AURORA, Iowa — Sen. Joni Ernst, an avid motorcyclist, veteran and expert pig farmer, who once famously deadpanned in her campaign ad she would "cut pork" the way she castrated hogs on her family's Iowa farm, spoke to the Washington Examiner just days before her 3rd Annual Roast and Ride fundraiser at the Central Iowa Expo in Boone.
Her annual fundraiser was headlined then-Republican nominee Donald Trump, and this year by the top Republicans in the country and in the state, including Vice President Mike Pence, Sens. Tim Scott and Chuck Grassley, Rep. Steve King and Iowa's new Gov. Kim Reynolds.
The 49-mile-long event that winds through rural Iowa raises money for Hope for the Warriors, a national nonprofit that helps post-9/11 military members and their families.
The retired Army National Guard veteran discussed a variety of issues, from healthcare to tax reform to infrastructure to the passion behind the Roast and Ride.
Washington Examiner: Tell me about the Roast and Ride and the reason behind it.
Ernst: We started it three years ago. We just really wanted to ... keep the excitement up. Even on off-cycle years, we want to bring elected officials together, candidates together, in a family-friendly environment. I am a motorcyclist, I love to ride motorcycles, and so we thought, "Well, let's do a hog roast. And let's also do a motorcycle ride," you know, something different.
Because the military is so important to me, it's important to my family, we decided that all of the ticket sales, the dollars that we generate for ticket sales for the motorcycle portion of the ride, we would donate to a veterans charity. Every year, we've picked a different charity that those dollars go to. We continue to get more and more people interested, and, of course, this year we've got the vice president coming out, so we're hoping to have a lot of folks come out and have a great time.
Washington Examiner: Is this part of how you contribute, to not only keep the excitement going for the current elected officials, but build the party down-ballot?
Ernst: I always do invite all of our elected officials at the state level. We have the governor that will come out and visit, so that's fantastic. We also have a lot of our Republican Party activists that come out. They're really excited about being able to talk with their elected representatives. It's a good way to encourage people to stay engaged and get involved in politics at the local level. We think it does help with the down ticket as well.
Washington Examiner: Your state just swore in the first female governor, Kim Reynolds, last week. What is it like to now have a fellow statewide female representative for your state?
Ernst: I am excited about it in general, but specifically I am excited because it is a dear friend of mine, Kim Reynolds, that is now our new governor, and she is a very, very special person. She started many years ago in the Clarke County treasurer's office and moved into the State Senate from there and then became our lieutenant governor, now serving as governor of this great state. She is tremendous, she knows all aspects of government and serving the people, and she is just so enthusiastic and what a lovely person.
Washington Examiner: Regarding healthcare, the heat is on right now, but the process is just in the beginning for you in the Senate. There's a lot of things that you have to go over. What are some of the key things you're watching as this bill unfolds in the upper chamber?
Ernst: Well, affordability is the key. I have heard time and time again from Iowans how Obamacare has failed them. I have talked to so many, not only individuals, but families about how their premiums skyrocketed, and so they can barely afford their premiums, and for many of them ... I heard from a young man that his premiums had doubled per month. He said, "You know, that's the difference between me making my truck payment and not making my truck payment." You know?
He's a young starting farmer, and that's a big deal. It has failed, so affordability is key, it really is, so that we actually are providing true access to insurance products that will work for them and provide quality care. That will be one of the things that we look at, making sure that Iowans have access to affordable healthcare coverage, and then it's also quality healthcare coverage. But you know, a plan that they want to choose.
Washington Examiner: Iowa is down to one provider in the state, correct?
Ernst: We are. I have pushed this issue. I do go to the informal meetings that we've been having on the [American Health Care Act], you know, that came over from the House, and we've been meeting on that in informal groups, and this is an issue that I have brought to my caucus, and said, "Listen, in Iowa, Obamacare has completely failed, because we're down to one insurer. The others have pulled out, Aetna and Blue Cross Blue Shield have pulled out of the exchange, and out of the individual market. Medica has given indication that they will also pull out. If that happens, that means Iowans have no choice. There is no insurance that will be provided to them. How does that help people, if they want insurance, but simply don't have access to it?"
We're in a world of hurt in Iowa, and there are many other states that are right on that cliff as well. Tennessee is shortly behind us. Trying to find ... And I emphasize to the leaders today, as our meeting was breaking up, because we're looking at the big picture for healthcare, we also have to understand that Iowa and a number of other states will simply have no coverage for those that want to purchase individual plans. We're just pushing that and finding a pathway forward for states like Iowa as well in the meantime until the new healthcare plan falls into place.
