A ballsy campaign ad put Joni Ernst on the map. It may be all she’s remembered for.

Kate Snyder/Little Village

Six years ago, a little-known state senator introduced herself to Iowans statewide with the words, “I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm.”

The “Make ’em Squeal” ad helped plant an image of Ernst in the public’s mind as a plain-speaking farm girl who wanted to bring Iowa common sense to Washington D.C. Various versions of the phrase “make ’em squeal” have served as Ernst’s mantra ever since.

Todd Harris, a D.C.-based political strategist, told a reporter in 2014 the ad worked because Ernst was “so authentic in it.” Authentic was an interesting word for Harris to use, since the ad was his idea, not Ernst’s.

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“Castrating hogs is one of those jobs nobody wants to do, but it has to be done, and it’s disgusting,” Ernst writes in her memoir, Daughter of the Heartland.

Ernst was only 10 years old when Dick Culver took his two daughters, Joni and Julie, into the barn on the family farm to introduce them to a new chore.

After castrating a pig to show them the right technique, he handed the scalpel to Joni. Castrating pigs became another part of farm life for young Joni Culver.

“It was a family affair involving Dad, Mom, Julie, and me.”

Following standard practice, the testicles weren’t wasted. “Smaller or damaged” ones were tossed to the pigs to eat. The family cooked the rest.

“We had a bucket and we’d save the decent-sized testicles for frying,” Ernst recalled. She says she never liked “mountain oysters,” calling them “dense and chewy.”

According to Daughter of the Heartland, which was published in May, learning to castrate pigs isn’t one of Ernst’s happier memories of growing up on a farm in southwestern Iowa.

“I’ll never forget the slimy feel of the testicles as I reached in and yanked them out,” Ernst writes. “And most of all, I’ll never forget the squeals.”

In case that allusion was too subtle for anyone, Ernst adds immediately, “I’d later use this experience in my run for the Senate. It was the core message of my 2014 Make ’em Squeal campaign.”

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“We were working on a stump speech and asked about how she grew up,” Todd Harris told the Guardian in 2014. “She mentioned this and that, castrating hogs, and this and that, like it was no big thing.”

To Harris it was.

In her memoir, Ernst calls Harris “a veteran Republican strategist” hired “to help me hone my message.” That hardly does Harris justice.

By the time he joined Ernst’s campaign, Harris already had a national reputation as a political strategist and had worked for a number of top-tier Republicans, including John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jeb Bush. He was particularly in-demand following the 2010 elections, in which Harris guided then-former member of the Florida House of Representatives Marco Rubio to a victory in his U.S. Senate race.

Harris is from San Francisco, so pig castration wasn’t part of an unpleasant adolescent memory for him. It was a novelty.

“‘That’s incredible,’ Todd said, and went home that night to search for a YouTube video of pig castration,” Ernst recalls in her book.

In both Ernst’s and Harris’s recounting of the story, it was Harris who came up with the idea of using pig castration in the commercial that defined Ernst’s Senate campaign. Both make it clear Ernst was reluctant, and Harris had to talk her into it.

“The campaign didn’t have a lot of money so we knew we had to take some risks,” Harris told the Guardian. “We wanted to test the line so she used it as a one-liner in a debate. It worked. It really killed. So we knew it was funny.”

Harris’s 2014 description of the campaign suggests Ernst really was the sort of “scrappy underdog” Ernst portrayed herself as. This wasn’t accurate.

By the time the infamous ad debuted, Ernst already had the backing of the Koch brothers’ funding network.

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Joni Ernst declared her candidacy in July 2013, standing on the steps of the courthouse in Montgomery County, where she grew up and where she started her political career nine years earlier when she was elected auditor. In August 2013, Ernst was at an exclusive resort in New Mexico as a special guest at a meeting of the fundraising network assembled by Charles and David Koch.

That Ernst had some backing from the Koch brother was known in a general way during the 2014 campaign. But it wasn’t until Politico published an in-depth story in November 2015 — “How the Kochs launched Joni Ernst” — that the extent of “the secretive role played by the Kochs’ donors and operatives in boosting Ernst” became public knowledge.

According to Politico, “In the Ernst race, the Koch support included hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of television ads funded by undisclosed donors and tens of thousands of dollars in direct campaign contributions.”

Ernst was invited to the August 2013 meeting because as a state senator, she had “been watched closely by allies of the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who saw in her an advocate for their brand of free-market, libertarian-infused conservatism.”

Joni Ernst campaigning with Sen. Rand Paul in Iowa City during the 2014 campaign season. — Adam Burke/Little Village

Ernst told journalist Ken Vogel she didn’t know how she came to the attention of the Koch brothers and their network. Daughter of the Heartland is no help either when it comes to Ernst’s relationship with the Kochs; there’s only one reference to the brothers in the book. It comes when Ernst is describing her first debate with Rep. Bruce Braley, the 2014 Democratic candidate for Senate.

“He thought he could spew the usual boilerplate about right-wing tools of the one percent, but I didn’t let him get away with it. When he would up with an assault on the Koch brothers’ funders, I came right back at him. ‘Congressman Braley, you’re not running against those other people, you’re running against me.’”

That’s as close as Ernst gets to acknowledging the support of the Kochs in her book.

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The National Rifle Association isn’t mentioned at all in Ernst’s memoir. That seems unfair considering how much money the NRA has put on Ernst.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, through both independent expenditures and direct contributions, the NRA spent $3.1 million on Ernst’s behalf in the 2014 election.

