Less than 24 hours before the polls open in Iowa, signs are strong that Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst — who garnered national attention with her TV spot boasting of "castrating pigs" — will emerge on top in the Republican U.S. Senate primary.
According to a Des Moines Register poll released Saturday night, Ernst, a grandmother at 43 and a National Guard lieutenant colonel with service in Iraq, tops the five-candidate primary with 36 percent among likely Republican voters.
Her nearest rival, millionaire businessman Mark Jacobs, had 18 percent, with former U.S. Attorney Matt Whittaker at 13 percent, talk radio host Sam Clovis at 11 percent, and businessman Scott Schaben at 2 percent.
All the candidates are strong conservatives and agree on virtually every issue: anti-abortion, pro-Second Amendment, for a balanced budget amendment, and for repeal and replacement of Obamacare.
But it is Ernst and her iconic persona as a self-styled "farm girl" and veteran who packs a pistol in her purse who has caught political fire.
In her TV spot, she appears in a barn, recalls her farm-girl chores of "castrating pigs," and vows to go to Washington to cut "pork" and "make them squeal." Underscoring the point are the piglets in the barn who do indeed squeal.
In recent weeks, she has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association, and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. In addition, Ernst has won the editorial blessings of the Des Moines Register. On Friday, Mitt Romney came to Iowa to stump with her, and Rubio is coming Monday night.
With five-term Democrat Tom Harkin becoming the first Iowa senator to voluntarily step down in 40 years, Republicans have long felt upbeat about defeating his Democratic "heir apparent," U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, who is a past president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association.
"I can't remember when we had five excellent candidates in one primary," Kim Schmett, former Polk County GOP chairman, told Newsmax. "And I'm sure any of them can take out Braley."
In large part because he spent $1 million out of his personal fortune, Jacobs, former Reliant Energy CEO, jumped ahead in the contest early on. Having joined the Texas-based firm as it was facing bankruptcy, Jacobs turned Reliant around, eventually sold it, and made an estimated $34 million.
With television broadsides highlighting Jacobs' business background and calls for balancing the federal budget, many state Republicans saw the businessman-candidate as the contender likeliest to match Braley dollar for dollar in the fall.
But Ernst suddenly took off following the release of her squealing pigs ad.
"There was more talk about that ad here than you can imagine," said Schmett. "It more than paid for itself and attracted volunteers and publicity to [Ernst]. Folks loved that part about making Washington squeal."
With endorsements coming in along with her rising in the polls, Ernst unveiled a follow-up spot in early May. Clad in jeans and leather jacket, the candidate dismounts from her Harley motorcycle and enters a shooting range. As she unflinchingly fires her pistol and hits the target, an announcer reminds viewers that "there's more than lipstick in her purse" and "once she sets her sights on Obamacare, she’s going to unload."
Ernst urges voters: "Give me a shot!"
Ernst and her ad did come under media fire following a recent televised debate in which she referred to the Santa Barbara shootings as "an unfortunate accident" — although she did say Santa Barbara was a "tragedy" earlier in the debate.
But as Schmett noted, "a commercial in which one advertises support for the right to keep and bear arms is not going to be harmful among Republican primary voters here."
Iowa has never elected a woman as governor, U.S. senator, or U.S. representative — something that the election of a "Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa" would change this fall.
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent to Newsmax.
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