Washington Examiner: What are some of your frustrations in how the process has been handled by those who do not support changing Obamacare?
Ernst: There are a lot of talking points without actually explaining what's behind it. That's great that they can go out there and just in 10 seconds say, "You're going to lose coverage." Well, my point is, come to Iowa. My Iowans are losing coverage under Obamacare. That is Obamacare; that's what your system has done to my families in Iowa. It is very frustrating.
Obamacare has failed them in so many ways, where people are making that decision, "Do I go to the doctor, or do I feed my family?" Those are choices they're making right now on Obamacare, so for people to be out there touting, "Oh, Obamacare is the greatest thing in the word," it is absolutely incorrect. They need to open their eyes and open their ears to the fact that this is failing.
I know they like to be all pie-in-the-sky about "Let's provide coverage for everybody," but what good is health insurance coverage if you can't actually go to the doctor because you can't afford it? The out-of-pocket costs are excessive, the deductibles are excessive, so I have people that have insurance coverage in my home county, in Montgomery County, they have health insurance coverage subsidized by American taxpayers, yet they have to go to the free clinic, because they can't afford the out-of-pocket costs to go to their doctor. You tell me that ACA is working, and I will tell you absolutely not. It has failed my constituents, so we're going to do something about it.
Washington Examiner: Do you think the genie's out of the bottle, that people just have this expectation that they're just going to get free healthcare?
Ernst: Yes, I do. I worry about that, and that was demonstrated in one of my very rowdy town hall meetings. Everybody was demanding — and this was earlier in the year — and they were demanding, "What are your plans for healthcare? What is your solution for healthcare then, if you're going to repeal and replace Obamacare?" I was listing off a number of items, and I mentioned HSAs as part of the equation, and somebody in the audience yelled out, "But that's using your own money."
That is so frustrating. Who else is supposed to pay for your healthcare? Who else is supposed to do that? It's coming from somebody, whether you're paying for it or your neighbor is paying for it. Somebody is paying for it. We all need to make responsible choices, and we all need to have skin in the game. We want Americans to be healthy, but there is no such thing as free healthcare.
Washington Examiner: Is that your biggest uphill battle? That people believe everyone should have free healthcare?
Ernst: That is the biggest uphill battle, I think so, I think so. We need to understand that we want coverage for Americans, but we also want the cost of healthcare to come down, so whether that means tackling the issue of high-priced pharmaceuticals, whether that is getting involved in more health and wellness activities, there are ways that we can make ourselves better, and we need to engage in those activities, whether it is watching our diets, whether it is exercise, we need to do those things, and we need to be responsible for ourselves.
We know that chronic illness, it costs everybody so much more in the long run, and why would anybody want to put themselves through that? If we can, we want to be proactive in warding off some of those illnesses later in life. We just all need to pitch in and do better.
Washington Examiner: On tax reform, what is your objective for your middle class family or your farmer in Iowa? What are your thoughts as you go to take that on?
Ernst: You bet, and, of course, we don't have a plan yet, so just hypothetically speaking, I would love to see a fairer tax system, a flatter tax system. I want to see that Iowa farmer or that Iowa small-business man keep more than dollars in their own pockets. They will spur the growth in our economy if they're able to hang onto those dollars.
For a small-business owner, that may make the difference between adding an additional position. It may make the difference in taking on another opportunity, expanding a storefront, whatever it might be. They are going to take those dollars and help themselves, but by helping themselves, they are creating other opportunities in the economy.
We want to make sure that more of those dollars are staying in our households, staying in our small businesses, and allow those business owners, allow that farmer, allow that family to make the choices that are right for their family with those dollars, and we'll see our economy grow. Economists will say, "The best things that we can do for the U.S. economy right now is tax reform, and regulations reform." You put those things together, and the sky's the limit.
Washington Examiner: Final question, I know healthcare and tax reform are already big things to tackle, but what about infrastructure?
Ernst: I was just going to bring that up, because that completes my big three, I think, so infrastructure is important, and it is so important to me. I lobbied hard to get onto the EPW committee up here, so the Environment Public Works, because I want to be part of that discussion. We have a lot of needs in Iowa beyond roads and bridges. We have a lot of flood mitigation projects across Iowa that we need to fund. We need to talk about broadband in rural areas. All of those things are part of infrastructure, so this is an area I do think that Republicans and Democrats can come together on and work really hard on because it will benefit all of our states and again the American economy, too, if we can get infrastructure together. I hope so.