping the re­tir­ing Demo­crat­ic Sen. Tom Har­kin’s seat with 52.2 per­cent of the vote. “I grew up cas­trat­ing hogs on an Iowa farm, so when I get to Wash­ing­ton … let’s make ’em squeal,” she said in her best-known cam­paign video, which also fea­tured pigs and the words “moth­er, sol­dier, con­ser­vat­ive.” For the 2015 state fair, Iowa’s first wo­man sen­at­or donned work­ing boots. But she is, in a sense, al­ways wear­ing com­bat boots as the first fe­male vet­er­an in the his­tory of the up­per cham­ber.

Ernst joined the U.S. Army Re­serves after gradu­at­ing from col­lege. In 2003, she com­manded a com­pany of 150 Iowa Army Na­tion­al Guards­man who ran con­voys through Kuwait in­to south­ern Ir­aq as part of Op­er­a­tion Ir­aqi Free­dom. She still serves in the Guard, hav­ing ris­en to the rank of lieu­ten­ant col­on­el.  

In a 2014 de­bate, she re­minded listen­ers that she’d de­livered sup­plies to Lo­gist­ics Base Seitz, at Bagh­dad In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port, and Tal­lil Air Base, some 300 kilo­met­ers south­east of Bagh­dad. “They see me as someone who has ac­tu­ally served with boots on the ground, not just as a sol­dier, but as a lead­er,” she told De­fense One at the time. “Some­body who has cred­ib­il­ity.”

It’s rare for a fresh­man to be se­lec­ted to the power­ful Armed Ser­vices com­mit­tee, whose seats are of­ten doled out by seni­or­ity, but Ernst was an ob­vi­ous choice for the new Re­pub­lic­an ma­jor­ity. Chair­man John Mc­Cain, a Vi­et­nam vet­er­an and per­en­ni­al na­tion­al se­cur­ity mega­phone, has taken to ment­or­ing Ernst and two oth­er Re­pub­lic­ans who served in the mil­it­ary after 9/11. Their ex­per­i­ence in the wars in Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan lend the GOP an I was there cred­ib­il­ity as the party cri­ti­cizes the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion for what it has deemed a feck­less, un­moored for­eign policy.

“Not only in Iowa, of course, but all across the U.S., it’s in­tens­i­fied be­cause the rhet­or­ic com­ing from the ad­min­is­tra­tion, which was ‘de­grade and des­troy IS­IS,’ has gone ab­so­lutely nowhere,” Ernst said last month in an in­ter­view in her Cap­it­ol Hill of­fice.  

Days later and half a con­tin­ent away, she was wear­ing a red ap­ron at the Iowa Pork Pro­du­cers tent, a pop­u­lar can­did­ate stop. She poured an­oth­er iced tea for a Vi­et­nam vet­er­an. “Thank you for your ser­vice,” she said. He re­spon­ded, “Thank you for your ser­vice.”

Those words pack a punch back in Wash­ing­ton. In the cur­rent Con­gress, 101 of Con­gress’ 535 mem­bers are cur­rent or former mem­bers of the mil­it­ary. Just 26 have served since 9/11.

“We know what it’s like to serve along­side a spe­cial­ist or a private, and too of­ten we see the fo­cus of Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is a pan­el with a four-star or three-star gen­er­al in front of us,” Ernst said. “We are provid­ing the Amer­ic­an people this value of in­put for their sons and daugh­ters, and the im­pact that these high-level de­cisions have on Pvt. Joe Smith and his fam­ily.”

Ernst says she’s par­tic­u­larly close to Tom Cot­ton, an­oth­er post-9/11 vet­er­an who joined her in the Sen­ate and on the Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee last year. They texted each oth­er of­ten dur­ing the 2014 cam­paign, seek­ing up­dates on each oth­er’s races and ad­vice. Upon join­ing the Sen­ate, the Arkan­sas Re­pub­lic­an wasted no time spear­head­ing a let­ter to Ir­an’s lead­er signed by 47 of his party’s 54 sen­at­ors.

“It is so re­fresh­ing to look at them and know in my mind that they get it,” Ernst said of her col­leagues. “Tom Cot­ton is a door kick­er. His ex­per­i­ences in Ir­aq are very dif­fer­ent. I was driv­ing through Ir­aq work­ing through the lo­gist­ics piece, push­ing for­ward the beans … I love that Sen­at­or Mc­Cain really in­cludes us in so many of the dis­cus­sions. It’s very power­ful.’”

Ernst, while softer-spoken than Cot­ton, is not without pas­sion. She re­cently pushed Gen. Mar­tin De­mp­sey, then the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ar­gu­ment that op­pon­ents of the Ir­an deal are war­mon­gers.

“Who is ad­vising the pres­id­ent, then, that we must go to war if this deal is not signed?” Ernst asked De­mp­sey.

“At no time did that come up in our con­ver­sa­tion nor did I make that com­ment,” De­mp­sey re­spon­ded. “I can’t an­swer that.”

