The perils of stardom on Capitol Hill

Utah Rep. Mia Love, above, is navigating the challenges of being a prominent new member of Congress.

Story highlights

  • Joni Ernst keeps a low profile in first week in Washington
  • A test for DC's new stars: balancing fame and overexposure

(CNN)Even in celebrity-obsessed D.C., too much attention can be a bad thing.

So as Congress got back to work last week, two freshman stars -- Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and Utah Rep. Mia Love -- were trying to figure out how to navigate the spotlight, and in some cases, duck it. Ernst, a conservative favorite, is the first woman to represent the Hawkeye State in the Senate while Love is the House's first black female Republican.
Ernst, a political unknown who rose to fame in 2014 with an ad promising she could cut pork in Washington because of her experience castrating hogs on her family farm, has signaled her media strategy by declining interviews since her election from anyone other than Iowa outlets.
    Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
    "What we really want to do is focus on Iowa," she told the Des Moines Register.
    Over the holidays, Love had told a local Utah public radio outlet that she would try to avoid national media attention and focus on representing her district. But she has been a visible presence on the national stage since her win in November and during her first week in Washington. She agreed to a feature in People magazine with her family at their Saratoga Springs home. She made her first appearance on a Sunday show last week and spoke to Fox on Thursday night about her vote on legislation related to Obamacare. On Friday morning, she joined other House members on the floor to read aloud from the Constitution.
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    "One of the best pieces of advice that Ted Kennedy used to give incoming senators was to be a workhorse, not a show horse," said Stephanie Cutter, a former senior adviser to Kennedy and Obama. Incoming members, "regardless of their celebrity have to demonstrate that they are willing to roll up their sleeves, reach across party lines and get things done. If you do that successfully, then you are setting yourself up for whatever you want to do next."
    As these two women navigate their way through the power corridors of Washington, they do not have to look far to see the damage that can be inflicted by overexposure.
    After her meteoric rise in 2008, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's once promising career plummeted to the realm of reality television. The polarizing antics of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz have drawn the animus of his colleagues and are likely to limit his presidential ambitions. In a recent op-ed for the Boston Globe, former New Hampshire Sen. John E. Sununu, a Republican, said that when it came to working with Cruz "the collective membership of the world's greatest deliberative body would rather stick needles in their eyes."
    So far, Ernst and Love have pledged bipartisanship and careful attention to constituents of all political stripes. At one of her receptions on Capitol Hill this week, Ernst spoke about her plans to hold town halls in all 99 counties of Iowa this year—following the tradition of senior Sen. Chuck Grassley, who has been doing the tour known as "The Full Grassley" for more than 30 years.
    A screen shot of the invitation for Sen. Joni Ernst's 1st annual roast and ride fundraiser
    On Friday, Ernst's political action committee announced that she would host a "Roast and Ride" in Iowa in June. The hogs and Harley-themed event was a nod to her roots and former Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin's famed steak fry, which has lured many presidential candidates to Iowa in recent years.
    "She wasn't elected to become a political celebrity, she was elected to serve the people of Iowa," said Dave Kochel, an Iowa-based Republican strategist who advised Ernst during her Senate campaign. "It's part of the Iowa culture to be humble and not to call attention to yourself. Iowans respect people who understand that they are working for them."
    In these early days, Love's election is frequently cited by colleagues as an example of growing diversity in the Republican Party. While she acknowledged her historic win on election night, Love has also signaled that she will resist the efforts of others to define her by her race and gender.
    When people have tried to draw her into those debates, she told the Salt Lake City public radio affiliate KUER, "I said, 'Don't label me. First and foremost, I'm a wife, I'm a mother, I'm a Utahan and I'm an American.'"
    In a sign of the pressures to come, however, Love was quickly drawn into the recent controversy over whether Republican House Majority Whip Steve Scalise should remain in leadership after it was revealed that he spoke to a white supremacist group in 2002.
    Love stood by him in her brief appearance on ABC's "This Week."
    "There's one quality he has that I think is very important in leadership and that's humility," she said. "And he's actually shown that in this case."
    At the same time, she also drew notice by joining the Congressional Black Caucus this week, raising the eyebrows of its many Democratic members by saying she wants to change it from the inside.
    "I think it's important to join and do what you can to make sure we are uniting Americans," Love told Fox host Greta Van Susteren Thursday. "I don't want this divisiveness based on race or gender. We are all Americans."
    When it comes to models for freshmen lawmakers, strategists often cite Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, the former comedian and 'Saturday Night Live' writer, and former New York Sen. Hillary Clinton as two who figured out a formula and stuck to it.
    During his first term in the Senate, Franken often refused national media interviews—even quick asides in the hallway—trying to make his mark by plowing into policy issues like net neutrality and mobile privacy.
    As the former first lady, Clinton's office was flooded with requests from national and international press during her first year in the Senate. But "she declined 99.9% of those interview requests," said Patti Solis-Doyle, a long time adviser to Clinton who was her chief of staff on her first Senate campaign.
    Clinton tried instead to master local issues in granular detail, focusing on initiatives like getting New York into the Northeast Dairy Compact, addressing the economic divide between upstate New York and New York City, and championing the state's wine industry. (At a "New York Farm Day" hosted by Clinton in the Senate, she placed Boonville's Mercer's Dairy next to New York winemakers, inspiring wine-flavored ice cream that is now sold internationally).
    "She really did have tunnel vision on what the job was, and what she needed to do," said Solis-Doyle. "She spent a lot of time on the minutia and the nitty-gritty."
    Clinton also knew her constituents had little patience for the media circus that surrounded her, Solis-Doyle added. To that end, she initially tried to fly under the radar, spending much of her time on constituent work, and making it clear that she knew her place as the junior senator—standing behind New York Sen. Chuck Schumer at the podium, for example, and waiting her turn to speak.
    Others who came to the Senate as big names like New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker are still struggling to find the right balance. Booker's superhero acts as mayor of Newark -- rescuing a neighbor from a burning house and routinely helping stranded constituents shovel out of the snow -- inspired a faux-jealous video spoof by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, as well as an enormous Twitter following.
    But while running for re-election to the U.S. Senate this fall, Booker told NJ.com that his goal for the year was to "stay away from the media" and "earn the respect of my colleagues" as a hard worker.
    Ernst and Love will face many of those kinds of decisions as they try to prove themselves on the national stage.
    "They're both going to get an enormous amount of requests, not only for interviews, but also to travel and raise money for their respective parties and caucuses," Solis-Doyle said. 'They are going to have to think hard about how to balance all that."
    To nurture their careers over the long term, she recommended following what she called 'the Hillary model': "Keep your head down; keep your eyes and ears open; figure out how the place works and then do your best to provide for your constituents."