Will Joni Ernst’s flirtations with the political fringe haunt her in November?

Meredith Shiner, Yahoo News
Yahoo News
Joni Ernst, From Obscure Iowa Legislator to Potential Role Model for Future GOP Candidates
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Joni Ernst, From Obscure Iowa Legislator to Potential Role Model for Future GOP Candidates (ABC News)

In the weeks since her decisive June U.S. Senate primary win, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst has found herself in the precarious position of being an establishment-backed candidate who owes her shot at a national office to some of the most conservative voters in the country. That means that while she’s now got the full support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, she is also being confronted by sympathetic remarks she made earlier on fringe topics before audiences far to the right of the Iowa general electorate.

The latest primary comments that could haunt her Senate bid are on the topic of Agenda 21, a community planning provision in a decades-old United Nations treaty that’s become an object of fear and conspiracy theories on the right, and especially in the commentaries and writing of Glenn Beck.

Yahoo News has obtained video showing Ernst at a January GOP forum in Montgomery County, Iowa, warning that Agenda 21 could force Iowa farmers off their land, dictate what cities Iowans must live in, and control how Iowa citizens travel from place to place.

“The United Nations has imposed this upon us, and as a U.S. senator, I would say, ‘No more. No more Agenda 21.’ Community planning — to the effect that it is implementing eminent domain and taking away property rights away from individuals — I don’t agree with that. And especially in a place such as Iowa, where we rely heavily upon our agricultural community, our rural communities. We don’t want to see things like eminent domain come into play,” Ernst said in response to a question about Agenda 21 at the forum.

“We don’t want to see a further push with Agenda 21, where the Agenda 21 and the government telling us that these are the urban centers that you will live in; these are the ways that you will travel to other urban centers,” Ernst continued. “Agenda 21 encompasses so many different aspects of our lives that it’s taking away our individual liberties, our freedoms as United States citizens. So I would adamantly oppose Agenda 21. I don’t believe it is responsible, not for United States citizens.”

It wasn’t the only time Ernst addressed the topic or raised such fears during her primary campaign. “What I've seen, the implications we could have here, is moving people off of their agricultural land and consolidating them into city centers, and then telling them that you don't have property rights anymore,” she told a crowd in rural Ida Grove in November 2013, in response to a general foreign policy question and in remarks first reported by the Associated Press in June.

But with her primary long in the rearview mirror and the general election less than 90 days away, Ernst now sounds more like a debunker of the conspiracy than an alarmist.

When asked by Yahoo News last week in Iowa about Agenda 21 and her previous remarks on the issue — an issue so obscure that several outside GOP campaign operatives approached for this story had never heard of it — Ernst had changed her tune, and sounded more in sync with a general election audience.

“I don’t think that the U.N. Agenda 21 is a threat to Iowa farmers,” Ernst said in an interview in her Urbandale campaign office. “I think there are a lot of people that follow that issue in Iowa. It may be something that is very important to them, but I think Iowans are very smart and that we have a great legislature here, we have a very intelligent governor, and I think that we will protect Iowans.”

Ernst dismissed criticism from Democrats on her position on this and other conservative issues as “distractions.” But more than most GOP Senate candidates in a cycle that has been dominated by incumbents staving off challengers, she will have to live with a record of statements she made as the most conservative candidate in the primary, while Democrats trip over themselves to use that record against her.

In a statement issued Tuesday evening, campaign spokeswoman Gretchen Hamel characterized Ernst's race to date: "In a crowded five way primary Joni was able to build a consensus and win the nomination by a significant majority. Joni is now working to build a broad coalition of Iowans as she works to defeat Bruce Braley in the general election." 

Ernst has expressed out-of-the-mainstream views on a range of issues, from impeaching President Barack Obama to the issue of states acting to nullify federal law, for which she was criticized by the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.

But her positions on the 1992 U.N. recommendations for countries to become more environmentally sustainable — which Beck made the basis of his novel "Agenda 21," about a “violent and tyrannical government” ruling “what was once known as America”  — are perhaps her greatest flirtation with the politics of the conspiracy-minded.

And unlike her impeachment remarks, the breadth and length of her response on the topic of Agenda 21 seems to belie a deep knowledge of the conspiracy theory floated by conservative radio icons on an issue on which many candidates would likely have no prepared talking points or strongly held opinions. Many sources familiar with Iowa politics note, however, that the question of Agenda 21 is more frequently discussed in the Hawkeye state’s agricultural communities than it is nationally.

The full audio of her November comments, in response to a more generic question about the Council on Foreign Relations and “the eroding of American sovereignty via the United Nations,” was also obtained by Yahoo News:

For now, Ernst says she’s not concerned about Agenda 21 or even people’s perception of her previous remarks on the matter.

“I don’t think so,” she said, when asked whether she was worried about this. “People will think what they want to think about Agenda 21 — but again, going back to Iowa: The Iowa way is to take care of Iowans, and that’s exactly what we intend to do. I think the U.N. is a far reach away from Iowa. I don’t think it’s a threat.”

Chris Moody contributed reporting from Urbandale, Iowa.