Why Even Democrats Love Talking About Joni Ernst

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 2, 2015 · 10:59 AM EST

Republicans and Democrats can’t agree on much of anything these days, but strategists on both sides of the aisle love to talk about Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s victory.

Two years ago, Ernst was a little-known GOP state senator from Southwest Iowa. She entered the national spotlight with a memorable television ad about castrating pigs and eventually won the seat held by retiring Democrat Tom Harkin. Ernst continued her ascent by giving the Republicans’ State of the Union response, and she is poised to play a key role in the GOP presidential primary through the Iowa caucuses.

But even as the 2016 cycle is just getting started, Republican and Democratic strategists are using Ernst to make their case for long-shot candidacies in states across the country.

The sentence usually begins with, “Well, if Ernst can win in Iowa….” followed by a candidate with low name identification, as if they have an equal chance and path to victory as Ernst.

For example, Democrats aren’t clearing the field in Ohio for 30-year-old Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld. But if he turns out to be their nominee, they are prepared to make the Ernst argument.

But Ernst’s path isn’t easily replicated.

She surprised most observers by winning the GOP nomination with over 35 percent in the primary to avoid a potentially messy convention. But while she started the race with low name identification, Ernst also faced a field of second- and third-tier candidates. She was endorsed by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among others, and had considerable help behind the scenes from popular GOP Gov. Terry Branstad’s operation.

In the general election, Ernst turned out to be a good candidate who benefited from Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley’s self-inflicted wounds to win an open seat in a strong cycle for Republicans. Ernst also benefited from being a credible female candidate that GOP strategists could introduce to donors around the country looking for fresh faces in the party. Oregon Republican Monica Wehby didn’t meet the same standard.

Winning an open seat in a favorable environment is far different than defeating a well-financed and experienced incumbent in a cycle that is likely to be more neutral, which would be Sittenfeld’s mission.

Of course that doesn’t mean Sittenfeld, or some other long-shot candidate, can’t or won’t win in 2016. But that path is less common. The incoming Senate class includes seven House members, one former governor, one wealthy businessman, a state speaker, a former state official, a former university president and Ernst.

Democrats certainly weren’t rooting for Ernst to win in 2014, but they will have no problem using her victory to their advantage if it means convincing a candidate to get into a race or convincing the media that a candidate is viable.