Queen of Iowa: How One Governor Came to Dominate Her State
Kim Reynolds was relatively unknown when she served as lieutenant governor and even after becoming governor. She's since emerged as a powerhouse.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds failed to persuade the Iowa Legislature to pass a relatively modest private school choice bill last year, despite leaders keeping open the session for several extra weeks. This year, a new school choice bill with a price tag seven times as large passed almost as soon as the Legislature started its session.
The outcome was no accident. Reynolds, a 63-year-old Republican, supported four candidates who unseated legislators who’d opposed her on school choice in last year’s GOP primaries, including the chair of the House education committee. The 2022 elections not only gave Reynolds a bigger majority to work with, but left legislators that much more wary about crossing her. “You have to respect the political leadership she provided to get that done,” says David Oman, a former co-chair of the Iowa GOP.
Reynolds now is getting just about everything she asks for, including major tax cuts and a complete reorganization of the state government itself. “There’s no doubt that she is stronger today than she has every been,” says Jack Whitver, the Iowa Senate majority leader. “You need to have a bold, unified agenda, and that’s where Gov. Reynolds has helped us.”
Reynolds has certainly benefited from her state’s rightward tilt. Iowa was a purple state not too long ago, with Barack Obama carrying it in both 2012 and 2016. As recently as 2016, Democrats still held a slim majority in the Iowa Senate. Now, Democrats are only competitive in a handful of urban centers and college towns, while Republicans occupy state House districts in all 99 counties.
Reynolds has had GOP majorities to work with during most of her time in office. What makes her success unusual is its slow build. Many governors convert campaign promises into new laws soon after taking office, with a good number running out of steam or even struggling through their second terms. Reynolds, by contrast, has only gained power the longer she’s been in office.
She succeeded Terry Branstad in 2017 — the longest-serving governor in U.S. history — after he was appointed ambassador to China. She’s now clearly emerged from his shadow. In fact, Reynolds is pursuing a more conservative and aggressive agenda than Branstad ever did. “At this point, nothing suggests to me that she’s going to slow down,” says Christopher Larimer, a political scientist at the University of Northern Iowa.
Coming Into Her Own
Oman, who once served as Branstad’s chief of staff, recalls meeting Reynolds back in the mid-1990s. “She was vivacious, smart, a quick study and a hard worker,” he recalls. “I remember people at the time thought she’d have a political future, but no one realized how high her ascent would be.”
Her climb turned out to be relatively quick. After serving as a county treasurer, she was elected to the Iowa Senate in 2008. Just two years later, Branstad picked her as his running mate. He’d already served four terms as governor, but won his comeback bid after being out of office for a dozen years.
Branstad was famous for visiting every county in Iowa each year he was in office. Reynolds wasn’t nearly as well known around the state. She managed to clear the Republican field in the 2018 primary, but barely won election to a full term that year, carrying just 50.3 percent of the vote. “That might have put a little bit of a pause on how hard she wanted to push her policy agenda,” Larimer says.
It was a different story last year. Reynolds won re-election by an 18-percentage-point margin. Not only that, Republicans swept all but one statewide office, including the defeat of Tom Miller, the long-serving attorney general and an occasional thorn in the governor’s side. The party also padded its majorities in both chambers, with Senate Republicans enjoying the first supermajority either party has won in half a century. “We’ve been able to do pretty much whatever we want to get done,” Sen. Whitver says.
For many years, Iowa independents outnumbered Republicans and Democrats in terms of registration. That started to change under former President Donald Trump. Trump’s election in 2016 came about thanks to the switch of 206 counties that had supported Obama in 2012. No state had more Obama-Trump counties than Iowa — just under a third of all 99 counties in the state.
Iowa has grown not only more Republican, but more conservative. While Branstad was business-friendly, he was more moderate by today’s standards, especially during his initial four terms in office, and certainly willing to cut deals with Democrats. Reynolds has been unabashedly conservative and unafraid to take on culture war issues.
This year, Reynolds signed a ban on transgender health care for young people, as well as a ban on books with certain sorts of sexual content in schools. Earlier this month, the Iowa Supreme Court upheld a ruling that blocked a 2018 fetal heartbeat bill, keeping abortion legal in the state until 20 weeks. “The fight is not over,” Reynolds declared in response. “We are reviewing our options in preparation for continuing the fight.”
Last year, Reynolds convinced the Legislature to pass a flat tax, which will slash the top personal income tax rate from 8.9 percent to 3.9 percent by 2026. Last month, she signed a bill to cut property taxes by $100 million. That bill also imposed a cap on local tax rates.
The government reorganization bill that Reynolds signed in April will allow the state attorney general to pursue criminal cases without first receiving requests for help from county prosecutors. The bill shrinks the number of cabinet-level agencies from 37 to 16 and puts more of them under the direct control of the governor.
Her Political Strength
Reynolds has had her moments in the national spotlight, such as offering the official GOP response to President Biden’s State of the Union address last year. Reynolds, who currently chairs the Republican Governors Association, has frequently appeared alongside Republican presidential hopefuls campaigning in the state. Given the importance of the Iowa caucuses, Reynolds has stayed neutral in the contest. (Earlier this month, she signed a bill requiring that caucuses be held in person, blocking a Democratic proposal to vote by mail.)
As with many governors, Reynolds’ stature grew during the pandemic, due to her daily news conferences and many executive actions. She ordered schools to open for in-person learning early in the pandemic, while rejecting both school mask mandates and $95 million in federal aid for COVID-19 testing in schools. Her approval ratings took a hit in 2020 as the state’s death toll rose, but recovered in 2021 with the advent of vaccines.
“Once the Legislature came back in session, she stopped the executive orders and said, ‘We’re going to do this together,’” Whitver says. “That gave her a lot of credibility with the Legislature.”
While the GOP’s expanded legislative majorities are generally aligned with the governor, she’s been the one driving the train. She hasn’t been afraid to stick her neck out and take big chances. Reynolds has hammered away on some issues year after year, such as the flat tax and private school choice. Others seem almost like copycat exercises, where she sees an idea gaining momentum in other red states and wants to bring a version home to Iowa.
Her success in doing so hasn’t made Democrats happy. But, as political scientist Dennis Goldford of Drake University notes, Democrats in Iowa are becoming more like Republicans in California, unable to do much other than complain as their influence dwindles.
Iowa already holds the national records for longest-serving governor, attorney general and state treasurer in the nation’s history. At this point, there’s no indication that Reynolds can’t stay in her current job as long as she likes. “There are people here who absolutely love her and people here who absolutely despise her,” Goldford says. “The people who don’t care for her are a much smaller group than those who love her.”