Tilly: The Palinification of Joni Ernst

BY ZACH TILLY | MAY 09, 2014 5:00 AM

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Joni Ernst is no stranger to hogs, and she wants you to know it.

On the heels of the zeitgeist-wheelie-ing March ad that featured the Republican Senate candidate bragging about her hog-castrating past, Ernst has again captured national attention with an ad in which she shows off her bad-ass bona fides.

Here’s a rough sketch of the action: A leather clad rider on a patriot-swagged Harley rolls into the frame. A woman unclips her helmet, her name? Conservative. Joni. Ernst. She confidently strides through a gun shop and into a firing range with a strut not unlike Tom Cruise’s on the flight deck in Top Gun. She squeezes off a few rounds into the heart of wasteful spending. Mother. Fudging. Bulls-eye.

Ernst’s ads don’t leave much room for subtext, as you might imagine, but their unabashed campiness has propelled her to national prominence and established her identity as a hog-cutting, gun-toting, no-nonsense politician. Sarah Palin 2.0 with a side of combat experience, the platonic ideal of a conservative firebrand, the limits of that genre pushed to the brink of absurdity by the on-the-noseness of Ernst’s ads.

The Palinification of Joni Ernst is hardly accidental — Sarah Palin herself descended upon Iowa at the end of April to put her personal stamp of approval on Ernst, now an honorary member of the clan of the “momma grizzly.” Fortunately for Ernst, the tactic seems to have worked.

Despite having been outspent by Mark Jacobs by a 10-1 margin to this point in the race for the GOP nomination, recent polls now show the two candidates running neck-and-neck. By virtue of her eyebrow-raising ads and her ascension into the national conversation, however, Ernst has become the first candidate to break into the mainstream consciousness.

Despite her newfound popularity, some do have questions about the relative purity of Ernst’s conservatism. The “Issues” page on her website reads like the liner notes of Barry Goldwater’s Greatest Hits, but back in the day, Ernst was a proponent of that most anathematic of policy measures: a tax increase. Ernst has since backed away from the policy in question — and increase in the state gas tax favored by much of the state’s Republican establishment — but the precedent exists nonetheless. She also voted for a tax on goods bought on the Internet.

In other words, Ernst’s record is more moderate than her new persona suggests.

And so what we have is a postmodern interpretation of a political candidate: a double-coded message on a Harley. On the surface, Ernst is a sterling, unquestionable conservative, but she’s also got a degree of plausible deniability saved up for later.

So until June, she can deride Bruce Braley for his so-called love of Obamacare and agitate for the repeal of the health reform, then point to her own vote to modify the law in the Iowa Legislature later as evidence that she doesn’t want to take the country backward.

Her personal branding scheme — ridiculous as it is — has worked remarkably; she’s become the first candidate to emerge from the muck of anonymity. Her efforts may just win her the nomination in June.

The question is whether she’ll be able to separate herself from her new gun-toting, hog-castrating persona in order to make herself palatable for mass consumption in November.

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