Behind Joni Ernst's game-changing pig-castrating ad

Todd Harris, a Republican strategist from liberal San Francisco, tells the story of the 30-second TV spot that boosted the new senator from Iowa

The ad which introduced pig castration to American politics and helped clinch the Republicans’ Senate majority was conceived by a public relations guru who grew up in a liberal bastion far from any farm.

Todd Harris, a veteran Republican strategist from California, helped to transform Joni Ernst’s campaign in Iowa by seizing on a biographical detail that captured the public’s imagination and set her on the road to Washington.

“It got people to take notice of her,” Harris said, clutching a Bud Light as Republicans whooped and celebrated around him in Des Moines on Tuesday night. “It was by no means unanimous that we should run this ad but Joni believed in it.”

The 30-second ad ‘Squeal’ featured Ernst gazing into a camera and boasting of castrating hogs on the farm where she grew up. “So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” she said. It showed images of pigs, then came her punchline. “Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ’em squeal.”

Harris, who works for the DC-based firm Something Else Strategies, and another media consultant colleague, David Polyansky, stumbled across the idea in a meeting with Ernst in 2012 when she was competing in a crowded field for the GOP nomination.

“We were working on a stump speech and asked about how she grew up,” said Harris. “She mentioned this and that, castrating hogs, and this and that, like it was no big thing. Well, I’m from the San Francisco Bay area and we’ve probably outlawed hog castration there.”

Ernst was a relatively obscure one-term state senator from Red Oak, a remote part of Montgomery county, in south-west Iowa, and competing against better-funded rivals.

“The campaign didn’t have a lot of money so we knew we had to take some risks. We wanted to test the line so she used it as a one-liner in a debate. It worked. It really killed. So we knew it was funny.”

The 44-year-old grandmother, a national guard lieutenant colonel who served in Iraq, clinched the nomination.

But her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, a four-term congressman, was tipped to inherit the US Senate seat vacated by Tom Harkin, a fellow Democrat who was stepping down.

The ad, filmed at a friend’s farm for $9,000, helped turn the tide. It was viewed on YouTube almost 400,000 times within 72 hours. Late-night comedians such as Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert spoofed it. Some considered it bad taste but Ernst’s name recognition soared. Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and George Bush Sr endorsed her.

The campaign bus of her “make ’em squeal” state-wide tour was emblazoned with the image of a pig and the exhortation: “Honk if you want to make DC squeal.”

Ernst’s folksy charm won independent voters who might otherwise have shuddered at the vow to cull bureaucracies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and to slash spending on social security and other benefits.

“It was really Joni,” said Harris. “The reason why that ad worked is that she’s so authentic in it. The ad captured who she is. You couldn’t just have anybody say something like that and pull it off. It worked for her because voters knew it was real.”

Harris, a veteran operative who has worked for John McCain, Jeb Bush, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marco Rubio, said Ernst won because of her values and leadership skills. “If you didn’t follow through all you’d have is a losing campaign with a lot of YouTube hits.”

Bill Clinton, stumping for Braley last week, told a rally he “sort of liked” the ad but accused Ernst of not knowing the difference between pork and people. “I don’t want to hear minimum-wage workers squeal. I don’t want to hear middle-class and working families squeal. I don’t want to hear college students squeal. I don’t want to hear seniors squeal.” Other Democrats assailed Ernst as a conservative radical bankrolled by the Koch brothers.

The attacks fell on deaf ears. Ernst won easily by more than seven points.

Harris doubted she would repeat the swine line in future races. “When you’re talking about hog castration, less is probably more. I don’t expect to see it on TV again.”


Rory Carroll in Des Moines

The GuardianTramp

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