Iowa GOP lawmaker Ernst enters 2014 Senate race

DES MOINES – Republican state Sen. Joni Ernst, a conservative lawmaker with a long military career, announced her plans to run in 2014 for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat on a new website Wednesday.

The 43-year-old from Red Oak enters a crowded Republican primary for the coveted seat, which opened up earlier this year when Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin announced he would not seek a sixth term.

After many of the state’s more prominent GOP officials declined to run, the primary is stacking up with lesser-known names. On her website, Ernst tried to distinguish herself.

“As a mother, soldier and a conservative, the values I hold dear and have fought more than 20 years to protect are being threatened by the failed policies of this president. Washington has failed us. We need and deserve better leadership. And that’s why I’m running for U.S. Senate,” Ernst said on the website.

Campaign consultant David Polyansky said Ernst was not available for an interview Wednesday.

Ernst serves in the Iowa National Guard and is a veteran of the second Iraq war. She was elected in 2011 to represent part of southwest Iowa in the state Senate during a special election and won a full term in 2012. Prior to her election, Ernst served as Montgomery County auditor for six years.

She also appears to have the quiet backing of Gov. Terry Branstad, who had considered tapping Ernst to run as his lieutenant governor in 2014, if Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds had decided to seek the Senate seat. Branstad has not made an endorsement, but when asked about the Senate race on a recent episode of the public television program “Iowa Press,” he spoke favorably about Ernst.

“I think we’ll have some exciting quality candidates. One from southwest Iowa, Joni Ernst, officer in the Iowa National Guard and served in Iraq and the local government and state government, she’s one I met with and encouraged,” Branstad said.

Establishment Republicans will likely hear Branstad’s message clearly, said GOP fundraiser and Branstad confidant Doug Gross.

“Because of Branstad speaking favorably of her, those folks would take a look,” Gross said. But he stressed, “I think the race is totally unformed and without any kind of structure in it.”

Besides potentially appealing to the GOP establishment the veteran Branstad represents, Ernst is seen as having reach into Iowa’s active social conservative bloc. Her military background also could be attractive to conservatives concerned with national security.

“She seems to be well-rounded, and grounded with the entire spectrum of the party, particularly among conservatives,” said Darryl Kearney, a veteran Iowa Republican fundraiser and finance director of the Polk County GOP.