It’s official: Terry Branstad will be the next ambassador to China. Donald Trump spokesman Jason Miller said the President Elect announced Branstad’s appointment at a fundraiser this morning. An official statement is expected later today, and there will likely be some sort of announcement or celebration of the move at Trump’s rally in Des Moines tomorrow.
Branstad leaving the governorship for China will cause a massive sea change in Iowa politics. The longest-serving governor in American history, Branstad and his team wielded huge influence behind the scenes for Iowa Republicans for decades. His lasting popularity among Iowa voters allowed him comfortable victories in 2010 and 2014, stymying Democrats’ efforts here after they held the governor’s office for 12 years.
Given the vast amount of changes Branstad’s move will set off in the state, it’s likely we’ll refer to the next stage of Iowa politics as the “Post-Branstad Era.” As the Des Moines Register’s Jason Noble pointed out, Iowa political leaders have remained remarkably stable in the state: Iowa has had only four different governors over the past 48 years.
The most immediate concern now is when and how Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds will succeed Branstad in the Governor’s office. Starting Line asked around in Republican and Democratic circles in Iowa about what the timeline might look like, and no one has any clear idea of what might happen. Ambassadors are not always officially nominated and confirmed right away in a new president’s term. Jon Huntsman’s process to become President Obama’s first ambassador to China didn’t start until May of 2009.
However, considering how Trump has operated so far, and that he’s making this offer now, before even many of his cabinet positions are decided, likely points to a relatively quick appointment process.
The Iowa Legislature officially convenes on January 9, two weeks before Trump is sworn in as president. Even if his nomination is fast-tracked, it could still be several weeks before Branstad is officially placed into the position.
So would Branstad step down before session began so that Reynolds could be governor for the entirety? Governors changing midway through the legislative session could create a lot of tricky problems, logistically and legislatively, especially in a situation where Reynolds might act differently on a piece of legislation than Branstad would. Branstad has done his best to mentor and prepare Reynolds to eventually take over for him – he may want to make sure her transition is as smooth as possible.
Still, Branstad would miss out on finally having his Republican legislative majorities he’s long worked for. Republicans are planning on taking aim early on at collective bargaining laws, long a personal priority for Branstad who has long held a grudge against AFSCME.
A Governor Reynolds changes the political calculus in Iowa both during session and beyond for the 2018 campaign. It’s unclear how exactly she would handle the legislative session – would she try to present a more moderate image for her 2018 campaign or would she tack hard to the right to avoid a tough primary? What does she believe personally? And would Speaker Linda Upmeyer and Senate Majority Leader Bill Dix take advantage of a new governor who doesn’t have Branstad’s level of clout yet, and try to push through an even more right-wing agenda than previously planned?
Reynolds herself could not possibly imagine a better scenario for her ambition to win the governor’s office in her own right in 2018. As the incumbent governor, she would have the full backing of the Republican Party of Iowa. Most originally anticipated a wide-open primary, with Bill Northey and Ron Corbett likely to challenge her, both formidable contenders in their own right. It appears that Reynolds gets to appoint her own Lt. Governor, so she could even pick one of her potential rivals.
Steve King already raised the possibility that he might run for governor now in 2018. However, he has tossed his name into the mix before only to remain in his safe red 4th District seat, and it’s possible this time is no different.
On the other side, this reshapes the conversation and thought process for the Democrats considering 2018 runs of their own. There was still some chance that Branstad might run again – even the potential of that may have discouraged some from launching an early campaign. A Governor Reynolds presents a much more tempting target and increases the chances that Democrats get national help to retake the seat. Potential candidates like Andy McGuire and Liz Mathis (or even Tom Vilsack) might rethink their future plans.
One more thing: Reynolds would break an Iowa barrier as the first female governor in state’s history. And, much to Democrats’ chagrin, just like with Joni Ernst becoming the first federally-elected female from Iowa in 2014, it would be the Republicans making that history once again.
by Pat Rynard
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