WEST DES MOINES — Republican Joni Ernst, a once-obscure state senator who gained national fame as a former hog castrator, was elected Tuesday to Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Ernst defeated U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat, in what had been one of the closest and most heated political races in the country. She’ll be the first woman to represent Iowa in Congress.

“Well, Iowa — we did it,” Ernst said speaking to joyous supporters at a GOP victory party. “From the biscuit line at Hardee’s to the United States Senate — we are heading to Washington.”

Ernst, 44, will replace Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat who is retiring after 30 years in the Senate. Her victory adds to the Republican margin in the Senate, which is shifting to GOP control after Tuesday’s victories.

Ernst thanked Braley for his service and promised his supporters that she would work for them across party lines.

Braley, 57, “was a worthy opponent,” Ernst said. “We didn’t agree on much, but I admire anyone who is willing to stand up and fight for what they believe in.”

The campaign was fiercely contested by both parties and their allies, who poured millions of dollars into Iowa and made it a major battleground in the fight for Senate control.

Polls consistently showed the candidates separated by single digits, and even the state’s most experienced political scientists were reluctant to predict a winner until the closing days of the campaign, when Ernst seemed to have an edge.

In the summer and fall, Iowans were hit with more than 57,000 Senate ads costing more than $27.7 million. They saw high-profile visits by national political figures, including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, and former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, to whom Ernst is often compared.

Despite the Palin comparisons, Ernst proved to be her own person. She is a combat veteran — a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa National Guard — and her small-town, farm girl charm seemed to electrify the state’s GOP base. Everywhere she went, awestruck fans flocked to meet her.

Ernst commands about 650 Guard soldiers from across Iowa, overseeing companies that provide maintenance, transportation and military police. In 2003, Ernst’s unit was sent to Iraq, running convoys through Kuwait and into southern Iraq.

She was elected Montgomery County auditor in 2004 and again in 2008. She was first elected to the Iowa Senate in 2011, during a special election to replace Kim Reynolds, now the state’s lieutenant governor. She was re-elected in 2012.

While Ernst began her U.S. Senate bid as a little-known state senator from Red Oak, she easily beat four opponents in the GOP primary. In part, that was because of the national splash she made with a TV commercial in which she talked about castrating hogs while growing up on a southwest Iowa farm. If elected, she said in the ad, she would cut pork-barrel spending and “make them squeal.”

The commercial took on a life of its own, becoming a punchline for late-night comedians and turning Ernst into the country’s most famous pig castrator. Ernst laughed it off, appearing to understand that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

“I know they’re poking fun at me,” she told The World-Herald in May.

“But now I’m hearing from everybody in both urban and rural areas. You’d be surprised at how many people are reaching out and saying, ‘Hey, I’m castrating hogs, too.’ ”

On Tuesday, in front of supporters, it was clear that the ad had become her permanent mantra.

“We are going to make them squeal!” she hollered. “We are taking the Iowa way all the way.”

In her campaign, Ernst talked about balancing the federal budget, making changes in Social Security and Medicare to ensure their long-term fiscal health, and repealing the Affordable Care Act.

The Ernst-Braley contest was fiesty thoughout. Ernst tried to paint Braley, a lawyer, as an out-of-touch liberal elite. Braley portrayed Ernst as a Tea Party zealot who was too extreme for most moderate Iowans.

Ernst also was criticized for having ties to rich, out-of-state GOP supporters that Democrats said would influence her in office.

Braley had been a proven vote-getter, having served four terms in Congress. But he made a few gaffes during the Senate race that may have been crucial, most notably a remark about longtime U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley that Republicans viewed as an attack on Iowa farmers. Said in March in front of Texas lawyers, it haunted him throughout the race.

Braley also was heavily criticized, especially in TV ads, for missing 75 percent of his congressional committee meetings that had to do with oversight over the Veterans Administration.

But Braley’s biggest problem, perhaps, was that his campaign didn’t generate the kind of excitement that Ernst’s did.

Contact the writer: 402-444-3100, maggie.obrien@owh.com

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