Iowa Sen. Ernst juggles busy schedule with Senate work

Missed 71 of 95 votes tallied in the chamber since Feb. 24 on excused absences

DES MOINES – Republican Joni Ernst, a state senator and Iowa National Guard officer seeking Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat in the June GOP primary, has been missing in action the past week or so in the Iowa Senate, taking excused absences on 71 of 95 votes tallied in the chamber since Feb. 24.

Ernst, a member of a GOP minority outnumber by Democrats 26-24, cast 24 votes on Tuesday of last week, all but two on the prevailing side that included measures designed to toughen state laws dealing with the kidnapping of minors and civil commitment for sexual predators.

However, she was excused on four days over the past two weeks when state senators debated a number of measures dealing with human trafficking, elder abuse, radon testing in schools, restraining pregnant inmates in shackles and dozens of other issues.

Ernst, a Red Oak Republican who scored the endorsement of 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Wednesday, was unavailable for comment, but her campaign spokesman Derek Flowers issued a statement saying she has been and continues to be a local and state leader along with serving as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard.

“With that comes wearing many hats and Joni holds her duties to each constituency in the highest regard,” Flowers said. “In recent weeks, Joni has continued to fulfill obligations to the Iowa Senate, the Iowa National Guard, and her family while she runs an aggressive campaign for US Senate. Joni has been in constant communication with Senate leadership and her constituents about her schedule and remains committed to taking care of all of her duties.”

How missing votes at the Statehouse will play in the primary campaign will depend on how her opponents “spin it,” said Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt.

“I’m not sure if primary voters are going to punish her for that or if they’re going to say who’s the best candidate here and decide it that way,” Schmidt said. “You don’t want to give your opponents more ammunition. They’re going to be looking for things to throw at you anyway, and this is just one thing that they can use to say that she doesn’t take her job seriously and how good of a senator would she be.”

Schmidt said the excused absences are a “blip” that has come up from time to time in political races, but added “I’m not aware that it was the best blow in any race that I can remember.”

Drake University political science professor Dennis Goldford said elected officials often hold one position while seeking another that pose conflicts from time to time – noting that Arizona Sen. John McCain and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama did so while running for president. He said Ernst’s voting record likely won’t hurt her in a statewide race but the question would be whether the residents of Senate District 12 in southwest Iowa who sent her to Des Moines to represent them are “a little miffed” by her absences.

Senate Republican Leader Bill Dix of Shell Rock said Ernst is in communication with Senate GOP leadership every day.

“She is keeping informed on the issues being discussed in committee and on the Senate floor,” Dix said. “Sen. Ernst has always worked to represent her constituents, and that has not changed this Legislative session."

Tim Hagle, associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa, said he expected it would be more of an issue that would be raise by Democrats if she emerges as the winner of a five- or six-way GOP primary for the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by the retirement of Cumming Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin.

“Once you get to the general election, that’s when the opposition starts complaining that you forsook your duties in the Legislature. What are you going to do in the Senate? How many votes are you going to miss when you’re out campaigning?” Hagle said. “The fact that it happens to both parties is of no relevance when you’re trying to use it against your opponent.

“It’s a tough thing for out-state legislators when they are trying to run for another office because Iowa has its legislative session in the winter-spring,” he added. “They’re caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s hard to get out there, especially if they have a primary challenge, to get out there and do an adequate amount of campaigning and fundraising and still fulfill their duties in the state Legislature. It makes it really, really hard.”Comments: (515) 243-7220;