Joni Ernst

Joni Ernst
United States Senator
from Iowa
Assumed office
January 3, 2015
Serving with Chuck Grassley
Preceded by Tom Harkin
Member of the Iowa Senate
from the 12th district
In office
January 5, 2011  November 28, 2014
Preceded by Kim Reynolds
Succeeded by Mark Costello
Personal details
Born Joni Kay Culver
(1970-07-01) July 1, 1970
Red Oak, Iowa, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Gail Ernst
Children Libby
Alma mater Iowa State University
Columbus State University
Religion Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Website Campaign website
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1993–2015[1]
Rank Lieutenant Colonel
Unit Iowa Army National Guard
185th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion
Battles/wars Iraq War

Joni Kay Ernst (née Culver; July 1, 1970)[2] is an American politician who is the junior United States Senator from Iowa, elected in the November 2014 election.[3] She previously served as a Republican member of the Iowa Senate from 2011 to 2014 and as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard prior to retiring from the military in 2015.[1] Ernst is the first woman to represent Iowa in the United States Congress and the first female veteran from any state to serve in the United States Senate.[4][5]

Early life and career

Ernst was born Joni Kay Culver in Montgomery County, Iowa, the daughter of Marilyn and Richard Culver.[6] She was valedictorian of her class at Stanton High School.[7] Ernst earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from Iowa State University,[8] and a Master of Public Administration degree from Columbus College.[7][9] While in college, Ernst took part in an agricultural exchange to the Soviet Union.[10]

Military career

Ernst served as logistics officer and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard. Near the end of her career, she served as the commanding officer of the 185th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion at Camp Dodge, the largest battalion in the Iowa Army National Guard.[11][12] Upon her retirement from the military in 2015, Ernst had served 23 years between the Army Reserve and the Army National Guard.[1] She spent 12 months in Kuwait in 2003–04 as the company commander of the 1168th Transportation Company during the Iraq War.[9][13][14]

Iowa State Senate

Ernst was elected the Montgomery County Auditor in 2004 and re-elected in 2008.[9][15]

Ernst was elected to the Iowa State Senate in a special election in 2011 and re-elected in 2012. She represented District 12, which serves the southwest part of the state.[13][14][16][17] Ernst was a member of the Education, Appropriations, Veterans Affairs, Rules and Administration and Health and Human Services committees of the Iowa State Senate.[18]

Following her election to the U.S. Senate, she resigned from the Iowa State Senate effective November 28, 2014.[19]

U.S. Senate

2014 U.S. Senate election

Ernst speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

In July 2013, Ernst announced that she would seek the Senate seat held by retiring Democratic Senator Tom Harkin.

Ernst received the endorsement of Iowa Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds in October 2013.[20] She was also endorsed by 23 current and former state legislators.[21] In March the Ernst campaign was endorsed by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.[22][23] In May 2014, she was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.[24][25][26][27][28][29]

Ernst received widespread attention for a campaign advertisement she released in March 2014 where she employed a tongue-in-cheek comparison between her experience castrating pigs and her ability to cut "pork" in Congress.[30][31] Many found the ad to be humorous[32][33] and it was spoofed by late-night comedians including Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert,[34][35][36][37] Before the ad aired, Ernst had struggled in fundraising,[38][39] and two polls of the Republican primary taken in February 2014 had shown her in second place, several points behind opponent Mark Jacobs.[40][41] After it aired, a Suffolk University poll in early April showed her with a narrow lead and a Loras College poll showed her essentially tied with Jacobs.[36][42][43][44] By May, she was being described by the media as the "strong front-runner".[24]

In an interview with the Des Moines Register on May 9, 2014, Ernst said she was "extremely offended" by comments made by Republican opponent Mark Jacobs in which she was characterized as AWOL due to missing over 100 votes in the legislative session ending April 7, 2014. Ernst stated: "If [Mark Jacobs] had any sort of service like I have, he would've understood what AWOL means. I have not been AWOL, I will never be AWOL."[45] Previously, in an article in The Gazette, Ernst cited her National Guard duty to rebuff criticism about her missing votes,[46] but The Gazette found that only 12 of the 117 missed votes came on days when she was on duty. The other 105 missed votes represented 57 percent of the Iowa Senate votes that session. Ernst's spokesman said that she has had a better than 90 percent voting record during her career in the Senate and that she never claimed guard service was the only reason she's missed votes this session.[46][47]

