Joni Ernst was lagging behind in the race for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in Iowa. She was a relative unknown in a crowded field. Then she started talking about castrating hogs.
Ernst spent just $9,000 to air her first television ad, but her testimonial — "I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm" — and her promise to apply those pork-cutting skills to "make 'em squeal" in Washington transformed her candidacy.
At a time when voters tune out many political messages, the ad was a vivid reminder of the enduring power of a single image. In the first three days, her 30-second spot was viewed 400,000 times on YouTube and became the talk of cable news, catapulting the state senator from rural Red Oak into the top tier.
Ernst, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard who says she carries a pistol in her purse, followed up last week with her second ad, in which she steps off her Harley-Davidson and, wearing a black leather jacket, fires multiple shots with expert precision at a shooting-range target. The narrator says she's aiming for President Obama's health-care law.
"It is very edgy. I will admit that," Ernst said in an interview last week.
With three weeks before the June 3 primary, polls show Ernst gaining on Mark Jacobs, a retired Reliant Energy chief executive and the early favorite to win the nomination.
Not long ago, the seat being vacated by the retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat, appeared likely to stay in Democratic hands. But national Republicans have grown bullish about adding Iowa to the long list of Democratic-held Senate seats they could pick up in November.
With Ernst's newfound stature comes growing scrutiny. After she told the Des Moines Register that she has "reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Iowa Democrats pounced with a statement saying that her "denial of the facts is very troubling."
The hog ad came about almost by accident. Last year, when Ernst sat down with her advisers to develop a stump speech, she mentioned almost as an aside that one of her chores growing up on the family's farm was castrating hogs. This startled her media consultant, Todd Harris.
"Todd even mentioned: 'I had to go onto YouTube and see how that was done,' '' Ernst recalled.
That fall at a debate, Ernst tested a one-liner about castrating hogs. The crowd lit up.
"I'm amazed by how many people know who I am from that ad," Ernst said. "They'll say, 'You're Joni — and I used to do that when I was a kid, too.' ''