For a brief moment this year, everything looked like it was falling perfectly into place for Kim Reynolds. Terry Branstad, her mentor, had ridden off into the sunset to a legacy-securing ambassador post in China. Reynolds’ inauguration went off without a hitch, making history as Iowa’s first female governor. Her campaign team started off strong with endorsements from nearly the entire Republican establishment. The party was united and excited for her governorship, while Democrats nationwide and in Iowa continued to look weak and fractured.
And then Reynolds got to the governing part.
Things began to quickly fall apart right off the bat with the unforced error of the casino owner’s plane ride. Reynolds and acting Lt. Governor Adam Gregg used Gary Kirke’s private jet to hop around the state for their announcement tour, a personal request made by Reynolds’ staff. Kirke has casino proposals worth hundreds of millions of dollars that will be decided on by the state, and Reynolds’ campaign didn’t acknowledge the in-kind contribution until the Associated Press reported on it.
The governor’s office has no official role in approving or denying casino licenses, but the ordeal needlessly made Reynolds look like she was in the pocket of wealthy donors (and really, couldn’t they have just driven in a car?). It looked like it would be business-as-usual politics with her, and the distraction drove Iowa news coverage for over a week.
Then came the budget mess. Were it not for real people getting hurt, it would almost be comical that Iowa’s budget would utterly fall apart the moment Branstad left the state. Years and years of Republicans’ corporate handouts and tax cuts finally came home to roost, putting Branstad’s successor in an impossible situation.
Branstad emphasized throughout his tenure that he and Reynolds were a governing team, so she’s struggled to extricate herself from responsibility for the budget shortfalls. Reynolds attempted to blame it on the farm economy, but overall Iowa’s economy has been expanding in recent years. New tax breaks for manufacturers and the lingering impact of the huge commercial property tax cut have decimated Iowa’s revenue, costing the state far more than the rosy estimates that Republicans had originally predicted.
Three weeks after her inauguration, Reynolds was already having to borrow $50 million from Iowa’s cash reserves to cover part of the new $97 million shortfall in Iowa’s 2017 budget. That’s on top of the Republicans in the Legislature already making $118 million in budget cuts this past session and borrowing another $131 million from reserves near the end of the session to keep the state afloat.
The future looks grim as well. It’s expected that Reynolds will have to call a special session in September to cover the remaining shortfall, and predictions for more revenue losses in 2018 are just as dire. Add in the fact that Republican primary challenger Ron Corbett is already comparing Reynolds to Chet Culver when it comes to borrowing state money, and it’s clear that Reynolds’ first year will be weighed down by constant fiscal problems.
The budget has driven the state’s political narrative for most of the weeks Reynolds has been in office. The other weeks have featured all number of other problems for the new governor.
Dire issues with DHS and adopted Iowa children continue to surface, even after Reynolds’ one brief moment of leadership when she got rid of embattled director Charles Palmer. Rampant child abuse and teens’ deaths have exposed the consequences of reduced funding for the agency that keeps vulnerable kids safe, and there seems to be no real plan from the Governor to fix it.
There’s increasing rumors behind the scenes that a state bailout of the three Medicaid MCOs is looming, which would be a massive embarrassment for Reynolds and a further indictment of the unilateral move to privatize the system. That’s not to mention that tens of thousands of Iowans are set to lose their healthcare come January when most insurers pull out of individual market, something the Reynolds Administration has yet to propose a solution to.
And then came the sexual harassment trial for the Iowa Senate Republicans. There were many ways Reynolds could have handled questions over it. Instead, the way she did led to headlines like this: “Gov. Reynolds Backs Iowa Senate GOP Leader Dix In Wake Of $2.2 Million Sex Harassment Award.”
The total communications ineptitude that leads a governor to take the side of a senate caucus whose staff mismanagement just cost the state $2.2 million because of sexual harassment is just ridiculous. Reynolds made a weak statement about not tolerating sexual harassment in her office, but did nothing to encourage Senate Republicans to take more action to clean up their own house. Senator Bill Dix easily could have been hung out to dry for fully justifiable reasons with little to no consequence to Reynolds. Instead, the first female governor of Iowa gave legislators cover in a disgusting sexual harassment scandal.
If these were all isolated incidents that only knocked Reynolds off message for a week or two, that would be one thing. But her administration has yet to reclaim the initiative for a sustained period of time since her inauguration. And the coming budget problems and legislative fights don’t make it seem like that situation will improve.
Does anyone really know what her vision for Iowa looks like at this point? What her legislative priorities for 2018 are? What the hallmarks of success are that she plans to run on for reelection next year?
Just two months ago Democrats were fretting over whether Reynolds would romp to victory in 2018 on the strength of the old Branstad machine and Trump’s continuing popularity here. Instead we’ve seen a new Republican governor that looks weak and who is constantly under siege. Scandals and mismanagement continue to pile up, with each new story providing fodder for negative TV ads next fall.
It is still very early in her governorship, and Democrats are cautious about how the political winds will blow in 2018, but Reynolds’ star has fallen considerably this summer with few chances for a bounce back anytime soon.
by Pat Rynard