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After surviving State of the Union test, Ernst can determine how high her star rises

Analysis: What is the state of Joni Ernst's political future?

U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) is ceremonially sworn-in by Vice President Joseph Biden (not pictured) in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington January 6, 2015.     REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) is ceremonially sworn-in by Vice President Joseph Biden (not pictured) in the Old Senate Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington January 6, 2015. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

DES MOINES — It may be too soon to know whether Joni Ernst is s rising star or a shooting star, but it’s clear that the freshman senator from Iowa has been a bright light on the political sky.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen either yet,” Drake University political scientist Dennis Goldford said the morning after Ernst delivered the GOP response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech.

On the other hand, Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who served with Ernst in the Iowa Legislature, has no “we’re looking at a rising star.”

The proof, he said, is in Ernst’s upset victory in the November midterm election and the meteoric rise in her national media profile — both due, in part, to her provocative “make ’em squeal” television ad in which Ernst talked about castrating hogs.

She’s a “unique voice in the party and provides a great face for the party to communicate its message,” added Iowa GOP fundraiser Nick Ryan.

However, Goldford cautioned that being selected to deliver the SOTU has proved to be a nova for some rising stars.

“Remember Cathy Who?” Goldford asked about Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Washington Republican who delivered the 2014 SOTU response.

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Dianne Bystrom of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, who sees Ernst as a rising star, said that by delivering a gaffe-free SOTU response she survived what “can be the death knell for newbies.”

Sixth-term Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley agreed that SOTU responses often are remembered more for mistakes — “like taking a drink of water in the middle of the speech” — than for their message.

“Thank God (Ernst) didn’t make those because if she had it would have detracted from her words and her words were right on, perfect,” he said.

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle was concentrating on Ernst’s delivery, but thought she had a few good line.

“I’m not sure there will be things mentioned on the Sunday talk shows,” he said. “There rarely is for the responses — unless there’s a mistake of some sort or it really doesn’t go over well.”

“Bread bags are the new water bottles” was the only thing Iowa Democratic campaign strategist Norm Sterzenbach of Groundswell Public Strategies took away from the speech — other than Ernst’s “robotic-like demeanor.”

“It was not a good performance. She was stiff and emotionless,” he said. “The only thing of substance in this speech was on Keystone, which shows (Republicans) have no interest in working with the president.”

Chris Larimer, a University of Northern Iowa political scientist called the speech “scripted, but well delivered.”

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“It was an optimistic speech,” he said, “short on details about how to fix Washington, and why Washington was now working, with campaign rhetoric sprinkled throughout.”

One speech does not a career make, Goldford said. The Republican successor to five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin certainly has become a celebrity in Iowa, at least in her party, “but I don’t know that Republicans around the country think she has a star quality.”

If her name was John Ernst instead of Joni she wouldn’t have been picked to deliver the GOP response, Goldford said.

However, Bystrom thinks being the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate may have been more of a factor than her gender.

“She could talk authentically about foreign policy,” Bystrom said. “Being a woman was a double bonus.”

Rhetorically, she added, a GOP woman delivering the SOTU response may have sent a “subtle gender message” in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton presidential candidacy.

If being female and a combat veteran wasn’t enough for GOP leaders to draft Ernst, Hagle pointed out she won a Senate race that Democrats expected to hold “not to mention that, as I recall, when her race was called it was the one that put Republicans over the top in terms of getting a majority.”

He doubts presidential politics and Iowa’s first-in-the-nation precinct caucuses influenced her selection “but still…”

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If Ernst wants her starring role to continue and to win re-election in six years, her best course of action would be to “fade into the background and go about committee work quietly, but effectively,” Goldford advised.

“She doesn’t want to become — and I don’t think it’s in her personality — a female Ted Cruz (who) forces himself into everyone’s consciousness,” he said. “That would be the worst thing for her.”

Grassley expects Ernst to play an important role for Republicans because the party, which has six female senators, need more female leaders.

She also has a “commanding personality” backed up by her experience as a commander in the Iowa National Guard, he said.

“So she’s been a leader in a previous life and that is going to be natural for her to lead in Iowa,” Grassley said.

Ryan expects Ernst to “remain very visible in the future as part of the national messaging strategy for Republicans.”

Bystrom, however, thinks Ernst’s speech may “help her trajectory more than GOP’s.” If she avoids any major miscues or scandals, Bystrom speculated Ernst will be well-positioned for re-election in 2020.

Noting that Ernst won the first open seat Senate race in Iowa in 40 years, Cory Crowley, a political strategist with offices in Cedar Rapids and Washington, said she may “quickly become an institution” in Iowa politics.

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“Iowa’s not big on kicking out incumbents,” he said. “If she keeps on this path that she’s on, she’ll probably be in there as long as she wants to be.”

“Iowans really like our incumbents,” Kaufmann agreed. “Now it’s time for her to prove herself, to show Iowans — and after last night, the nation — she’s capable of steady, deliberative work.”

Tribune News Service contributed to this story

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