Joni Culver was born in Iowa in 1970 and raised by a mother who felt, at times, isolated by a farm life spent cooking and cleaning. At seven, asked as part of a second-grade project to name a potential career, the future U.S. senator offered three—Nurse, Farmer’s Wife, and Miss America. By the time she was a high school junior in Coke-bottle glasses and braces, Miss America seemed a less plausible outcome, and Joni was unduly grateful for the attention of a classmate who soon became her boyfriend. When this boyfriend hit her in front of her friends, she made excuses for him. When she was accepted to Iowa State, he was displeased, and when she returned home during her second semester, he raped her. Joni joined the ROTC. It was in this capacity that she met Gail Ernst, a divorced Army supervisor 17 years her senior. When they married, she followed him to Savannah, Georgia, where she sold women’s shoes at a mall. While her husband was overseas, she told him she was pregnant, and when the ultrasound technician told her she was having a girl, she worried he would be very disappointed.
They moved back to Iowa, and Joni joined the National Guard. She was promoted in 2002, the only woman officer. Male officers found her presence disconcerting. “I’m sorry,” one told her later. “I just didn’t know how to mentor a woman.” In 2003, when her daughter was still a toddler, she was deployed for a full year to Kuwait, where her unit was charged with trucking missiles and mail and mattresses to the front. A commander from another battalion repeatedly came on to her; there was no one to whom she could report him. A group of troops hung around the female shower trailer, taking pictures when a door opened. When she—a captain—told them to stop, they ignored her. Back in Iowa, her service as a lieutenant colonel in the National Guard was low-status within the military, which ate at her. She found that when she tried to tell war stories to her husband, he interrupted her to share stories of his own. He joked about killing his ex.
What does it mean to be a Republican woman running for office in 2020? There are currently 13 Republican women in the House. There are 16 Republican House members named “Michael” or “Mike.” More Republican women than ever before are running, but they face such improbable paths to elected office that in November their numbers will improve only slightly, if at all. This is largely because the party apparatus does not support them. “On the Republican side, there is this misconception that it is somebody’s ‘turn,’” said Julie Conway of VIEW PAC, a political action committee that exclusively supports Republican women, “and there are a lot more guys in the state House or Senate or mayors of towns waiting for the congressmen to retire than there are women.” “Unless all the cards are falling right for you,” said Jennifer Lim, founder of the nonprofit Republican Women for Progress, “there will be someone else the party is running, usually an old white guy named Greg or Mike, or maybe a young white guy named Greg or Mike.” But it’s bleaker than just a sclerotic system intent on perpetuating itself, because Republican primaries involve Republican voters. A survey conducted by Republican Women for Progress found that 71 percent of Republican voters do not think the current number of women in Congress to be a problem, which is simply to say voters do not see electing more women as a worthwhile goal. When she was head of recruitment for the National Republican Congressional Committee, New York Representative Elise Stefanik recruited 100 Republican women to run. Ninety-nine of them lost.*
Given their numbers, Republican women have little power, as a bloc, in Congress. They get less credit when they speak out against the president, and are criticized more when they fall in line, a rule to which this profile is no exception. Republican women must appear feminine, but not too feminine, and while they must overcome the mundane sexism of any popularity contest, they cannot generally appeal to gender as a source of competence, which would be seen as playing identity politics. The Republican women running in 2020 have a certain sheen, as if they have just walked off set. They are asked to be everything at once; “Mother, Soldier, Leader,” reads Joni Ernst’s web page, though traditional Midwestern motherhood and concurrent military service are presumably in tension. It is harder to get Republican women to run, and when they do, the opposition spends more, on average, to defeat them. Democrats are in fact spending millions to replace Iowa’s junior senator with first-time candidate Theresa Greenfield, and it may work; as of late August, Greenfield and Ernst are tied. Joni Ernst is a woman fighting to keep her seat at a time when women are abandoning her party en masse, among colleagues for whom recruiting women is not a priority, appealing to voters for whom the scope of acceptable female identity is contracting.
A county auditor is an elected position for someone who keeps the county’s books. At a 2003 budget meeting in Montgomery County, Iowa, tension over budgetary matters was sufficiently high that the sitting auditor, 50-year-old Connie Magnuson, appears to have punched the county supervisor, a 52-year-old woman, in the shoulder. (Magnuson’s lawyer claimed it was a “tap.”) According to Ernst, the GOP approached her husband and her mother while she was overseas to ask whether she might run for auditor against Magnuson. This kind of tale is typical of Ernst, whose self-mythology involves a woman clean of ambition rising to power by doing a series of favors for other people. Ernst won, removed the deadbolts and security cameras her paranoid predecessor had installed in the office, and by all accounts ably defused the drama surrounding the job. While she was working, Ernst came to believe, her husband was having an affair with their daughter’s babysitter. Standing on the landing of the stairs in their home in Red Oak, she confronted him, at which point, according to Joni, Gail grabbed her neck, threw her down, and pounded her head into the floor.