Joni Ernst and the White Lie of 'Conservative Feminism'

Joni Ernst and the White Lie of 'Conservative Feminism'

“Joni doesn’t know beans” was the trending joke on the internet the night of the final debate between Joni Ernst, Iowa’s Republican incumbent senator, and Democratic challenger, Theresa Greenfield.

“My question is a simple ag question,” began debate moderator Ron Steele, a beloved local television anchor. “Theresa Greenfield, what is the break-even price for a bushel of corn this week?” It was kind of a trick question. The trick? While there is a price for a bushel of corn and soy, the break-even price depends on the individual farmer.

It’s the kind of question that separates the chaff from the wheat, Midwesterners from pretenders to the great thrones of soy, corn, and pork. It’s regional tribalism at its best, delivered with a passive-aggressive smile from someone like Steele, Iowa’s favorite TV grandpa.

Greenfield only hesitated long enough for the question to come through her earpiece. (The debate was virtual.) Then, she rattled off her answer, delivering swiftly, with soft Midwestern vowels that soften all palato-alveolar sounds, doncha know.

“Well, a bushel of corn is going for $3.68 today, $3.69. And break-even really just depends on the amount of debt someone has. I suspect some farmers are breakin’ even at that price. However, if their yields are down 50 percent that’s certainly not gonna cover it for ‘em. I’ll tell ya, we’ve had low commodity prices for too long. They’ve been going out of business prices.”

Want to know what it’s like to be stabbed in the heart by a Midwestern mom on her way to drop her son off at hockey practice? That’s what it’s like. You don’t even know it’s happening until you’re bleeding.

Ernst was asked about the break-even price of soy. And instead of responding with the quick affability of Greenfield, Ernst floundered, stumbling through some sort of comment on Donald Trump’s trade wars. “You know, I’d like to go back to uh a previous statement. Certainly, with what we’ve done on trade, we’ve seen significant strides forward. So the USMCA is a great example of that with our two largest trade partners, Mexico and Canada. Mexico is the number one purchaser of Iowa corn.”

It only devolved from there.

Steele pushed, smiling: “You grew up on a farm, you should know this.” She stumbled again. Her smile so tight, so forced, it was almost a scream.

“Joni doesn’t know beans” began to trend across social media. Desus & Mero called it “Iowa’s version of The Wire” and dubbed Greenfield the “Pusha T of corn.”

Joni Ernst, once the scrappy farm girl, the upstart senator from Iowa, now couldn’t flub her way through Ag 101. Iowa’s first woman senator, who made national news six years ago when her ad about hogs went viral, should have been a reelection shoo-in. Iowans were primed to like her. She was the underdog, the Midwestern mom, so poor she had to put bread bags over her shoes to protect them from the snow. She was a veteran, a fighter, who seemed like she’d also fight for Iowans.

And, well, Greenfield is an outsider. The Minnesota native who lives in Des Moines (the big city) and was a businesswoman. The race, which was solidly polling in Ernst’s favor last year, is now a toss-up, polling consistently within the margin of error. Some polls even show Greenfield with a slight lead.

An unspoken Iowa law states that you have to be able to parallel park a tractor blindfolded while shooting a gun at a three-point buck before you can run for office. (Just once if you are a man and ten consecutive times if you are a woman.) The fact that Ernst—a gun-wielding, motorcycle driving, pig castrating Senator from Red Oak, a town of 5,000 near the Iowa-Nebraska border—is at risk of losing her seat to a mom from Minnesota who has never served in political office before is incredible. Political pundits in the state didn’t expect Ernst’s race to be this close.

But pundits rarely consider the different expectations of womanhood to be a factor in any election, and that’s what’s at play here with Ernst. The formerly palatable, scrappy Midwestern mom, who’s been yes-womaning Donald Trump for four years, up against Greenfield, a scrappy Midwestern mom, who hasn’t rubber-stamped the actions and policies of an accused sexual predator.

how did Ernst get into a tight race with the Pusha T of corn?

The New York Times labeled this senate race a bellwether for Trump. He won the state in 2016, in an election that handed back control of the Iowa legislature to the Republicans. Before that, Barack Obama won the state twice. But that’s the way it works in Iowa: the state is always up for grabs. The governorship has swung back and forth between red and blue and blue and red.

Iowans are purplish and contrarians with chips on their shoulders. They also love consistency: Think of Chuck Grassley, who has served Iowa for 39 years and counting. Ousting an incumbent in Iowa is harder than predicting the break-even price of corn. So, how did Ernst get into a tight race with the Pusha T of corn?

