United States Senate candidate and state senator Joni Ernst has cited her National Guard duty to rebuff criticism for missing more than half of the votes in the Iowa Senate this year.
In a WHO-TV interview posted on April 7, the Red Oak Republican acknowledged that National Guard service wasn’t the only reason she’s missed votes, but she said that only “a few of those votes were due to other activities.”
However, a review by The Gazette shows very little overlap between Iowa Senate votes and her National Guard service.
Ernst is in a field of six candidates vying to win the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in June. The nominee would likely face U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley, a Democrat from Waterloo, to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat.
“It’s really unfortunate,” Ernst said during the WHO-TV interview. “I know these attacks are coming and they have been out there. They’re saying that I’ve missed so many votes but that includes ...”
The interviewer cut in to ask how many missed votes.
“I don’t know what the actual count is. I know I have missed five days for other campaign reasons, but what they’ve included in those votes is time I’ve been serving on orders with Iowa Army National Guard.”
The interviewer asks for clarification about whether some of the missed votes were due to campaigning.
“Yes, there were,” she said. “They were for other scheduled activities, and not knowing what the debate calendar is before they come up, it is hard to schedule if you are out of town”
“So yes, a few of those votes were due to other activities,” Ernst said.
Conservative radio host Laura Ingraham also asked Ernst during her March 31 radio show, “Why are you missing so many votes?”
“Well first, National Guard Services,” Ernst replied. “I have had some days on duty that I’ve had to be with the National Guard. And those are times that I’ve been on orders ... so that is one thing you won’t hear them talking about, those that are attacking my voting record.”
Ernst also acknowledged during the interview she’d missed “maybe five days due to other scheduled activities out there” and was juggling roles as a wife and mother, battalion commander in the Iowa Army National Guard, a state senator and a “very, very tough competitive race for the United States Senate.”
A review by The Gazette of the Iowa Senate Journal and her schedule obtained through a Freedom of Information and Iowa open records request from the Iowa National Guard, shows that few — 10 percent, or 12 of the 117 missed votes — came on days when she was on active duty,
Drake University politics professor Dennis J. Goldford said Ernst is “pulling the guard card” as a “tactical move to put to rest a general concern.”
“She is cloaking her missed votes in the aura of the guard services,” Goldford said. “That is one of those things no one could argue with.”
Goldford said availability for critical senate votes trumps overall vote counts, and her campaign and party leaders have said they’ve kept in good communication.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said he didn’t think she was implying National Guard duty was the primary reason for the missed votes, and the interviewers should have followed up.
“You need to figure out how many votes she missed for the campaign because otherwise you are including her missing it for a very legitimate reason, and you are going to give her the opportunity to point that out,” Hagle said. “If you just have that total, you are making it seem worse than it is.”
Ernst campaign spokesman Derek Flowers said during her time as a state senator she’s had a better than 90 percent voting record, which includes this year’s votes, and that she has not claimed guard service is the only reason she’s missed votes.
“It’s not a job that stops and starts at the state capitol,” Flowers said. “When needed, she is there. She has good communication with the leadership.”
Ernst has been asked to explain the missed votes following a March 5 article by The Gazette found she’d taken excused absences on 71 of 95 votes tallied in the chamber since Feb. 24.
According to the most recent review by The Gazette, Ernst missed 117 of 197 votes, or 59 percent of the votes, in the Iowa Senate this session before the WHO-TV interview posted on April 7. This includes four days where some votes were missed, and nine days when all votes were missed.
This week Ernst has voted in 23 of 24 roll calls.
According to the Iowa National Guard, Ernst was on orders for training or other duty on March 10-14, on a commanders call on March 28, and had weekend drills on January 11-12, February 8-9, and March 1-2.
Only two of those days — March 10-11 — overlapped with days the Iowa Senate held votes, accounting for 12 or about 10 percent of the 117 missed votes. Excluding the days that overlapped with Ernst’s guard duty, she’s missed 105 votes, or 57 percent of the Iowa Senate votes this session, according to the review.