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Political Mercury

How Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds could become president

2/1/2023

Gov. Kim Reynolds

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds insists a life in Washington is not for her. I believed her when she told me this near the shores of Black Hawk Lake in Lake View before the governor announced what became a successful re-election bid for Terrace Hill.

At the time, speculation emerged, prior to Sen. Charles Grassley’s formal bid taking shape, that Reynolds may have a carefully guarded case of Potomac Fever, some ambition to join her political ally Sen. Joni Ernst in the Senate.

I put the question to her in June 2021. Would she consider running for the Senate?

“I’m not leaving Iowa,” Reynolds said. “I can say with great confidence I am not leaving Iowa.”

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Would she run for the Senate under any condition?

“No,” Reynolds said.

Fair enough. Reynolds has a lock on the governor’s mansion as long as her health holds. Even an overreach on private school vouchers, a funding-shift asteroid hurtling at rural elementary, middle and high schools, is unlikely to turn Iowa, Mississippi North, into the new Kansas, the prairie of rebirth for Democrats.

Reynolds may be in the most secure political position of any statewide politician in the history of Iowa, a state that values incumbency as a second religion, having just re-elected Grassley who has served in office since 1959, the end of the Eisenhower Administration.

But yet a big part of Reynolds’ next term will be something of a tryout for the vice presidential nomination with what will be a parade of likely Republican candidates. She can appear with all candidates, and endorse none.

There was Reynolds in Sioux City with former President Donald Trump days before the Nov. 8 election, a no-doubts-here, safe-from-even-the-summoning-of-psychedelic-political-conjecturing contest for the Osceola Republican, the Iowa girl of all Iowa girls.

“The thing I hate about Reynolds is that even though I can’t stand her, I want to like her,” one prominent Democrat told me just after the election.

Reynolds owned the crowd that bone-chilling, windy Sioux City fall night. Trump took notice, tossing niceties like so many rolls of paper towels or red hats at Reynolds, who basked in a warm hurricane of the cloying Trump’s plaudits. Trump even trotted out an anecdote about Reynolds’ outdoorsman husband, Kevin, and Donald Trump Jr. on a winter-weathered hunting excursion.

In the summer of 2021, Reynolds took the stage at a Family Leader event in Des Moines with the effervescent Kristi Noem, a skilled orator and the governor of neighboring South Dakota.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, an Old Testament conservative, the OG of the GOP emerging White House field, keynoted in his reliable, earnest way. His political durability may be proof positive of that Old-West dictum that if the hangman’s noose fails, and you live, you go free. In Pence’s case, this is both reality and metaphor.

Reynolds carried the day with Pence and Noem.

This summer, Reynolds joined former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, another presidential aspirant, at a highly attended picnic for Congressman Randy Feenstra in Sioux Center.

Haley has a wonky star power and a resume that includes foreign policy experience as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But Reynolds’ connectivity and folksiness outclassed the politically estimable Haley whose policy chops run far deeper.

The biggest mistake of my political journalism career? Underestimating Kim Reynolds — not on what she was when the Republican arrived on the statewide scene in 2010 as Gov. Terry Branstad’s unprepared running mate, a candidate with seemingly no worldview, but on her potential, which proved pure rocketry.

So fair is fair.

Yes, in a column shortly after the 2010 election, I dubbed Reynolds, then lieutenant governor, “the state’s highest-paid intern.” Now I’m making the case that she can win the Republican nomination for president, and the White House. This isn’t to say she’d be a good or bad president, just that she could be the commander in chief. Doubt it? Count me among the once-bitten crowd.

Reynolds is a disciplined politician, a governor from a solidly red state who knows how to stay on message, a conservative with a record that checks box after box after box with the Republican electorate. She can own the libs and be likeable in doing it — with her base.

Of course, Reynolds has shown relentless fealty to Trump. And she will be feted as much as vetted by the biggest names in American politics, an experience that might be more appealing to her than the presidency — and certainly easier.

But ambition is ambition. In presidential politics, candidates often have one shot. This is Reynolds’.

With Iowa retaining the lead-off spot in the presidential nominating calendar for the Republicans, Reynolds could campaign aggressively in other early states, dropping back into Iowa for a final, winning push here.

I’m not alone in this assessment.

Michael Steele, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a high-profile political analyst, sees Iowa’s Republican governor as a strong potential candidate for the presidency.

“She should be in that conversation along with a number of other governors who have served over the last four or eight years,” Steele told me in late 2021 in Ames.

Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland who appears regularly on the cable-TV talk circuit, said in an interview with Political Mercury that Reynolds brings a record and style of leadership that could be attractive to Republicans.

“Why not look at the governor?” Steele asks. “She’s governed during a difficult time. Some of her decisions may or may not have been controversial or popular, but that’s all part of the soup. That’s how the country gets into its next groove.”

Douglas Burns of Carroll is fourth-generation journalist and founder of Mercury Boost, a marketing and public-relations company.

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