Electing Ernst will mark change for Iowa


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Joni Ernst’s arrival in Washington, D.C., brings about a few firsts, but it will also bring back an oft-familiar scene from Iowa’s past: For the first time in 30 years, Iowa will be represented by two Republicans in the U.S. Senate.

For the past three decades, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin have served the state in Congress, helping to pass major legislation while they’ve “agreed to disagree.” While the election of Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, would have maintained Iowa’s bipartisan representation in the Senate, some say the reintroduction of two Republican senators better reflects the direction the state has been heading for some time.

“Ten years ago, I would have said yes, Iowa is happier [with bipartisan senators],” said John Grummel, an associate professor of political science at Upper Iowa University. “Now you’re seeing more of a libertarian bent in the state.”

Sen.-elect Ernst will replace Harkin, who is retiring after 40 years of service. Ernst ran on the campaign of representing “Iowa values” as well as lobbying for the removal of government in public affairs such as education and health care.

“[Harkin and Grassley] had a good working relationship, which created a balance between the two,” said Carl Tobias, a political science professor at the University of Richmond. “From what Ernst has said, she’s relatively conservative. That might offset the balance, but we’ll have to wait and see in the future.”

Although the impending situation has been unfamiliar for quite some time, before Harkin’s arrival, it was a common occurrence in Iowa.

Democrats held Iowa’s Senate seats for much of the 1970s — Harold Hughes, then John Culver, and Dick Clark (through 1978).  Republican Roger Jepsen entered the Senate in January 1979, Grassley was elected in 1980, and the two Republicans served together through 1984.

During their time in Senate together, Jepsen and Grassley lobbied for then-President Reagan to drop the agricultural ban on the Soviet Union.

“It’s been 30 years, but that was pretty common for Iowa,” said political analyst Jeff Stein, who was a former chairman of the Iowa Historical Society. “Iowa went from having two of the most liberal Democrats in the Senate to two of the most conservative.”

And while Ernst’s and Harkin’s viewpoints may be different, their paths may merge when it comes to Senate committees. Harkin has chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Stein expects Ernst could also serve on that committee, given her background.

“What committee Ernst ends up depends on who wants to leave, either for a chair position or another position,” he said. “They don’t get to choose, but she has an agriculture background and a military background, so she may list those as preferences.”

Grassley is slated to become the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

However, Nicole Mellow, an associate professor of political science at William College, noted the phenomenon known as cross pressures, in which senators have to learn the balancing act of voting to please their party as well as the state they are representing.

She said the pressure could build even more against the two Iowa senators because they fall within the majority.

“Cross pressures has gotten more intense as partisanship has increased with senators,” Mellow said. “But there is safety in numbers. If two senators act in tandem with each other, it supports the idea Iowa is more Republican than the past. But, it might become complicated if Ernst acts on something Iowans don’t agree on.”

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