Ernst describes her political career as free of ambition. A good political woman, either Republican or Democrat, has to learn to walk that line of the taint of desire. In her book Daughter of the Heartland, she describes how she accidentally fell into politics by running for county auditor in 2004 after a sitting auditor allegedly punched another supervisor in the shoulder. (There is some dispute over whether it was a “punch” or a “tap.”) Either way, it meant Ernst was asked to step in, and she did. She was re-elected to the position in 2008.

At that time, Ernst was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Iowa National Guard. She joined the ROTC while studying psychology at Iowa State and married Gail Ernst, an Army supervisor, 17 years older.

Farm girl, mother, and military veteran who served in Iraq, Ernst was the kind of politician Iowans love. She was eventually elected to the Iowa Senate when she ran to fill a seat left vacant by Kim Reynolds. (Reynolds left to serve as Lieutenant Governor under Terry Brandstad. She’s now the state’s first woman governor.)

As a state senator, she helped deliver the biggest tax cut in Iowa history, later boasting that she turned Iowa’s budget deficit into a surplus. That’s not quite the whole truth and the budget cuts have had long-lasting effects. Iowa is currently struggling to fill its fund to clean the polluted water and pay for mental health services for Iowans in need. But, that was later. Then, she was a fiscal-hawk dream girl.

In 2014, Ernst announced her decision to run for the open Senate seat left by Tom Harkin. She was a relative unknown, but that just made her the underdog. But that’s not the whole truth, either. The kingmaking Koch Brothers were funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into her campaign. And the political operatives Dave Kochel and Todd Harris were behind the scenes, managing her image. Kochel and Harris are a kind of a conservative white man’s wet dream. Political advisors known for the limpid primary run of Marco Rubio and the failed run of Mitt Romney, Kochel takes credit for ousting Nazi-sympathizer Steve King, even though he donated to his campaign.

They ran the now infamous ad of Ernst promising to castrate Washington pork, just like she castrated pigs on her family farm. The 30-second ad ended in a loud pig squeal. The nation was amused. It went viral. She appealed to the stall grubbing, lipstick-wearing, gun-toting, pink-heel-sporting kind of white woman, who knew life was hard but thought you just got down and dirty, then cleaned yourself up and made dinner.

That same carefully cultivated image was repeated in the media. Jennifer Jacobs, now the Senior White House Correspondent for Bloomberg, wrote charming, on-the-trail stories with Ernst that framed her as just another aw-shucks kind of girl, rolling around the state in her family’s Winnebago, which had been renamed the Squealmobile.

In one story, Dave Polyanski, a Republican strategist who would later go on to advise Scott Walker and Ted Cruz on their respective presidential runs, joked about how much Ernst wanted to save money on hotels by demanding to sleep in Squealmobile with her family.

“I keep saying no,” Polyansky, told the Des Moines Register. “One trip she snuck her sleeping bag and pillow on the RV when I was in a meeting. It’s a running battle between us.”

Those charming stories of a Midwestern mom just trying to save a buck made her appealing to so many Iowans, even a few progressives looking to vote for their first female senator. “Some Republicans in Iowa are licking their chops at the prospect of befuddling liberal women who yearn to make history by electing a female to Congress for the first time in state history,” Jacobs wrote in 2014, “and now the best chance in a long time comes from the GOP ranks, political observers say.”

She won. And became the darling of the Republican party.

But something else was happening behind the scenes. Abused by her first boyfriend, raped in college, Ernst was the target of sexism and discrimination in the military. And then, again, at home. In her book, she describes her husband cheating on her with the babysitter and shoving her down the stairs.

In a 2019 interview, the year Ernst’s divorce records were made public (they’ve since been resealed), she said that her husband “grabbed me by the throat with his hands and threw me on the landing floor.” Then, he “pounded my head.. on the landing. It was very sudden and very violent.” (Ernst’s ex-husband never replied to the allegations in the court documents.)

I want to be clear, Ernst herself has written about this horrific abuse: this is part of her story because she’s woven it into her narrative. And in a way, her story has become a story about women’s empowerment. She was in the military; she’s a domestic violence survivor.

It makes the castration ad seem brutal in hindsight. Here she was, lightly joking about castrating men, when at home she was being abused. There was a campaign mailer that showed Ernst holding a handgun, pointing it at the camera. “Joni Ernst Set Sights on Obamacare,” the flyer reads. At home, she was being threatened with a gun.

As the stories came out, Ernst was adept at using the language of feminism to reclaim her narrative. Her fliers have softened a little. She now promises to protect healthcare, this time posing in profile, with longer hair and softer light behind her. No guns. Don’t worry, she still rides her motorcycle. But it’s a delicate dance. Femininity, but not too much. Just enough to be relatable, but not so much that she’s weak.

