Joni Ernst SOTU response challenges Obama in an affable tone

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Freshman U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst delivered the Republican Party’s official response to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, just days after being sworn in for the first time as a member of the august body.

Ernst, a 44-year-old combat veteran and mother who grew up on an Iowa farm, was a rural county auditor just a few years ago. She was elected to Iowa’s state Senate in 2011 and rose to national prominence last year with her victory in the race to win an open U.S. Senate seat.

Related: Ernst's rebutttal sparks 'bread bag' meme

She was best known in the 2014 election for a 30-second TV ad in which she talked about her experience as a girl castrating hogs on her parents’ farm.

Ernst’s elevation to the national stage became complete Tuesday night when she delivered a speech responding on behalf of her party to Obama’s address to a joint session of Congress.

ICYMI: Yahoo News SOTU live blog

From the outset of her remarks, Ernst’s message and tone conveyed moderation and affability, with a polite but firm challenge to the president to work with Republicans on issues such as tax reform, trade and job creation.

“Even if we may not always agree, it’s important to hear different points of view in this great country. We appreciate the president sharing his,” Ernst was planning to say, according to prepared remarks. “Tonight, though, rather than respond to a speech, I’d like to talk about your priorities.”

Ernst talked at length about her working-class roots, reaching for common ground with many Americans who harbor deep resentment toward both political parties in Washington and an economy that by many indications favors those with wealth and political connections at the expense of those who have neither.

“For many of us, the sting of the economy and the frustration with Washington’s dysfunction weren’t things we had to read about. We felt them every day,” Ernst said.

She talked of plowing fields and working construction with her father, of working on “the morning biscuit line at Hardees” to save for college, and of having only one good pair of shoes as a child.

“So on rainy school days, my mom would slip plastic bread bags over them to keep them dry,” Ernst said. “But I was never embarrassed. Because the school bus would be filled with rows and rows of young Iowans with bread bags slipped over their feet.”

Then, without criticizing the president directly, Ernst indicted his performance in office by sympathizing with her fellow Americans over “stagnant wages and lost jobs,” “canceled health care plans and higher monthly insurance bills” and fear about the nation’s future.

With a mention of the GOP attempt to pass an expansion of the Keystone Pipeline, she cast Obama as an obstructionist and extended an olive branch to him in the same paragraph.

“President Obama will soon have a decision to make: will he sign the [Keystone] bill, or block good American jobs? There’s a lot we can achieve if we work together,” Ernst said.

Her most direct criticism of the president was on health care.

“Americans have been hurting, but when we demanded solutions, too often Washington responded with the same stale mindset that led to failed policies like Obamacare,” Ernst said.

In a brief focus on foreign policy, she spoke of her status as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard, and mentioned her deployment to Kuwait from 2003 to 2004 as a company commander of a logistics unit that ran supply lines into Iraq during the American invasion. Her critique of the president was more subtle, noting only that the U.S. needs “a comprehensive plan to defeat” terrorism.

In short, Ernst’s speech demonstrated why Republicans are so excited to have her representing them on the national stage. 

Full video of Ernst's address: