Romney backs Iowa Republican Ernst for US Senate

In this Oct. 23, 2013 photo is state Sen. Joni Ernst during a Senate debate in Des Moines, Iowa. In a Wednesday, March 5, 2014 press release from state Ernst, former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney backed the Iowa Republican in the crowded GOP primary for Iowa’s open U.S. Senate seat. Ernst is among six Republicans running in the June 3 primary. (AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Bill Neibergall)

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is endorsing for re-election a handful of federal lawmakers, as well as a state senator from Iowa seeking that state's GOP Senate nomination.

The former Massachusetts governor announced in a press release Tuesday he was backing state Sen. Joni Ernst, one of six Republicans running for the GOP nomination in the race to succeed Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, who is not seeking a sixth consecutive term. Four-term House member Bruce Braley is the only Democrat seeking the seat.

"Joni is also a proven conservative with a great record as a state senator in Iowa," Romney said of Ernst in the emailed letter. Ernst, a second-term lawmaker from rural southwest Iowa, supported Romney in the 2012 Iowa caucuses.

Romney finished closely behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa en route to the 2012 presidential nomination.

Romney campaigned aggressively for Iowa in the 2012 election but lost the state to President Barack Obama by 5.6 percentage points.

The Ernst endorsement is a departure from Romney's handful of others, which include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, also of Idaho. The three are facing challenges from tea party-backed candidates.

Romney is also publicly endorsing U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who was the 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee on the ticket with Romney.