Terry Branstad Breaks Record for Longest-Serving U.S. Governor

The Iowa Republican, who's been in office through three economic downturns, surpasses the 18th-century governor who previously held the title.
by | December 14, 2015
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (David Kidd)

Lots of politicians like to talk about Ronald Reagan, but only some can describe deals they actually made with him while he was president. Terry Branstad is one of them.

On Monday, the Iowa Republican became the longest-serving governor in U.S. history, with 7,640 days in office.

First elected back in 1982, Branstad served for four terms before becoming a lobbyist and then president of Des Moines University. He was elected governor again in 2010 and was easily re-elected once again last year.

Iowans simply feel comfortable with their governor, says Christopher Latimer, the author of the new book, Gubernatorial Stability in Iowa: A Stranglehold on Power. Branstad has visited all 99 Iowa counties in each of his 21 years in office.

"Branstad is perceived as being very accessible, in large part due to his efforts to get around the state on a regular basis," said Latimer.

Branstad is now just under a year into his sixth term, which puts him ahead of George Clinton, the first governor of New York, in the record books. Clinton's service began in 1777 -- prior to the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and New York's recognition as a state in 1788. He served until 1795 and again from 1801 to 1804, for a total of 21 years.

If you don't include the years Clinton lead New York before it became a state, Branstad broke the record after he returned to office back in 2011. He'd outlasted Republican Gov. Bill Janklow, who led South Dakota for 16 years during the 1980s and 1990s.

Clinton also served as vice president under both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but Clinton's "claim to fame" was constructing a chain across the Hudson River, near West Point, that kept the British from advancing north into upstate New York during the Revolutionary War.

"It's pretty neat," said Branstad. "I was just a buck sergeant in the Army, but I'm going to break the record of a general from New York."

Asked whether he has a personal accomplishment comparable to fending off the British, Branstad noted that his primary focus has been on economic development. He's happy to brag about new companies coming into Iowa or expanding operations there, running the gamut from fertilizer plants to Facebook, which has a $300 million data center in Altoona.

Iowa currently has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, at 3.5 percent. It was 5.7 percent when Branstad took office in 2011. The drop in the state's unemployment rate was even more dramatic during Branstad's first run as governor.

Branstad has been in office long enough to ride out three separate sets of economic downturns -- the farm crisis of the 1980s, the recession of the early 1990s, and the recent Great Recession.

"Part of his legacy is as a governor who served through economic distress and was someone voters turned to, rather than away from, during those times," said Latimer, who teaches political science at the University of Northern Iowa.

During Branstad's first term, when the nation's farm economy was in crisis, land values in Iowa dropped 63 percent, the governor recalled, while 38 banks closed across the state.

Branstad didn't join the line of some 900 tractors that rolled into Washington, with farmers seeking relief from the federal government. But he did visit Washington frequently back then in hopes of getting the feds to agree to restructure agricultural debt.

"President Reagan promised it to me in '84," Branstad recalled, "but it didn't actually get signed into law until December 1987."

Branstad has been around long enough that the kind of deals he and Reagan used to make with Democrats don't happen much anymore. Jack Kibbie, a Democratic former president of the Iowa Senate, said Branstad has grown more conservative over time, along with his party.

"He was a lot more compromising in his first stint than he is in his second," Kibbie said. "I think it had to do with conservatives putting pressure on all these Republican governors."

Along with other Iowa Democrats, Kibbie chafes at Branstad's vetoes this past July of parts of a budget package that would have provided an additional $55.7 million for public education, as well additional funds for universities and mental health centers.

But Kibbie concedes that Branstad can boast of many positive accomplishments in areas such as infrastructure, renewable fuels and property tax rates over the course of his long career.

"He's done a lot of good things, or they wouldn't have put him in there that many times," Kibbie said. "I don't think he'll be running again, but people didn't think he would run as many times as he has."

(1802 portrait of George Clinton by Ezra Ames)