WASHINGTON — Sen. Joni Ernst says she wants to use her new position in the Senate Republican leadership to help broaden the party’s appeal from coast to coast.
“College Republicans and the millennials, the biker dudes with the long hair, the young women with piercings, the suburban moms, Christian conservatives — all of those folks are the folks that have supported me in Iowa, and we need to work really hard on that across the United States,” Ernst told The World-Herald on Wednesday after being elected vice chair of the Republican conference.
When the 116th Congress convenes in January, Ernst will be the first woman to serve in Senate GOP leadership since 2010.
At that point, her home-state colleague Sen. Chuck Grassley also will become the Senate president pro tempore, making him third in the presidential line of succession behind the vice president and the House speaker.
Grassley told reporters that he thinks it’s the first time in history that two Iowans have served in leadership positions of the Senate majority.
“That’s exciting news for Iowans who can be sure that their voices will be heard more than ever,” Grassley said.
Ernst specifically cited ethanol as one sector that will benefit from having two Iowans at the highest levels of Senate authority.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been looking to add a woman to his leadership team for some time.
Ernst’s competition for that No. 5 leadership rung was Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, who easily won re-election to her Senate seat last week.
Fischer left the chamber Wednesday expressing confidence in the team elected, but she also acknowledged disappointment over losing her bid for a spot on the leadership ladder.
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop working for the conference,” Fischer said. “I’m going to continue to be very active.”
Fischer and Ernst are friends who serve on several committees together, including Armed Services.
Supporters of both described a close contest made somewhat awkward in light of their own relationship and the mutual friends they have throughout Senate Republican ranks.
Some members told Ernst that they would never disclose who they backed. Senators voted by secret ballot, with the exact tally unannounced.
Ernst said she pitched herself to colleagues as a strong communicator with detailed plans on how to improve Republican messaging efforts. And she cast herself as an intense competitor.
“Whether I’m facing a Democrat on the debate floor or pushing back on something in the press, I’m going to be fierce and I’m not going to back down from a battle,” Ernst said.
Winning the leadership race has sparked fresh talk of future national political ambitions for Ernst, although she said she’s focused on her current job. She’s up for re-election in 2020 and is expected to draw a credible Democratic opponent.
Grassley landed the job of Senate pro tem — a position that typically goes to the senator from the majority party with the longest continuous service.
Grassley, who joined the Senate in 1981, will hold that distinction in the next Congress with the retirement of Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.
He will be the first Iowan to hold the position since Sen. Albert Cummins, who served as pro tem from 1919 to 1925.
“The president pro tempore is one of a handful of offices specifically named by the founders in the Constitution,” Grassley said in a statement. “I may only be three heartbeats away from the Oval Office, but my heart is and always will be in Iowa and here in the U.S. Senate, where I’ve worked for the people of Iowa and our nation for 38 years.”
Much of the job is ceremonial, but it does involve a few perks, including a salary bump from $174,000 to $193,400. It also comes with an office in the Capitol and a small security detail.
Grassley has not said whether he will remain chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee or take the gavel of another panel such as the Finance Committee.
In response to a reporter’s question, he did have ready a list of priorities for the Finance Committee: promoting free trade agreements, making changes to Medicare and Social Security, addressing child welfare issues, bringing generic drugs to market faster and maintaining a strong rural health care system.
He said he’ll make an announcement “within a few days.”