Joni Ernst's extremist history: Iowa's GOP Senate candidate supported prison for Obamacare officials

Ernst said she'd back a crazy bill to nullify the ACA and jail bureaucrats. So why are we talking about chickens?

Published October 6, 2014 2:31PM (EDT)

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

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst is an interesting person with an unlikely political success story. She was foundering badly in the race for Iowa’s open Senate seat, the story goes, until she released an ad boasting of her experience castrating hogs. “Washington’s full of big spenders,” Ernst says to the camera, “let’s make ‘em squeal.” Through bizarre political alchemy and overwhelming metaphorical significance, her personal story of cutting the balls off pigs propelled her to the GOP nomination. Removing testicles from still-living animals became central to her political identity, as reflected in headlines like this one from ABC News: “Hog-Castrating, Harley Davidson-Riding Joni Ernst Wins Iowa Senate Primary.”

Now she’s leading Democrat Bruce Braley in a race for a seat vacated by a Democrat in a state that voted twice for Barack Obama. And that’s fairly impressive when you consider that there’s a large and growing body of evidence that Joni Ernst is an around-the-bend extremist.

Let’s back up a moment and head back to July, when the Daily Beast published an “exclusive” video of Ernst at a 2013 political forum in which she appeared to endorse the theory of nullification, which argues that states can pass laws saying that federal laws don’t apply to them. It’s a theory that was pretty popular with antebellum slaveholders and Jim Crow segregationists, which should be enough of a pedigree to keep any reasonable person away. Conservatives were quick to point out, though, that Ernst’s wording was ambiguous and didn’t really rise to the level of embracing nullification. The Ernst campaign, for its part, issued an unequivocal denial: “Joni has not and does not endorse or support nullification.”

Well, turns out that’s not quite the case. TPM’s Daniel Strauss dug up a candidate questionnaire Ernst filled out in 2012 in which she indicated that she would support “legislation to nullify ObamaCare and authorize state and local law enforcement to arrest federal officials attempting to implement” the healthcare reform law.

Set aside for a moment the endorsement of nullification, which the Ernst campaign said she’d never done. Let’s focus on the part about arresting government employees, which is more than a little disturbing.

Jailing bureaucrats for doing nothing more than implementing laws you don’t like is the sort of thing that’s typically reserved for coups and armed insurrections. As such, the federal government tends to frown upon such behavior. It has been, however, a distressingly common phenomenon in conservative states during the Obama era. Kansas passed a law last year asserting that federal gun regulations did not apply to guns made in the state, and made any attempt to enforce those federal regulations a felony. The Justice Department wrote a letter to Gov. Sam Brownback explaining that Kansas can’t actually do that because it’s wildly unconstitutional.

And you’re talking about ARRESTING FEDERAL OFFICIALS FOR DOING THEIR JOBS. You’re putting federal workers in the position of having to choose between their jobs and the law. That’s an indefensible position for a lawmaker to take, and Ernst should be made to explain why she felt federal workers tasked with expanding access to health coverage for Iowans should be thrown behind bars.

This revelation about Ernst is just the latest in a months-long unraveling of Ernst’s carefully crafted political persona. Slate’s Jamelle Bouie had a good rundown of most of what we’ve learned thus far:

Among other stances, Ernst has endorsed impeachment for President Obama, expressed the belief that states could nullify federal laws, and supported “personhood” anti-abortion laws that would outlaw most forms of contraception. In addition, she’s slammed Medicaid recipients for not taking “personal responsibility for their health”—even though recipients have to apply for coverage—and talked extensively about “Agenda 21,” a decades-old U.N. recommendation for environmental sustainability that forms the basis for conspiracy-mongering on the far right.

Even among staunch conservatives, things like outlawing contraception and UN conspiracy theories are considered pretty fringey. And as Greg Sargent pointed out, Ernst is busily trying to conceal her support for “personhood” laws and recast it as simply an expression of garden-variety Republican “pro-life” views.

That’s a lot of crazy! And yet, when you take stock of the Iowa Senate race, the issue that most people seem to talk about is… chickens. Specifically, a ridiculous story about Bruce Braley “threaten[ing] to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto your property,” as Ernst put it in a September 28 debate. The most important thing to know about the story is that it isn’t true. “There is no material evidence that Braley threatened a lawsuit against the neighbor or was even considering one,” Politifact wrote. “Even the neighbor says that.” And yet, it’s been the focus of local and national political media, which have cast the entire race as revolving around the chicken lawsuit.

I’m not from Iowa, nor have I ever been, so I can’t speak to whether Iowa voters care more about one candidate’s threat of a lawsuit over chickens, or the other candidate’s support for unconstitutional legislation that would throw federal healthcare officials in prison. But what I do know is that only one of those things actually happened, so it should probably get a bit more attention than the other.

By Simon Maloy

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