She packs a pistol in her purse, rides a Harley-Davidson and used to castrate hogs on her family farm. These are the kinds of personal details Joni Ernst is sharing with Iowa voters in television ads that have transformed a once-lagging campaign.

Ernst, who is currently a state senator and served in the Iowa Army National Guard, is running for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate seat and until a few weeks ago she was struggling to compete against a crowded field of candidates that includes wealthy businessman Mark Jacobs.

Jacobs has reportedly spent more than $1.5 million of his own money on his campaign so far and was considered the front-runner.

What’s an underdog to do? Well, Ernst turned to hogs.

“I’m Joni Ernst. I grew up castrating hogs on an Iowa farm. So when I get to Washington, I’ll know how to cut pork,” she says in the TV spot, filmed in a barn with little pigs in their pens. Ernst tells viewers she wants to repeal Obamacare, cut wasteful spending and balance the budget.

“I’m Joni Ernst and I approved this message because Washington is full of big spenders. Let’s make ‘em squeal.”

What has happened in Iowa since the ad aired in March illustrates just how crucial political advertising can be in U.S. politics.

The attention-grabbing ad catapulted Ernst to the front of the pack and now she’s giving Jacobs a run for his money. It generated news coverage locally in Iowa and was viewed on YouTube hundreds of thousands of times within days. It not only helped her stand out from the other candidates, but it raised her profile beyond Iowa as well.

It then became the subject of discussion on major national TV networks and The Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon also picked up on the buzz and highlighted it in one of his opening monologues. Stephen Colbert also poked fun at it on his late night show. “Joni, you had me at castration,” he says in a segment devoted to Ernst’s ad.

Romney, Palin give endorsements

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney endorsed Ernst and another high-profile conservative is also lending her support — Sarah Palin. The former vice-presidential candidate praised Ernst during a speech in Des Moines saying she hasn’t been this excited about a candidate in a long time. Palin, who is also known for her enthusiasm for motorcycles and firearms, said she likes that Ernst rides a Harley-Davidson and that “She’s packin’ and knows how to use it.”

Ernst’s followup TV ad to the castrating hogs spot looks like it’s taken from a page of the Palin playbook. She pulls up to a building on her Harley-Davidson, wearing a black leather jacket and the narrator says she’s not the typical candidate. She "carries more than just lipstick in her purse."

She goes inside, it’s a gun range, loads up her pistol and fires off six bullets. She’s taking aim at Obamacare and wasteful spending, the narrator says. “Give me a shot,” Ernst then asks viewers.

Ernst told a local TV station that she loves the ad. “It really is who I am,” she said, adding that the ads have gotten attention and the attention has meant endorsements.

Her campaign RV has a photo of a hog on it under the words “Honk if you want to make D.C. squeal.” The words mother, soldier, conservative are also plastered along the side. Ernst says plenty of people are honking.

But her rival’s camp questions the strategy and called the hog ad “bizarre.”

“I thought it was a joke, and I was embarrassed by it,” Douglas Gross, an adviser to Jacobs told The Washington Post.  Another strategist, Nick Ryan, said the guns ad might turn off female voters in the general election.

The guns and hogs ads may not sway independent voters if Ernst does win the Republican nomination, but they aren’t necessarily the target. Midterm elections are largely about motivating each party’s base supporters. Iowa is traditionally a battleground state and it will be a key one to watch in November because it could help determine whether the Democrats lose control of the Senate.

Ernst will learn whether her risky advertising campaign paid off when the primary is held on June 3.