The Trump Veepwatch, Vol. 7: Joni Ernst
In which Unconventional examines the presumptive Republican nominee’s possible — and not-so-possible — vice presidential picks. Previous Trump installments: Newt Gingrich, Jan Brewer, Bob Corker, Mark Cuban,Rick Scott and Chris Christie.
Name: Joni Kay Ernst
Résumé: First-term U.S. senator from Iowa, former Iowa state senator, former Montgomery County auditor, retired Iowa National Guard lieutenant colonel, Iraq War veteran
Source of speculation: How Donald Trump spent his Independence Day.
Amid reports that the presumptive Republican nominee has changed his mind about waiting until the GOP convention in Cleveland to unveil his running mate — he now plans to select a sidekick next week, according to an adviser — Trump summoned Ernst to meet with him Monday at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.
They were not there to play golf.
Instead, as “one person briefed on the process” told the New York Times, the campaign has begun to consider Ernst in recent days as a possible vice presidential pick. Both Paul Manafort, Trump’s chief strategist and veepstakes ringleader, and Reince Priebus, the Republican National Committee chairman, attended the get-together as well.
The goal, it seems, was to convince Ernst to submit to a formal vetting. As a senior Trump adviser told CNN, “others” have said, “Thanks, let’s play ball” — but not Ernst, who had yet to express any definitive interest in the job.
So, did Trump’s powers of persuasion work? The mogul, at least, seemed pleased with how the meeting went — even going so far as to suggest that he and Ernst would be reuniting soon.
Ernst’s response was equally positive — if slightly more reserved.
“I had a good conversation with Donald Trump today and we discussed what I am hearing from Iowans as I travel around the state on my 99-county tour, and the best path forward for our country,” the senator said in a statement. “I will continue to share my insights with Donald about the need to strengthen our economy, keep our nation safe and ensure America is always a strong, stabilizing force around the globe.”
Backstory: For months, Republicans have been mentioning Ernst — who has only been a senator for a year and a half — as a potential vice president, and both Iowa’s governor and senior senator have touted her for the gig. But until her meeting Monday with Trump, no one knew whether she was really in the running.
Now we do.
Ernst has never been particularly gung-ho about Trump. While the senator officially refused to endorse any of this year’s GOP candidates ahead of the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses, she was widely seen as favoring Marco Rubio. She appeared at one of his events. She described him as “a good friend” who is “very near and dear to [her] heart.” The two youngish Republicans even hired some of the same campaign staffers.
Then, on Iowa caucus day, Ernst questioned Trump’s commitment to conservatism in a breakfast interview with Bloomberg Politics, pointing to his past views on abortion and taxes as cause for suspicion.
“Judging from what he said just a few years ago, I would not have agreed that he was a conservative,” Ernst explained. “There’s no proof out there yet. … We don’t have a record that we can judge him by.”
Ernst remained neutral long after Rubio had left the trail, insisting in March that she would not be “endorsing a candidate prior to the nominating convention.”
Even when Trump effectively clinched the nomination with his May 3 victory in Indiana — both of his remaining rivals, Ted Cruz and John Kasich, subsequently suspended their campaigns — Ernst refused to back his bid explicitly.
“Whoever our nominee is coming out of the convention is who I’m going to support,” she said the following day.
Meanwhile, Ernst has been critical of Trump’s campaign. In December, she called his plan to ban Muslims from entering the country “ludicrous.” In April, she dismissed his remarks about women as “nonsense.” Last month, she pushed back on his Asia policy.
And yet, despite Ernst’s pronounced lack of enthusiasm for the presumptive nominee, Republicans have continued to promote her as a real veep possibility.
“She is a very well-respected person that I think can work with the other people in Congress, but she also has a background of having served in county government, having served in state government,” said Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad in May. “She certainly was a team player that we enjoyed working with here in the state of Iowa. So, I think that if you want to put together an ideal profile of somebody who would be a great vice presidential candidate, she would be helpful to Republicans in Iowa as well.”
“What she brings to the ticket is that she is an outstanding messenger and has a lot of knowledge of military policy that Trump doesn’t have,” Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley added. “And she is also the first female combat veteran to serve in the U.S. Senate.”
“Joni Ernst would be tremendous,” concluded Arizona Sen. John McCain. “She is really remarkable.”
As recently as two weeks ago, Trump did not appear to be pondering Ernst for the vice presidency.
“I think he must have his eyes set on somebody else, and that’s OK,” she told reporters at the time. “If that was being considered, somebody, I think, would have reached out to me. Nobody has reached out.”
Since then, Trump seems to have taken notice.
Odds: Not bad.
The rationale for picking Ernst is clear. Of all the Trump short-listers, Ernst provides perhaps the tidiest yin to his yang; in many ways, she completes him.
At 70, Trump would be the oldest newly elected president in U.S. history; Ernst, 46, would be one of the youngest VPs ever. Trump has a long record of misogynistic remarks; his poll numbers among women are crippling. Ernst might be able to temper his chauvinistic image and prevent moderate suburban women from defecting to Hillary Clinton on Election Day.
Trump doesn’t have any military experience or foreign policy expertise; Ernst served in the National Guard and Army Reserve for 23 years, fought in Iraq and currently sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Trump was born rich; as a child, Ernst would slip plastic bread bags over her one good pair of shoes to keep them dry on rainy days.
Trump isn’t particularly religious or even conservative; Ernst is a rock-ribbed Evangelical tea partyer who nonetheless appeals to a broad spectrum of Republicans — both Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney endorsed her in 2014 — and could potentially help unite the GOP this fall. And while Ernst has shown a Trumpian knack for brash outsider politics — “I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So, when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” she said in her famous “Make ’Em Squeal” ad — the senator has also proven to be a disciplined legislator.
Also, Iowa is a swing state.
So, why not add Ernst to the GOP ticket and be done with it? Two reasons. The first has to do with Trump. The tycoon has repeatedly said that he’s searching for a VP who knows Capitol Hill — a partner who could help him pass his legislative agenda. Ernst doesn’t have much of a résumé in that regard. In fact, a Trump-Ernst ticket would have less combined high-level elective experience than any other presidential pairing in U.S. history. And that, in turn, could scare off swing voters — even in an anti-establishment year.
The second reason why Ernst might not wind up as Trump’s running mate has to do with Ernst. She’s a rising Republican star at the beginning of her political career. Her Senate seat is safe until 2020. Regardless of how it might heighten her national profile — and regardless of how difficult it has been, historically, to refuse a VP offer — does she really want to tie her fate to Trump?
Everything Ernst has said and done for the past few months suggests that she would rather not. We’ll find out soon enough whether Trump has convinced her otherwise.