DES MOINES (AP) — Joni Ernst, an Iowa state legislator whose ads about guns and hog castration helped her shore up support among conservatives, easily won the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, setting up a fall matchup that Republicans are eyeing as a prime opportunity to pick up a seat.
Once a long shot when better-known party leaders passed on the race, the state senator and Iraq War veteran handily received enough votes to avoid a nominating convention in the five-way race. Most of the voting came before severe storms curbed later voting and forced some precincts to suspend voting temporarily.
"Whether you voted for me today, or someone else, I promise you, I will work every single day to earn your trust and support," Ernst said in a statement released before she accepted the nomination.
Ernst moves on to face Democratic U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley in a race expected to play a key role in the battle for Senate control. Republicans have targeted the traditional swing state in recent months as one of their top opportunities to gain a seat.
Republicans need six votes to win the majority. Five-term Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin's announcement last year that he would forgo seeking a sixth created Iowa's first open Senate seat in 40 years.
Braley challenged his would-be opponent to avoid the inevitable negative campaigning that comes with closely contested races. "I look forward to a rigorous debate about who can rise above the partisanship of Washington politics and fight for Iowa's working families," Braley said in a prepared statement.
Braley is more politically tested than Ernst, first elected to the state Senate in 2010 and re-elected three times including in 2010, when an outside group spent more than $1.5 million against him. Braley also starts the race with $2.3 million, while Ernst begins with just over $100,000.