Iraq War veteran Joni Ernst is a convincing 18 points ahead of her closest GOP rival, 'proven business leader' Mark Jacobs, in the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Iowa. (Kelsey Kremer/The Des Moines Register)
DES MOINES, IOWA — Self-described "mother, soldier, conservative" Joni Ernst is a convincing 18 points ahead of her closest GOP rival, "proven business leader" Mark Jacobs, in the Republican race for U.S. Senate in Iowa, a new Des Moines Register Iowa Poll shows.
Her support from 36 percent of likely GOP primary voters, which doubles Jacobs' 18 percent, would be enough to win Tuesday's five-person primary outright. The victor needs at least 35 percent.
Still, 16 percent of likely Republican primary voters remain undecided in the 11th hour, and almost three in four say they could be persuaded to vote for someone else.
"That's a lot of room, potentially, for things to shake a little," said J. Ann Selzer, who conducts the Iowa Poll for the Register.
A bad sign for Jacobs: His numbers dropped through four days of polling.
After Democrat Tom Harkin announced he would retire, none of Iowa's A-list Republicans opted to take advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to run for an open seat in the U.S. Senate. That left five virtually unknown figures as the GOP choices.
Three of them — Matt Whitaker, Sam Clovis and Scott Schaben — have failed to gain momentum in a contest where television exposure has proved crucial.
The poll shows Whitaker has 13 percent support, despite the aid of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a former presidential candidate who stumped for him in the Cedar Rapids area last week. Whitaker is a former Iowa Hawkeye football player and former U.S. Attorney.
Clovis, a college business professor, former Air Force pilot and popular radio talk show host, is at 11 percent. He has been endorsed by influential religious conservatives.
Schaben, a car dealership manager and Navy veteran, is at 2 percent.
The survey of 400 GOP likely primary voters was conducted May 27-30 by Selzer & Co. of Des Moines and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Although the race has had bursts of spectacle, it has yet to inspire much energy among the GOP electorate. The poll shows that only 9 percent of likely primarygoers have taken advantage of early voting opportunities, which began in late April.
But as Republicans have begun to settle on a candidate, they've gravitated to Ernst, an Iraq War veteran who grew up castrating hogs on a southwest Iowa farm and who, if she wins, would become the state's first female Republican U.S. Senate nominee. Jacobs, a retired electrical power company CEO, has invested millions of dollars of his personal wealth in trying to derail her.
Iowa politics observer Jeff Stein said it's not surprising that in a field of once incognito candidates the one with the greatest name recognition has taken the lead. Ernst popped into the spotlight in March with her infamous "Squeal" ad, in which she says, tongue in cheek, that she'll take her hog-testicle-cutting skills to D.C.'s heavy spenders and "make 'em squeal."
Seventy-one percent of likely GOP primary voters know enough about Ernst to form an opinion of her, highest in the field. Half or more of likely voters still don't know much about Whitaker, Clovis and Schaben.
"Ernst's hog castration ad, which got national attention, succeeded in making her a recognizable name," Stein said.
The poll shows Ernst's lead is significant across all demographics, factions and geographies. She does well with both men and women, with every age group, with the tea party and born-again Christians and with voters in every congressional district.
Poll respondent Robert DuBois, 38, an engineer from Ankeny, said: "I've watched her, and I've read a lot about her, and there's just a lot of character there that doesn't seem to exist in a lot of other politicians. She doesn't seem nearly as fake."
DuBois, who doesn't consider himself a tea partier and rates himself as a 7 on a scale where 10 means extremely conservative and 1 means moderate, said he especially appreciates Ernst's military experience and agricultural background, saying she reminds him of family members who "bust their butt" in those professions.
DuBois said he'd never heard of Jacobs until the interviewer who called to conduct the poll mentioned him.
If these poll numbers hold, Ernst is poised to win the nomination Tuesday without the need for a state convention to determine the nominee. If no candidate captures 35 percent, about 2,000 activists elected by their fellow Republicans would make the call on June 14.
Even if Ernst wins the nomination Tuesday, Stein noted that a majority of primary voters — perhaps as many as six out of 10 — will likely vote for someone besides her.
"That, in turn, means the party will have a lot of 'unity building' to do first before reaching out to independents to build the necessary coalition to defeat Bruce Braley in November," he said.
The winner of Tuesday's primary will take on Braley, a trial lawyer and four-term Democrat congressman from Waterloo. The general election is Nov. 4.
Jason Noble of the Des Moines Register contributed to this report.