In endorsing her for the Republican Primary nomination, the Des Moines Register stated: "Ernst is a smart, well-prepared candidate who can wrestle with the details of public policy from a conservative perspective without seeming inflexible."[48] On October 23, Ernst cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Des Moines Register's editorial board, citing as a reason the newspaper's negative editorials about her.[49] The newspaper's editorial board endorsed Ernst's opponent, Democrat Bruce Braley.[50][51]

On June 16, 2014, in an event organized by Americans for Prosperity, at a panel titled "The Senate: A Window of Policy Opportunity for Principled Leaders", Ernst thanked the group for its fundraising.[52] In July 2014, Ernst's campaigning was temporarily paused while she participated in two weeks of National Guard duty.[53] In that same month, Ernst delivered the Republican Party's weekly address, where she criticized the health care scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs and pushed for a balanced federal budget and entitlement reform.[10]

On August 29, Ernst and Braley announced their agreement to hold three televised debates in Davenport, Des Moines, and Sioux City. They were held on September 28, October 11 and 16, respectively.[54]

Ernst won the 2014 Senate race 52.2% to 43.7%.[55] She is the first woman elected to represent Iowa in either House of Congress.

Committee assignments

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and Senators Joni Ernst, Daniel Sullivan, John McCain, Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, and Cory Gardner attending the 2016 International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit in Singapore


Ernst was sworn into the United States Senate on January 3, 2015.[56] She delivered the official Republican response to the State of the Union a week later on January 20.[56][57][58]

Political positions

Constitutional and federal issues

Ernst speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland on February 26, 2015.

Ernst has proposed eliminating the Internal Revenue Service, the Department of Education, and the Environmental Protection Agency as a means of cutting federal spending. She has advocated eliminating the Department of Education "not just because it would save taxpayer dollars, but because I do believe our children are better educated when it's coming from the state."[59][60]

Ernst has expressed her support for allowing law-abiding citizens to "freely carry" weapons but abide by rules against carrying in public buildings like schools.[45] In February 2013, Ernst co-sponsored a resolution addressing "the Iowa General Assembly's refusal to recognize or support any statutes, presidential directives, or other regulations and proclamations which conflict with the Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and which are expressly preempted by the rulings of the United States Supreme Court”.[61][62] She has also received an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association for her support of gun-rights issues.[63]

As an Iowa state senator, Ernst co-sponsored resolutions concerning state nullification of federal law. One such bill asserted that Iowa could ignore any federal laws which "are directly in violation of the Tenth Amendment," while another "urg[ed] the nullification" of certain EPA regulations related to coal-fired electricity plants.[64][65] In a September 2013 forum held by the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition, Ernst said Congress shouldn't bother to pass laws "that the states would consider nullifying", referring to what she describes as "200-plus years of federal legislators going against the Tenth Amendment's states' rights."[66] Courts have consistently ruled that nullification is unconstitutional.[66] During the 2014 Senatorial general election, Ernst's supporters argued that she did not support nullification, and that "her comments on it were about encouraging Iowans to send her to Washington to pass good laws."[64]

When asked at a Montgomery County, Iowa candidate forum in January 2014, about the Supreme Court case about the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's recess appointments, she said that Obama had "become a dictator",[67] and that if he acted unconstitutionally, he should face the proper repercussions as determined by Congress, "whether that's removal from office, whether that's impeachment." When the tape of that event was published in August 2014 by Yahoo News, her spokeswoman said that "If any president oversteps their bounds, there are procedures in place for Congress and the American people to hold him or her accountable. Impeachment is a strong word and should not be thrown around lightly.”[68]

In 2016, along with U.S. Senators Deb Fischer, Charles Grassley, and Ben Sasse, Joni Ernst introduced “Sarah’s Law,” a legislation in honor of Sarah Root, a 21-year-old female student in San Francisco, who was killed in a street racing crash in January 2016.

