As many predicted, Governor Terry Branstad has emerged as the top contender to be President-Elect Donald Trump’s ambassador to China. Branstad will meet with Trump in New York this week, and then appear with him at a “Thank You Tour” in Des Moines on Thursday.
Were such an appointment to be made, it would cause a huge shake-up in Iowa’s typically stable politics. But would Branstad accept and how would it change the Iowa political landscape?
First off, frankly, from a purely foreign policy perspective, Branstad would probably do a good job at it. He’s a longtime friend of Chinese President Xi Jinping, going back to 1985 when Branstad met him on an Iowa sister-state visit to China, when Xi was a provincial agricultural director. Branstad would need to get up to speed on non-trade issues with China, of which there are many, but he would start out with probably the strongest possible relationship with their president. That trust and communication would be extremely necessary to contain the fallout from a reckless Trump causing trade wars and conflicts in the Pacific. Trump already courted danger with China this week by speaking directly to Taiwan’s president – it’s unclear if he even understood the implications of such an action before taking the call.
It would be a difficult opportunity for Branstad to pass up if offered. It presents a perfect coda to a long and successful career in politics, a chance to leave his mark on the world stage before finally retiring. Doing so, however, would mean passing up on governing with his new Republican majorities in the Iowa Legislature. He’d have to watch from afar as Republicans finally settle his nearly three-decade-old grudge with AFSCME as they target collective bargaining rights. And Starting Line has heard chatter that his wife, Chris, may not be keen on moving to Beijing.
Were it to happen, it would immediately remove Iowa’s biggest political player from the stage. That is good news for Democrats regardless.
There are many out there on the Democratic side who have predicted for years that Branstad would retire midway through this term so that Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds, his chosen heir, could run next time as the incumbent. Those folks need to get out to more Republican events, because that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of Branstad’s personality. There were many months over the past two years where I attended more Republican events than Democratic ones to cover Iowa politics. I watched Branstad up close countless times. Trust me, this guy ain’t go anywhere.
It would seriously not surprise me if he ran for a seventh term in 2018. Terry Branstad loves politics. He loves campaigning, he loves giving speeches, he loves traveling around the state with his fellow Republicans. He’s admitted many times since the election that he “lived vicariously” through the Trump campaign this year. While giving rally speeches, Branstad will occasionally stumble through his delivery and mess up one-liners, but what he lacks in grace he well more than makes up for in passion and intensity. Democrats like to make fun of his speaking style, but I always saw him as the most authentic and effective of Iowa Republican leaders because his love for his cause came through better than anyone else – and that he usually received the loudest applause and cheers from GOP crowds tends to back that up.
Given Iowans’ penchant for reelection longtime incumbents, Branstad would be a tough opponent in 2018, even if saddled with a host of unpopular changes in Iowa law from this upcoming session. If he’s gone, Reynolds, elevated to the governor’s office, emerges as the front-runner for the Republican primary in 2018. Most Iowa Democrats view Reynolds as the weakest potential opponent of the many options, like Ron Corbett and Bill Northey. Were she to run as the incumbent, she’d likely have the backing of the RGA and many other donors that could possibly freeze out her toughest opposition.
Still, she’d probably face some competition even as the sitting governor. Certainly the social conservatives will put up some sort of Bob Vander Plaats-type candidate.
It would also present an interesting challenge for Reynolds herself, who isn’t very well-defined to Iowa voters yet, besides being Branstad’s protege. She would take office just as Republicans assume full control of Iowa government for the first time in 20 years. Would she embrace a far right agenda passed by the legislature and risk taking the brunt of any voter backlash? Would she make a few select vetoes to craft a more moderate image for the voters? And who to choose for her Lt. Governor? Would she try to remove a potential rival from a 2018 primary or shore up her support from a certain constituency group?
Finally, Branstad leaving could also open up things a bit for other ambitious Republicans. With Branstad and Senator Chuck Grassley occupying top Iowa elected positions for decades, some up-and-coming Iowa Republicans have seen their rises stall out. Since Republicans kept winning with their longtime incumbents, no one cared too much, but there’s a lot of potential statewide candidates cooling their heels right now in mid-level offices. While a Governor Reynolds might reduce the number of candidates in a 2018 primary, the absence of Branstad working behind the scenes should make things more competitive.
Overall, Branstad leaving for China would make Iowa politics a lot more interesting, a lot more competitive and would allow for some new faces to rise on both sides.
by Pat Rynard