Iowa’s Joni Ernst: The Todd Akin of 2014?

With talk of impeachment and nullification, the GOP Senate candidate is causing problems for her party

Published July 30, 2014 1:21PM (EDT)

Joni Ernst                          (AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Joni Ernst (AP/Charlie Neibergall)

There probably won’t be an actual “Todd Akin of 2014,” as in someone who goes on about a topic like “legitimate rape” and repels women across party lines in all 50 states. The GOP is tutoring its officeholders and candidates: Don’t talk about rape, and try not to discuss women’s body parts generally. Women vote, a lot, and they don’t like that stuff.

So it’s fitting, in a way, that in the cleaned up GOP of 2014, a woman might play Akin’s role, as the candidate who blurts out the things that mainstream, bound for Washington candidates shouldn’t say. Iowa GOP Senate candidate Joni Ernst, fan of hog castration, nullification and impeachment, keeps showing that her reputation for frank talk might not entirely be a selling point. And she could be the Todd Akin of 2014: the not-ready-for-prime-time candidate who endangers her party’s shot at taking back the Senate.

Sure, the hog-castrating ad made Ernst famous, but in hindsight it might have betrayed a penchant for the memorable quip that won’t entertain everyone in the same way. Earlier this month Ernst got in trouble for suggesting she’d support impeaching President Obama when she got to the Senate – just as House Speaker John Boehner and the erstwhile GOP establishment were starting to spread the word that impeachment wasn’t among the party’s 2014 talking points. In fact, it would likely cost the GOP support in a midterm year it’s expected to win congressional seats.

So Ernst walked it back: “To be clear, I have not seen any evidence that the president should be impeached,” she said in a statement.

On Monday she got caught talking up “nullification,” back in 2013, to Iowa’s conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.

 You know we have talked about this at the state legislature before, nullification. But, bottom line is, as U.S. Senator why should we be passing laws that the states are considering nullifying? Bottom line: our legislators at the federal level should not be passing those laws. We’re right…we’ve gone 200-plus years of federal legislators going against the Tenth Amendment’s states’ rights. We are way overstepping bounds as federal legislators. So, bottom line, no we should not be passing laws as federal legislators—as senators or congressman—that the states would even consider nullifying. Bottom line.

Bottom line: States can’t nullify federal laws. It's unconstitutional.

The notion of “nullification,” most famously advanced before the Civil War by Southern leaders who insisted federal law couldn’t ban slavery if states wanted it legal, got new attention after Obama’s election. “States seek to nullify Obama efforts,” Politico reported last year, as Republican legislators attempting to block Obamacare or gun regulations began sounding like John C. Calhoun. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric was loudest in states like South Carolina, Georgia and Texas.

To be fair, though, some conservatives urged their colleagues to knock it off – not because of the unfortunate echo of pro-slavery arguments, but because nullification is unconstitutional.

“There are a rising number of people who are frustrated with what Washington is doing, which is a perfectly legitimate and, in my opinion, correct view of ‘how do we push back?’” the Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding told Politico. “Unfortunately, there’s a minority in that group that thinks nullification is the answer, by which they mean good old-fashioned, South Carolina, John C. Calhoun nullification. That’s deeply mistaken and unfortunate.”

Even in South Carolina, some Republicans agreed with Spalding. “The conversation really has gotten off the rails a little bit,” state Sen. Tom Davis said, defending his bill that would gut Obamacare. “Everybody talks about nullification. This isn’t nullification. We can’t nullify.”

Heritage didn’t get to Joni Ernst in time. The Huffington Post reports she has sponsored several bills to “nullify” Obama actions in the Iowa Legislature. Ernst has also come out against a federal minimum wage – that’s another bugaboo for nullification fans – insisting the current minimum wage of $7.25 is “appropriate for Iowa.”

I debated Republican strategist John Brabender on "Hardball" Tuesday night, who argued that Ernst was merely trying to say that Washington had become too powerful. In a way that argument makes Ernst look worse, since Brabender, multiple times, used clear language to make the small government case that didn’t rely on odd words like “nullification.” Why would someone choose a word that arcane if they didn’t believe it had a useful political meaning?

I can’t answer that question, and Ernst isn’t answering it either: Her team is blaming the flap on her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley.

It’s always been hard to imagine Ernst occupying the Senate seat Tom Harkin has held for 30 years. It may have just gotten harder to imagine. Iowa isn’t South Carolina: It voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. Ernst's views on nullification and impeachment, along with women’s rights – she supports a personhood amendment to the state’s constitution – put her far to the right.  Two-thirds of Iowans support an increase in the federal minimum wage, which she opposes.

You can see why Ernst won a GOP primary. It’s less easy to see voters beyond the far-right base sending her to Washington. If 2014 really is an anti-Democrat “wave” election, it could happen. But I wouldn’t put Iowa in the red column just yet.

By Joan Walsh

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2014 Elections Bruce Braley Impeachment Iowa Joni Ernst Minimum Wage Nullification Sen. Tom Harkin Todd Akin