In Iowa’s crowded, six-way GOP Senate primary, Joni Ernst is trying to break out of the pack by running as the only candidate who is “a mother, a soldier, and a proven conservative.”

Born and raised on a small farm in southwest Iowa, the mother of three served in Iraq as an Iowa National Guard battalion commander from 2003 to 2004. She rides a motorcycle (a 2009 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe) and has a permit to carry a concealed weapon (she likes to alternate between a Smith & Wesson 9mm and a .380 as her pistol of choice). Now serving her fourth year in the state senate, Ernst has positioned herself as a U.S. Senate candidate who could unite the Tea Party and the GOP establishment.

Texas senator Ted Cruz has done a “great job” and the Tea Party is “wonderful,” Ernst told me during a recent visit to Washington, D.C. “I do agree with most of their stances.” Ernst has won the endorsement of Mitt Romney, and Iowa governor Terry Branstad has said he’s “particularly intrigued” by her candidacy. “She’s pro-life, she’s great on the Second Amendment, and she’s been a very successful county official and now state senator,” Branstad told the Washington Post in August. “She’s got a great personal story. And we’ve never elected a woman to the Senate from our state.”

Ernst is running to the right, but she certainly isn’t a bomb-thrower. She speaks diplomatically and dismisses the my-way-or-the-highway approach of unnamed politicians. Ernst would be the third pro-life woman in the Senate if elected. She told me she’s “very conservative when it comes to those issues” but emphasized how “tolerant” and “respectful” she is of other people and their views. She singled out Iowa’s “phenomenal” Chuck Grassley and Nebraska’s Deb Fischer as two senators she admires. But, in her poise and passion about national defense, Ernst reminds me most of New Hampshire senator Kelly Ayotte.

In her stump speech, Ernst talks about growing up on a small farm, where her mother made her clothes, they canned all of their own food, and they turned to neighbors and friends when times were tough. She hits all of the usual conservative notes—the deficit, Obamacare, liberty—but what sets her apart from some conservatives of the Obama era is her willingness to criticize the president for cutting the military’s budget. “I will not balance the federal budget on the backs of our servicemen and women,” she said at the Polk County GOP convention on March 8. It was one of her biggest applause lines.

“I don’t know what the president’s foreign policy is. Does he have a foreign policy? I haven’t seen it,” Ernst told me during her visit to Washington. “We are living in a very unstable world. I think it is very unwise that we focus solely on making cuts at the Department of Defense. I don’t feel any safer now than I did 12 years ago.” Ernst stands behind the decision to depose Saddam Hussein in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “Given what we knew at the time, absolutely it was the right thing to do,” she said. But she hasn’t seen enough of a national security interest in Syria to call for U.S. intervention there.

Ernst said she first became “extremely passionate” about national security and foreign affairs when she participated in an agricultural exchange program as a college student in Ukraine just before the fall of the Soviet Union. She ended up on a farm where the family used a horse-drawn plow and lived in a house without running water. They shared a single bicycle for transportation and “didn’t have a refrigerator. So any milk that they had sat out on the counter. We just strained the curds out with our teeth as we drank the milk,” she recalled.

What struck Ernst was that the Ukrainians she met were more interested in America’s political system than its technological advances. When neighbors gathered in the evenings, “they would ask us, ‘What is it like to live in a free republic? Talk to us about your forms of government. Tell us how it works.’ They were so hungry for freedom. They wanted to know what type of life we lived.” It was that experience, Ernst said, that deepened her love for her country and led her to serve in the military and, later, run for office.

The Iowa GOP Senate primary on June 3 seems to be coming down to two candidates: Ernst and Mark Jacobs, a former energy executive and Goldman Sachs employee. “I think they have the only real campaigns out there,” said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report. According to a Public Policy Polling survey from late February, Ernst was trailing Jacobs 20 percent to 13 percent, with 42 percent of voters still undecided. If no candidate gets 35 percent in the primary—which is now seen as an unlikely prospect—party activists will be able to nominate anyone they want at a June 14 convention.

In the PPP poll, Ernst and Jacobs trailed the Democratic candidate, Representative Bruce Braley, both by 41 percent to 35 percent. “Three or four months ago I would have given Braley an advantage, and now I’m not sure he has much of one,” Duffy told me. “He can be pretty closely linked to the president, who is upside down in the state. He can be closely linked to Pelosi.”

Ernst aides say the only reason she is trailing Jacobs in the primary is that Jacobs is the only candidate who has yet run TV ads. According to sources, powerbrokers at the National Republican Senatorial Committee like Ernst but on balance favor Jacobs. On the one hand, that view is understandable, given that the wealthy Jacobs could fund his own campaign. There are perhaps nine Senate seats more likely to flip from Democratic to Republican than Iowa’s. A dollar spent on Iowa is a dollar that can’t be spent elsewhere, and Ernst’s fundraising has been lackluster to date.

On the other hand, Republicans may be valuing money over candidate quality. A lesson the GOP might have learned from recent Democratic Senate victories in Republican states like Montana and North Dakota is that the most important thing is to find a candidate who is a good fit for the state. And a farm girl turned combat veteran seems to be a better fit for a populist state like Iowa than a former business executive who once worked at Goldman Sachs.

There’s also little question that Ernst is more conservative than Jacobs, who supported cap and trade in the past and donated money to Democrats Arlen Specter and Jon Corzine. When I tried to get Ernst to draw contrasts with Jacobs, she would only talk about her record as a “proven conservative” in the Iowa senate. The closest Ernst got to criticizing Jacobs was when I asked if she thought some D.C. Republicans were backing him just because of his wealth. “Money can’t buy you Iowa values,” she said. “And I’ll leave it at that.”

John McCormack is a staff writerat The Weekly Standard.

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