Iowa state Sen. Joni Ernst, the GOP's nominee to replace retiring Sen. Chuck Grassley, is using her experience of being sexually harassed while serving in the military to call for a renewed focus on the problem.
Ernst related the experience to Time Magazine on Friday, saying her harassers stopped after she asked them to, but knew that wasn't the case with many others in similar situations.
“I had comments, passes, things like that,” Ernst said. “These were some things where I was able to say stop and it simply stopped but there are other circumstances both for women and for men where they don’t stop and they may be afraid to report it.”
After that interview, Ernst spoke at the Iowa Federation of Republican Women’s anniversary dinner, where she discussed the issue of sexual assault in the military. In a statement released before the dinner, Ernst noted the toll that harassment and assault take on the women and men affected.
"Victims of sexual violence often feel trapped, isolated and alone. When these victims are women in the male-dominated military, that isolation can be even worse," Ernst said. "That is why I treat all allegations of sexual violence with the highest level of seriousness and sensitivity, and my heart goes out to every victim."
"Every claim should be fully investigated," Ernst added. "Anyone found guilty should be severely punished."
Ernst's experience with harassment sets her apart from other Republicans on the issue and makes it more difficult for Democrats like her opponent, Rep. Bruce Braley, to claim she is waging a "war on women." Not only has she experienced harassment, but she wants to ensure the problem doesn't continue.
Ernst said that if the military sexual assault bill that passed in March doesn't do enough to curb the problem, she would work to improve the law.
Ernst's proposal to strengthen the law surrounding how sexual assaults are dealt with by the military was similar to legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that was rejected earlier this year.
Specifically, Ernst wants sexual assault crimes investigated by an "independent, experienced prosecutor who is not in the chain of command for the accused or accuser."
Her proposal would also require secretaries of each armed service to designate an "independent court-martial administrator to convene the court-martial" if the independent prosecutor decided the claim should go to trial.
Ernst has been in the military for more than 20 years, has been deployed to Iraq and is a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard. If elected, she would be the first female combat veteran elected to the Senate and the first female senator from Iowa.
The latest CBS News/New York Times poll shows Ernst ahead of Braley by 1 percentage point — a statistical dead heat.