But Ernst has never been a feminist. She’s a staunch conservative who consistently votes against abortion and in pandemic encouraged the government to rescind PPP money sent to Planned Parenthood affiliates.

During Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing, Ernst declared that Barrett’s nomination proved that there was a “seat at the table” for women like her and the justice. Implying that it was somehow the liberals and feminists who’d kept them out, as opposed to the patriarchy. It’s a grievance dance as old as feminism itself.

Ernst has never been a feminist

It happened with Phyllis Schlafly and it’s happening again now. Women determined to hold onto the status quo who posit themselves as aggrieved and victimized, when they are the ones victimizing others. This is a class of women who see feminism as nothing more than a Mean Girls, man-hater club, and if you don’t wear pink on Wednesday, bye. “Why can’t we belong?” they wonder, clutching their pearls, paying their nannies and housekeepers, tucking their kids in at night, while women are forced from the workforce in a pandemic, while Black women die in childbirth at three times the rate of white women.

Conservative womanhood has co-opted the rhetoric of feminism, but none of the action. They are women and have suffered, but overcome, ergo, they are victims. It’s a fun shell game: Using your oppression to advance the oppression of others.

But it’s a losing game. As Kerry Howley recently wrote at the New Republic, Ernst is fighting to keep her seat as “women are abandoning her party en masse, among colleagues for whom recruiting women is not a priority, appealing to voters for whom the scope of acceptable female identity is contracting.”

Maybe Sarah Palin’s lipstick-on-a-pig line of Republican womanhood worked a decade ago, but it’s a harder sell now, especially when the President has been accused of rape and sexual assault. When protections for women’s health care are being rolled back, and now with Barrett on the court, Roe v. Wade is at risk.

Ernst was one of the main senators tasked with pushing through the Violence Against Women Act, but the bill hasn’t passed, because Ernst refuses to close the “boyfriend loophole.” The House version of the bill extends existing gun restrictions to include current and former dating partners, who have been convicted of stalking or abuse. The Senate version of the bill has no such provisions, and that’s due largely to Ernst. Ernst objected to the House version of the bill saying it couldn’t pass the senate. The NRA opposes closing the loophole, and so does Ernst.

It’s hard to play the scrappy outsider overcoming obstacles especially when you’ve spent an entire senate term carrying water for the boys’ club.

Conservative feminism is a modality of white womanhood, where you benefit from the status quo and the only true victim Is the self

Enter Theresa Greenfield.

In many ways, Greenfield is working from a similar script. She too is a military mom. A farm girl. An outsider who has known tragedy—her first husband died when she was a pregnant 24-year-old and already the mother of a toddler. Greenfield went back to school as a single mom, living on social security. Many of her ads look similar to Ernst’s—they wear button-ups, jeans, and walk through a farm or a rural background. In interviews, Greenfield paints herself as a happy and reliable centrist, who will “throw elbows” to both teams. It’s that independence Iowa loves. And Greenfield, like Ernst, is no scrappy outsider. This race is the second most expensive in the country.

The Des Moines Register reported, “Greenfield, who is hoping to unseat first-term incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst, spent nearly $12.85 million from Oct. 1 to Oct. 14, according to Federal Election Commission filings published Thursday. Ernst’s campaign spent $3.75 million in that same period, roughly $1 for every $3 spent by Greenfield.”

The race feels a little like the Spider-Man pointing at another Spider-Man gif. Two Midwestern moms battling it out.

The political take machine points out that this race is about the taint of Trump, about Iowans souring on conservative politics. But any take that doesn’t analyze the race through the lens of conservative feminism is missing a key element. Conservative feminism is a modality of white womanhood, where you benefit from the status quo and the only true victim is the self, and anyone victimized by the systems which you profit off of are “haters.” These haters often include Black mothers and immigrant mothers ripped apart from their children at the border.

It’s conceivable that Ernst could lose, even while Trump wins the state. Which would show that voters were more willing to punish her than the president she supported. But Ernst would likely not be at risk of losing her seat if the Democrats had run a man. Or a more “strident” leftist woman, like Kimberly Graham, who ran in the Democratic primary, but ultimately lost.

How can we sell a woman to a voting public who had no problem voting for a man who said he’d grab a woman by the pussy? How do you make a woman as easily sellable as a white man? And how does she hold onto the likability?

I am not sure, but I know it begins with a button-up shirt, a farm, and being a mother.

Lyz Lenz is the author of Belabored: A Vindication of the Rights of Pregnant Women and God Land: A Story of Faith, Loss and Renewal in Middle America. She lives in Iowa

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