Ernst later asked her Guard ad­jut­ant gen­er­al what he’d ask Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry. “‘Why are we do­ing this know­ing that Ir­an has killed so many Amer­ic­ans?’” she re­coun­ted. “You can’t sep­ar­ate the fact that the dol­lars that are go­ing to flow in­to Ir­an will be used for ter­ror­ist prox­ies, will be used to get con­ven­tion­al, bal­list­ic weapons, with last­ing rami­fic­a­tions.”

“We know what it’s like to serve alongside a specialist or a private, and too often we see the focus of Washington, D.C., is a panel with a four-star or three-star general in front of us.”  
Sen. Joni Earnst

With the bless­ing of party lead­ers, she’s stead­ily worked her way in­to the cen­ter of the most vi­brant na­tion­al se­cur­ity de­bates. In her maid­en floor speech, she in­tro­duced her first piece of le­gis­la­tion, the “Pri­or­it­iz­ing Vet­er­ans’ Ac­cess to Men­tal Health Care Act.” One of her most re­cent pro­pos­als—a meas­ure grant­ing Obama tem­por­ary emer­gency au­thor­ity to dir­ectly train and equip Kur­d­ish Pesh­merga—was co-sponsored by a seni­or For­eign Re­la­tions Demo­crat, Bar­bara Box­er; and three Re­pub­lic­an sen­at­ors run­ning for pres­id­ent: Lind­sey Gra­ham, Rand Paul, and Marco Ru­bio.

The Ir­aq gov­ern­ment and the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion op­posed the amend­ment as a threat to Ir­aqi sov­er­eignty, and it fell six votes short in June. But of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly look­ing at ways to ex­pand the in­volve­ment of Kur­d­ish fight­ers as one of the few bright spots in the stale­mated fight against the Is­lam­ic State.

“This is Not a War on Wo­men”

Party lead­ers have also wel­comed Ernst’s emer­gence as the pub­lic—and im­port­antly, the fe­male—face be­hind the most re­cent Re­pub­lic­an push to de­fund Planned Par­ent­hood in the wake of sev­er­al con­tro­ver­sial videos re­leased by an an­ti­abor­tion group.

Op­pon­ents say the fight wastes time as the dead­line nears for con­gres­sion­al ac­tion to avert a shut­down. Even the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship has urged ac­tion, lest the pub­lic blame the party for an in­ab­il­ity to gov­ern. But sev­er­al Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers have wel­comed the scen­ario. That de­bate re­sumes Monday, with a vote ex­pec­ted Tues­day.

Ernst bristles at the sug­ges­tion that Re­pub­lic­ans are wa­ging a “war on wo­men.”

“That’s tired,” she said while weav­ing through the fair crowd, paus­ing to wave and say hello at con­stitu­ents who called out Joni! “They try and use that, but I’m a great ex­ample here—I’m a wo­man; I’ve been to war. This is not a war on wo­men.”

Ernst also con­sist­ently talks about the dangers of budget­ary brinks­man­ship for na­tion­al se­cur­ity.

When de­ployed, Ernst said, she bought hun­dred-dol­lar tarps for her com­pany of truck drivers and mech­an­ics to use in the rainy sea­son. “Our own camp com­mand­er said, ‘You can’t do that—we have private con­tract­ors that must do it.’ We were told to take the tarps off,” she re­called. They came in and in­stalled the same tarps—for $1,000 per tent, Ernst said. “I could not be­lieve it,” she said. “That’s a waste, and we need to get rid of that.”

Ernst said post-9/11 vet­er­ans in Con­gress have a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of how the 2011 budget caps af­fect the mil­it­ary. “Where do we, as a Re­pub­lic­an and someone who wants to be fisc­ally con­ser­vat­ive, find a bal­ance between pro­tect­ing our tax­pay­ers, and mak­ing sure we’re able to fund our na­tion­al de­fense and do it in a smart way? Well, se­quester right now is not the smart way.”

The GOP’s lead­ers are happy to have an­oth­er vet­er­an cham­pi­on­ing a “strong on de­fense” mes­sage. To Ernst, it’s per­son­al as well. She gets emo­tion­al when she talks about the op­por­tun­it­ies the mil­it­ary gave her. She gushed about two wo­men in the fi­nal stages of the Army’s Ranger school, re­mem­ber­ing the ste­reo­types she had to over­come. Ernst said she wanted to be there when they got the fabled Ranger tab, but she couldn’t at­tend—she was at her own an­nu­al two-week train­ing at Camp Dodge.

Ernst will re­tire around June 2016 so she can fo­cus on her fam­ily—her hus­band is a former Ranger—and her bur­geon­ing ca­reer in Wash­ing­ton. Already, she’s be­ing ag­gress­ively cour­ted by 2016 can­did­ates. She said she won’t be mak­ing an en­dorse­ment. (Former Flor­ida Gov. Jeb Bush was the only pres­id­en­tial hope­ful she es­cor­ted around the fair, though she offered to do so for all the can­did­ates.)

But it’s ob­vi­ous the end to her mil­it­ary ca­reer is bit­ter­sweet. “It’s time to put the boots in the closet and move on,” she said, “but I will still serve them through my role here in the Sen­ate.”

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