Economic issues

Ernst opposes the federal minimum wage, and instead argues that states should have sole authority to set their own minimum wages.[69] In an August 2014 interview with the Mason City Globe-Gazette, Ernst stated: "For the federal government to set the minimum wage for all 50 states is ridiculous."[70] She has pointed to differences in the cost of living in various states, and has said: "I think $7.25 is appropriate for Iowa, but that's up for our state legislators to decide, and I'm willing to have those discussions at the state level."[71] In response to a report by the Congressional Budget Office report which projected that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour would cost 500,000 jobs, but would lift 900,000 people out of poverty, Ernst stated that "government and government-mandated wage increases are not the solution—especially when doing so comes at the expense of the jobs of hard working Americans."[72]

During the 2013 legislative session, Ernst worked on legislation which reduced property taxes in Iowa.[73] She supports a "fairer, flatter, and simpler" federal tax code.[45]

In a May 2014 interview with The Des Moines Register, Ernst expressed her support for a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced federal budget, as well as a reduction in spending on entitlement programs and discretionary spending.[45] She has also expressed support for a partial privatization of Social Security accounts for young workers[24] while protecting Social Security for seniors and those nearing retirement.[74]

Environmental issues

On the subject of global warming, Ernst has stated: "I don’t know the science behind climate change, I can't say one way or another what is the direct impact from whether it's manmade or not", and believes that any regulatory role by the government to address it needs to be "very small."[45][75][76] Ernst has proposed eliminating the Environmental Protection Agency and criticized its interpretation of the Clean Water Act as applied to farms.[77] In a Republican primary debate in May 2014, Ernst said she would have voted against the 2014 U.S. Farm Bill and stated her view that the Clean Water Act is damaging for business.[24] Ernst has expressed her opposition to cap-and-trade.[45]

At a January 2014 GOP forum in Montgomery County, Iowa, Ernst warned that Agenda 21, a 1992 United Nations voluntary action plan for sustainable development, could force Iowa farmers off their land, dictate what cities Iowans must live in, and control how Iowa citizens travel from place to place.[78] During the general-election campaign, Ernst moderated her tone, saying: "I don’t think that the U.N. Agenda 21 is a threat to Iowa farmers... I think there are a lot of people that follow that issue in Iowa. It may be something that is very important to them, but I think Iowans are very smart and that we have a great legislature here, we have a very intelligent governor, and I think that we will protect Iowans."[78]

Foreign policy

Ernst speaking about foreign policy at a campaign appearance for U.S. Senator Marco Rubio in Des Moines, Iowa.

Regarding the Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction, Ernst stated: "We don't know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was the intelligence that was operated on. I have reason to believe there was weapons of mass destruction. My husband served in Saudi Arabia as an Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that's a hot-button topic in that area."[45] After criticism from Iowa Democrats and some commentators,[36][79][80] Ernst then issued a clarifying statement in which she stated that she did not mean to suggest that Iraq had WMD at the time of invasion, but rather that Iraq had had WMDs in their past which they used, and that her point was that "we don't know exactly what happened to those weapons."[81]

When asked whether she supports the limited airstrikes conducted in Iraq in August 2014, Ernst said: "What I can say is what I would have supported is leaving additional troops in Iraq longer and perhaps we wouldn't have this situation today."[82]

In an interview with Time Magazine, Ernst said that she was sexually harassed in the military, stating that “I had comments, passes, things like that” which she was able to stop, and said she will support removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command.[83]

Healthcare issues

Ernst indirectly endorsed Paul Ryan’s partially privatized Medicare model in a 2011 Iowa Senate vote. According to an August 2014 article in The Gazette, she has not laid out a detailed plan for Medicare reform.[84]

Ernst supports replacing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act saying that it is "an additional tax of $1.2 trillion on the American people over the next decade and I believe we need to eliminate Obamacare but replace it with free market alternatives."[45]

In answering a survey for the Campaign for Liberty in 2012, Ernst answered "Yes" when asked if she would support legislation that would "nullify ObamaCare and authorize state and local law enforcement to arrest federal officials attempting to implement [it]."[85][86][87]

Social issues

Ernst has said she believes marriage is a "state issue." She co-sponsored a failed bill to amend the Iowa constitution to have marriage legally defined as between one man and one woman.[24][88] She opposes same-sex marriage.[89]

Ernst is pro-life, believing that life begins at conception.[90] She voted for a fetal personhood amendment in the Iowa Senate in 2013 and has said that she would support a federal personhood bill.[91]

In 2013, Ernst voted against bringing Senate File 79 up for a vote in the Iowa Senate, a bill that would legalize medical marijuana. Ernst expressed concerns that the drug "would ultimately end up in the hands of minors."[92]

Roast and Ride event

Ernst speaking at the 2016 edition of the Roast and Ride.

