ICYMI: Queen of Iowa: How One Governor Came to Dominate Her State
Governing | June 27, 2023
"[Kim] 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'"
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