September 24, 2013

He's not King Corn around these parts for nothing. Gov. Terry Branstad, knows the strings to pull - where, and just how hard.

Eschewing the advice of GOP consultants near and far, and enjoying something of a death grip on Terrace Hill, the Great Mustachioed One cannot resist star-making impulses.

With Republican Dream Girl No. 1 - Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds - coyly on the sidelines in a secondary role for 2014, Branstad, employing non-endorsement, endorsement language, tells us State Sen. Joni Ernst is a "particularly intriguing" candidate for federal office.

The governor's highlight reel for the Red Oak Republican: She's smart. She served her country. She knows county government.

"I think she's got a lot of the same characteristics that I see in the lieutenant governor," Branstad in an interview with The Daily Times Herald. "Obviously they're from the same area - and they're friends."

And there's something else - an Ernst biographical detail with a base-lathering effect that has the governor glib and giddy.

"She's also a great shot - for what that's worth," Branstad said.

The governor is, of course, referring to Ernst's faculty with firearms.

Which stands to reason. Ernst is, after all, a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard.

Her campaign website makes a point of letting voters know that she's qualified with an 9mm and M16.

"I have an 'A' rating from the NRA, hold an Iowa concealed carry permit, and I actually do carry," Ernst says on her website.

Red Oak is fairly close to Missouri, so being armed, even out of uniform, is probably wise.

But survival instincts aside, Branstad is on to something with Ernst, one candidate in a growing GOP primary field for the U.S. Senate.

As it stands, the Democratic candidate, Waterloo Congressman Bruce Braley, is outflanking GOP aspirants at every turn in the race so far, much in the same way Alexander Hamilton consistently confounded the early Republican Aaron Burr, the latter whom fell short for the presidency and New York governor's office.

Knowing full well that conventional means may fall short for Republicans in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, our five-term governor, he of royal northern Iowa blood, is perhaps cleverly setting up a flashback strategy for Ernst. Call it Plan 1804.

In that year, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. The federalist Hamilton ruffled Republican feathers with an impolite dinner party remark. Burr and Hamilton's seconds couldn't reach a peaceful accord so shots were fired on the dueling grounds at Weehawken, N.J. The next day, Hamilton was dead.

With Twitter and Facebook and YouTube to add to dinner parties and stump speeches as potential offending venues, "good shot" Ernst should have no trouble mining Braley's archive of utterings for a manufactured outrage, fodder for issuing a duel challenge.

And what's Braley supposed to do? Is it worse to fight a girl or back down from one?

There wasn't a good answer on the playground in third grade, and there's not one here.

Debating Matt Whitaker or David Young or Sam Clovis would be a lot easier.

But those candidates have so far shown little in the way of the political chops necessary to compete on what will be a national stage.

Branstad knows this.

So he's up-selling the upstart Ernst, choreographing a Guns 'n' Ammo image to much head-nodding and here-here-ings from Republican men over 50 in western Iowa searching for another Palin fix. (I've interviewed a lot of male politicians who are military veterans - John McCain and Max Cleland, for example. Not even their most spirited surrogates suggested greater fitness for public service based on ballistics.)

So really, governor. Stipulated. Ernst is a good shot. What does that mean in the context of a Senate race?

"Not that that's really a qualification to be a United States senator," Branstad said.