The money has continued to flow since Ernst has been in office. She’s one of the top 10 recipients of NRA funding in the U.S. Senate.

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It’s not clear from Daughter of the Heartland why Joni Ernst decided to run for the U.S. Senate. According to Ernst, other people started encouraging her to do it as soon as Sen. Tom Harkin announced in January 2013 that he wouldn’t seek reelection. But she resisted the idea at first.

“[W]hat was really stopping me was the belief that this opportunity belonged to Kim Reynolds, if she wanted it,” Ernst writes. “I knew she was considering a run.”

But Reynolds, then lieutenant governor under Gov. Terry Branstad, eventually told Ernst she wasn’t interested in the Senate seat. Ernst says Reynolds then encouraged her to run.

In the “Make ’em Squeal” ad, Ernst listed three things she would do if elected: “cut wasteful spending, repeal Obamacare and balance the budget.”

Two of those things — repealing Obamacare and balancing the budget — didn’t happen, and Ernst’s record on the third is meager.

Audience members reacts to Senator Joni Ernst’s remarks during a town hall at the Iowa Memorial Union. Friday, September 22, 2017. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

When asked for an example of how she has cut “wasteful spending,” Ernst usually points to a bill she called “The Squeal Act.” Introduced in October 2017, it repeals a $3,000 tax credit given to members of Congress to help with cost of living, as they divide their time between Washington D.C. and their home states.

That savings amounts to an infinitesimally small fraction of 1 percent of the federal budget deficit, which has grown rapidly during the Trump years, thanks to policies Ernst supported. In fiscal year 2014, the federal budget deficit was $483 billion. For FY 2020, it’s projected to be $3.7 trillion.

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One of the reasons the “Make ’em Squeal” ad still looms so large is because over the last six years, there’s been no signature accomplishment by Ernst to overshadow it.

Ernst had every opportunity to create a memorable first term. She was the first woman Iowans ever elected to federal office, and Republicans began to promote her as one of the party’s new stars as soon as she arrived in Washington.

Ernst was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2015. Seventeen days later, she was on national television, delivering the official Republican Party response to President Obama’s State of the Union Address.

Ernst’s performance did little to elevate her national profile, but her star within the Republican Party continued to rise.

In 2018, she was elected vice chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, becoming the first woman to hold a leadership role in the conference since 2009. (And yes, the Senate Republican Conference calls her “vice chairman.”) That same year, Ernst and Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee became the first Republican women ever selected to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

So what has Ernst done with all this power? The short answer is she’s done whatever Chuck Grassley’s done.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, President Trump and Sen. Joni Ernst pose for a photo after the 2020 State of the Union address. — via Joni Ernst on Twitter

Ernst has voted in lockstep with Sen. Grassley since she arrived in Washington. And both have been loyal supporters of Donald Trump, voting with him on every major issue and approving all his nominees for federal office, including a record-setting number of judicial nominees rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association.

Despite that voting record, Ernst claims in her memoir that she asserts her independence when it is important to do so.

“I speak out when leadership is necessary, even when that means bucking my party and the Trump administration,” Ernst writes. “I opposed the administration’s all-out ban on transgender people serving in the military because I felt that as long as you were able to serve and wanted to serve, you should be allowed to serve.”

Ernst did publicly state she disagreed with the policy. But she didn’t back her words with actions, even though as a senator, she had ample opportunity and the power needed to pressure the Trump administration to reverse its policy.

During a town hall in October 2019, Iowa resident Amy Haskins asks Sen. Joni Ernst: “Where is the line?” when it comes to standing up to Trump. Ernst responds, “The president is going to say what the president if going to do… I can’t speak for him.” — CSPAN/video still

Following Grassley’s lead, voting the party line and loyally supporting Trump may impress Ernst’s Republican colleagues in the Senate, but it isn’t helping her with voters, according to the latest Iowa Poll.

The poll published by the Des Moines Register last month reported that 56 percent of respondents believe Ernst hasn’t done enough to help Iowa. That poll, like the Iowa Poll conducted in June, found Ernst to be trailing her Democratic challenger Theresa Greenfield.

But Ernst’s biggest problem isn’t that Iowans don’t think she’s done enough, according to the poll. It’s that Iowa’s first woman senator doesn’t have the support of Iowa women.

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Exit polls in 2014 showed Ernst lost the women’s vote by 7 percentage points. According to the Iowa Poll, women favor Greenfield over Ernst by 20 percentage points. It’s a grim sign for Ernst, since women cast more votes in Iowa than men do.

That doesn’t mean Ernst will lose; Iowans typically reelect incumbents. But things have changed since 2014.

Theresa Greenfield (left) and Sen. Joni Ernst, 2020 Senate candidates. (Background image: Shubert Ciencia/Flickr) — Jordan Sellergren/Little Village

While Braley ran a bad campaign, Greenfield has proven to be a capable candidate. She’s a solidly centrist liberal, in the mold of Abby Finkenauer and Cindy Axne, both of whom defeated Republican incumbents in 2018 to become the first women Iowa sent to the U.S. House of Representatives.

2014 was a midterm election, with a relatively low turnout. This year, Trump is on the ballot. 2020 may be a wave election, and the tide is running in the Democrats’ direction.

“Politics had never been much on my radar growing up,” Ernst writes in her memoir. And in the end, it may not be her politics, but the fact she “grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm” that people remember most about Joni Ernst.

Paul Brennan is news director for Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 287.

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