SIOUX CITY | They come from different backgrounds and corners of Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. But starting in January, they have this in common: They’re representing Siouxland interests in Washington.
Joni Ernst, Ben Sasse and Mike Rounds are three of 11 incoming GOP senators in the new session, part of the red wave that seized control from Democrats during the midterms on Nov. 4. Together, the three -- Ernst, of Iowa, Sasse, of Nebraska, and Rounds, of South Dakota -- represent a new, completely Republican Senate roster for Siouxland states.
For those locally who rely on access to Washington, the change means adjusting to a new set of personalities, new staff members, and new goals and ambitions. The effectiveness of the freshman senators will factor into whether area projects on infrastructure, business expansion and social services continue or fall off.
"Accessibility is a key," Siouxland Chamber of Commerce Executive Vice President Barbara Sloniker said.
Issues like the farm bill, decisions surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline, and funding for transportation, like expanding Highway 20, could have a massive impact on Siouxland.
Dan Lederman, a Republican state senator from Dakota Dunes who also runs a Sioux City bail bonds business, said Siouxland has a clear ally in Rounds, a former governor.
He pointed to 2007, when computer maker Gateway Inc. closed in North Sioux City. An economic team headed by Rounds helped find new tenants for the former buildings. Lederman said Rounds also helped draw the Masaba Mining Equipment business from Iowa to Vermillion, S.D., in 2005.
"He sees the Siouxland area as an economic engine and will work on ways to tweak it," Lederman said. "He understands how important it is to keep everything moving down here."
71 YEARS IN HOUSE, SENATE EXPERIENCE
They have big roles to fill. Rounds replaces Tim Johnson, a Democrat who has represented South Dakota in Washington since 1987, first in Congress and then in the Senate.
Ernst is assuming the seat of Democrat Tom Harkin, who was in the Senate for five terms and had 10 years before that in the U.S. House.
Sasse takes over from fellow Republican Mike Johanns, who took office in 2009.
All told, the three sitting senators have 71 years of experience serving in the U.S. House and Senate. They’ve also amassed lists of legislation and powerful committee positions. The one with the shortest tenure, Johanns, served as secretary of agriculture for President George W. Bush.
All three incumbents decided to not seek re-election, creating rare open U.S. Senate seats. They're replaced by senators-elect with no experience in national office. They will become junior senators, behind Republicans Chuck Grassley in Iowa, Deb Fischer in Nebraska and John Thune in South Dakota.
Rounds said he is eager to get started.
"There has been a sense that Washington really does have to change, and we're getting that discussion both on the Republican side and with a number of Democrats," he said last week, during an orientation for new senators. "So I think there's a breath of fresh air here in the Capitol halls."
‘NOT A BOMB THROWER’
It will be the first time Republicans have been in control of the Senate since 2006. The 11-seat spread could grow depending on the results of a run-off race in Louisiana next month. Republicans also have the majority in the House.
Of the three, Ernst gained the most attention nationally for television ads that mentioned castrating hogs and other comments on the campaign trail. Ernst was the Montgomery County auditor before being elected to the Iowa Senate.
Sasse during an interview last week said he and Ernst are "conservative in philosophy but prudent in temperament."
"I'm not a bomb thrower," Sasse said.
South Sioux City Manager Lance Hedquist expects Sasse to be a strong voice on education and health care reform, in a lame duck session in which some Republicans have vowed to alter the 2010 Affordable Care Act.
Sasse has been president of Midland University in Fremont since 2010. That follows his career as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services from 2007 to 2009.
During the campaign, Sasse said market-oriented pieces must replace the existing health program. He also wants portability of health insurance from job to job.
"He will definitely play into the ObamaCare discussions," Hedquist said. "He will be a breath of fresh air for this state and the country."
SEEKING A LOCAL CONNECTION
Lederman hopes the new Senate will break the logjam of legislation that formed during Democratic control.
"We'll see a lot of movement over the next six months," he said.
All three newcomers campaigned in the region, with Ernst leading the pack. Her husband, Gail Ernst, is a Sioux City native.
Chris McGowan, president of the Siouxland Chamber, said there’s a solid local connection.
“Ernst was in Sioux City on several occasions during her campaign and met with numerous local executives seeking input and insight on the matters that were most important to their businesses,” he said. “I have every confidence that the senator-elect will be an accessible and effective advocate for Sioux City and Northwest Iowa.”
Rounds last week said he’s ready for the new job.
"The biggest challenge is simply keeping track of all the moving parts," he said. “Lots of things that have to be done and done quickly, but we'll make it work."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.