Amid a fledgling primary campaign, rural Iowa state lawmaker Joni Ernst crafted a quirky hardscrabble persona that propelled her to both the forefront of the race and, eventually, the United States Senate. In a 30-second spot that gained attention for its employment of hog castration imagery, Sen. Ernst (R-Iowa) claimed that her farmer parents “taught us to live within our means” and said that “it’s time to force Washington to do the same.” The Washington Post said the ad “transformed” the race and was “a vivid reminder of the enduring power of a single image”–one that has endured. On the day Ernst was sworn in, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) gave her a mounted pair of porcine testicle clippers with a plaque immortalizing her “Make ‘Em Squeal, Joni!” slogan.
The truth about her family’s farm roots and living within one’s means, however, is more complex. Relatives of Ernst (née: Culver), based in Red Oak, Iowa (population: 5,568) have received over $460,000 in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009. Ernst’s father, Richard Culver, was given $14,705 in conservation payments and $23,690 in commodity subsidies by the federal government–with all but twelve dollars allocated for corn support. Richard’s brother, Dallas Culver, benefited from $367,141 in federal agricultural aid, with over $250,000 geared toward corn subsidies. And the brothers’ late grandfather Harold Culver received $57,479 from Washington—again, mostly corn subsidies—between 1995 and 2001. He passed away in January 2003.
The Sentinel cross-referenced the Environmental Working Group farm subsidy database with open source information to verify the Culvers’ interest in the Department of Agriculture’s crop support program.
Sen. Ernst’s family’s financial interest notably came up once during her campaign. In October, Salon reported that Richard’s construction company was awarded $215,665 in contracts from the Montgomery County government in 2009 and 2010, while Ernst was the body’s auditor. The bids won by Culver included Federal Emergency Management Agency projects worth $204,794.
While Ernst didn’t play a deliberative role in awarding the contracts, Salon reported that strict state ethics laws stipulate for “contracts to be voided if any county ‘officer or employee’ has an interest in the contractor.” County auditors are allowed to solicit contract proposals and publish bid notices, however, and in 2007, Ernst was appointed the county’s chief financial officer overseeing federal and state assistance in the wake of flooding. She held the role while serving as auditor simultaneously.
Ernst’s office did not respond to emailed questions about whether her families past financial benefit from farm subsidies impact her views on the role of government in agriculture.
It is rather unlikely that they substantially do. Between 1995 and 2012, Iowa received $24.9 billion in farm subsidies–the second largest amount in the US behind Texas, a state with about nine times the population. During a 2014 primary debate, all five Republican senatorial candidates said they supported federal agricultural aid. Ernst’s specifically said that she is “philosophically opposed” to the program, but supports government-backed insurance and said she will throw her weight behind agricultural subsidies “unless we’re eliminating all of them across the board at the same time for every sector out there.” Ernst’s senior counterpart, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), has received $316,535 in federal agricultural support between 1995 and 2011, despite calling for limits on how adjusted gross income is used to calculate benefits. The Farm Bill plays a central role in Iowan politics.
The benefit accrued to Ernst’s family does, however, undermine her claims that her family “lived within her means” and that she is committed to cutting pork–swine testicle extrication past notwithstanding.