While not a political candidate for the 2016 U.S. presidential election, on June 6, 2015, Ernst sponsored "Joni's 1st Annual Roast and Ride," an event which featured a motorcycle parade in which she rode a motorcycle. Ernst invited Republican presidential candidates to attend the event. According to coverage by the Des Moines Register, "Speaking to the media, Ernst indicated that it is critical for presidential candidates to engage in the type of retail politicking this and other Iowa events provide." Ernst said that "Iowans want to see their candidates. They want to reach out and shake their hands. They want to ask that question face to face. Grass roots is important. Family is important. Neighbors are important in Iowa. And they want someone that fits that mold and is able to connect with voters. Every candidate is going to have their reasons whether they participate or not, but they will get a better response if they do come to the Iowa Straw Poll." [93] The event was attended by Republican presidential candidates Carly Fiorina, Lindsey Graham, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker.[94]

Speculation about 2016 vice presidential candidacy

Ernst speaking at a campaign event in May 2016.

In May 2016, Ernst was placed on the Washington Post's short list as a possible vice presidential running mate for Donald Trump's 2016 campaign to become the 45th President of the United States.[95][96] Other media outlets included her as a possible benefit to Trump's campaign as well.[97][98][99] In 2015, when she was asked if she would become a nominee for Vice President, she demurred but did not decline. "Well, I think that's—that's nice," she said. "Did my mother pay you to say that?"[100][101] On June 16, Ernst said she believed Trump was interested in someone else as no one had "reached out" to her and that she was content with this.[102] The following month, on July 4, she and Trump met privately.[103] Governor Mike Pence of Indiana was later chosen for the job on July 15, 2016. [104]

Personal life

Ernst resides in Red Oak, Iowa with her husband, Gail, a retired Command Sergeant Major in the United States Army Rangers, and their daughter, Libby. Gail Ernst also has two daughters from a previous marriage.[6][17]

Ernst is a lifetime member of the Montgomery County Republican Women, Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2265, Montgomery County Court of Honor, Altrusa, PEO Chapter HB, a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and member of the Montgomery County Farm Bureau.[17] She is a member of the Mamrelund Lutheran Church (ELCA) of Stanton, Iowa.[9]

Electoral history

Iowa State Senate 12th District election, 2012
Party Candidate Votes % +%
Republican Joni Ernst 22,205 99.06%
Write-ins Write-ins 210 0.93%
U.S. Senate Republican Primary election in Iowa, 2014
Party Candidate Votes % +%
Republican Joni Ernst 88,535 56.12%
Republican Sam Clovis 28,418 18.01%
Republican Mark Jacobs 26,523 16.81%
Republican Matt Whitaker 11,884 7.53%
Republican Scott Schaben 2,233 1.42%
Republican Write-ins 155 0.10%
U.S. Senate election in Iowa, 2014
Party Candidate Votes % +%
Republican Joni Ernst 588,575 52.10%
Democratic Bruce Braley 494,370 43.76%
Independent Rick Stewart 26,815 2.37%
Libertarian Douglas Butzier 8,232 0.73%
Term Limits Bob Quast 5,873 0.52%
Independent Ruth Smith 4,724 0.42%
Write-ins Write-ins 1,111 0.10%


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  102. Noble, Jason (June 16, 2016). "Ernst: Trump 'must have his eyes set on somebody else' for VP". Des Moines Register.
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  104. "Donald Trump chooses Mike Pence for VP, undermining everything unique about his campaign". July 15, 2016. Retrieved July 15, 2016.
Party political offices
Preceded by
Christopher Reed
Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Iowa
(Class 2)

Most recent
United States Senate
Preceded by
Tom Harkin
U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Iowa
Served alongside: Chuck Grassley
United States order of precedence (ceremonial)
Preceded by
Thom Tillis
United States Senators by seniority
Succeeded by
Ben Sasse
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