05/09/2014 05:59 pm ET

GOP Senate Candidate On Missing Votes: 'I Have Never Been AWOL'


A Republican lawmaker and Senate candidate hoping to succeed retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hit back against accusations from one of her primary opponents that she was "AWOL" during key votes in the state's legislature.

Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst told the Des Moines Register's editorial board Friday that she found Republican businessman Mark Jacobs' allegation that she was "AWOL" -– a military acronym meaning "absent without leave" -- deeply offensive.

"That term is very degrading in the military," Ernst told the paper. "I have never been AWOL."

Ernst is in the Iowa National Guard and has attributed some of her more than 100 missed votes during the most recent legislative session to her service obligations. In her interview, she took a swipe at Jacobs' professional background and lack of military service.

"If he had any sort of service like I have, he would've understood what AWOL means," Ernst said. "I have not been AWOL, I will never be AWOL."

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) defended Ernst by calling Jacobs' use of the term "inexcusable." Jacobs ultimately removed the "AWOL" attack from his website.

In an April analysis by the Iowa Gazette, the paper found that just 10 percent of Ernst's missed votes were due to her National Guard duties.

Ernst also told the paper that, in her opinion, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the American invasion in 2003.

"We don't know that there were weapons on the ground when we went in, however, I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," she said, according to the paper. "That was the intelligence that was operated on. I have reason to believe there was weapons of mass destruction. My husband served in Saudi Arabia as an Army Central Command sergeant major for a year and that's a hot-button topic in that area."

Despite the total lack of evidence that there were WMDs in Iraq, 63 percent of Republican respondents in a 2012 poll shared Ernst's view.

Local Democrats criticized Ernst's comments Friday.

“Iowans should be gravely concerned that Joni Ernst continues to perpetuate a myth that both President Bush and Vice President Cheney have said was untrue," Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Scott Brennan said in a statement. "This is a debate that was settled many years ago, and all Iowans and Americans want U.S. Senators who can use the lessons of the past to build a smarter foreign policy moving forward. Ernst’s denial of the facts is immensely troubling.”

Ernst and Jacobs are considered the frontrunners in a multi-candidate contest for the Republican nomination on June 3. The winner will face Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) in November.



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