Iowans are routinely reminded that they are one of just two states that have never elected a woman to Congress or to a governorship. It is a distinction that we share with the State of Mississippi. Some say that makes Iowans look old fashioned, but there have been female candidates on the general election ballot in Iowa stretching back to at least the 2000 election cycle.
A number of women have run for Congress over the last decade, but none have been successful. In that time span, only one woman, Joyce Schulte, ran for office when no incumbent was on the ballot. Her problem was that the district she was running in was the old 5th Congressional District, which Steve King won easily and has occupied ever since.
Despite a long list of female candidates running for federal office, only three times in Iowa’s history has a woman ran for office in an open seat. Schulte against King in 2002, Dr. Sheila McGuire Riggs against Tom Latham in 1994, and Roxanne Conlin against Terry Branstad in 1982. To help understand the significance of that point, realize that King, Latham, and Branstad all occupy the same offices today. Branstad took a 12 year hiatus between his fourth and fifth terms, but this does illustrate how slowly the political landscape changes in Iowa.
With that little Iowa history lesson in mind, it’s fascinating that the only female candidate being mentioned for the open U.S. Senate seat in Iowa isn’t prompting more discussion. As quickly as Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds’ name was mentioned as a possible senate candidate, a number of Iowa Republicans disregarded the idea.
An article in the National Journal was titled, “Branstad-Backed Push for Reynolds Falls Flat With Iowa GOP Grassroots.” Stephen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University followed up with his own version of the story for the Des Moines Register, which was titled, “Some put off by Branstad trying to orchestrate Senate nomination.”
The notion that Branstad is somehow orchestrating a Reynolds candidacy for the U.S. Senate is somewhat misleading. What is the Governor supposed to say to the media when asked about his Lt. Governor? Of course he thinks highly of Reynolds and her ability as a statewide candidate. Why else would he have selected her to be his running mate in 2010. The media’s perception that Branstad must be behind the Reynolds for U.S. Senate talk could also be considered to be sexist in and of it self.
But, let’s not go there.
The National Journal piece and its regurgitation by Professor Schmidt was based on the opinions of four Iowans: Chuck Laudner, Republican Party of Iowa Chair A.J. Spiker, National Committeeman Steve Scheffler, and Bob Vander Plaats. While it’s true that none of them gave Reynolds a ringing endorsement – the closest they came was Scheffler saying, “I suppose so,” when asked if Reynolds would be a successful candidate – it’s way too early to write of Reynolds running for the U.S. Senate as a failed trial balloon.
Yes, former GOP insider Doug Gross pontificated that King, Reynolds, or Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey would not run for the U.S. Senate, but what does he know? Reynolds herself responded to Gross’ statement saying, “Doug Gross makes a lot of predictions. That’s just what Doug Gross does. I haven’t had a conversation with Doug or told him any of my intentions moving forward.”
The truth is that we don’t know yet what Reynolds is going to do, and that’s because all eyes are still on Congressman Steve King, who has yet to make up his mind regarding running for the Senate himself. Defeating King in a primary would be practically impossible, which is why the field is frozen until he makes up his mind.
While Republicans like Gross, Vander Plaats, Scheffler, Laudner, and Spiker seem to be cool on the idea of a Reynolds candidacy, the idea deserves a much more throrough vetting before Republicans disregard it. Let’s also not forget that had those five individuals been asked about a potential Branstad candidacy in the summer of 2009, all but one of them would have been equally critical of his chances.
Branstad only went on to garner 50 percent of the vote in a three-way primary and beat his nearest challenger, Vander Plaats, by nine points. Branstad then went on defeat an incumbent Governor for the first time in Iowa since the 1960’s. When analyzing a potential candidate, the media needs to be mindful of whose opinion they are seeking and whether or not their thoughts on the race are representative of primary voters.
Even though most Iowa Republicans likely would have listed either Tom Latham or Steve King as their preferred candidate to run for the open senate seat, Reynolds has a number of positive attributes that should be overlooked. First and foremost, there is the fact that Reynolds is a “she” not a “he.” Reynolds would give Republicans a fresh face on the top of the ticket, and she immediately makes it difficult for Braley to employ a campaign that uses gender issues to paint Republicans as an out-of-date party of old white men.
Reynolds is also an exceptional retail campaigner. Like Branstad and Sen. Chuck Grassley, Reynolds is an engaging figure who people like to be around. This is an attribute that should never be overlooked. While voters look at a candidate’s policy positions to determine if they will support him or her, whether or not they like that individual is also a major factor. Who was more likeable, John McCain or Barack Obama? Mitt Romney or President Obama? Jim Nussle or Chet Culver? When compared to Congressman Bruce Braley in that regard, Reynolds is the more engaging figure.
Reynolds’ positive personality and abilities on the campaign trail alone make her a formidable candidate, but especially when combined with her current position as Lt. Governor. The state budget in Iowa is in great fiscal shape, and the economy is humming right along. Reynolds would be able to make a strong case against Braley as far as budgets are concerned. It’s not only an issue on which she could attack Braley, but it would also allow her to speak to the current administration’s own strengths. Some Democrats have suggested that Reynolds’ ties to Branstad would weigh her down, but it’s actually a strength and not a weakness.
Due to her current position, people will always view he has a potential gubernatorial candidate once Branstad decides to step down, but running for a federal office might also be Reynolds’ best path to higher office. There is no doubt that if Reynolds ever runs for governor, she will have to defend Branstad’s record. That’s not the case if she runs for federal office.
In fact, Reynolds could easily take the theme of the Branstad administration, responsible government and budgets, and use it to her advantage in a senate race. Those themes are popular, and most Iowans feel good about the current direction of the state, but running for federal office would also allow her to differentiate herself from Branstad on issues should she choose to do so.
Let’s also not forget that Reynolds was an accomplished elected official long before she became Branstad’s running mate. Before getting elected to the state senate in 2008, Reynolds served four terms as the Clarke County Treasurer. Reynolds was instrumental in modernizing county governments around the state by leading the effort to allow Iowans to make their various tax payments on-line.
While her current role as Lt. Governor has allowed here to build statewide presence and relationships across the state, her rural Iowa roots will have great appeal should she run for the U.S. Senate. Reynolds’ association with Branstad has also put her in direct contact with Branstad’s fundraising network, which is by far the best in the state. Running for the U.S. Senate could ultimately exceed $15 million, which means that those fundraising connections are invaluable.
Reynolds has many strengths, but like anyone else, she also has her weaknesses. That said, some of the recent criticisms from some social conservatives is unfounded. It seems that their main objection to her is her association with Branstad. A segment of social conservatives in the state view Branstad negatively because they believe he hasn’t done enough to advance their issues, but hardly any socially conservative language has reached his desk for him to sign.
Reynolds, on the other hand, has a recent record as a state senator that should please most social conservatives:
SF 111 – A bill for an act requiring the adoption of Internet filter policies by public libraries that receive state funds.
SF 232 – A bill for an act requiring drug testing for persons applying for or receiving state assistance.
SF 233 – A bill for an act relating to the determination of when life begins and acknowledging the rights, privileges, and immunities of an unborn child.
SJR 2001 – A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa specifying marriage between one man and one woman as the only legal union that is valid or recognized in the state.
SJR 2006 – A joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the State of Iowa relating to the appointment of nominees to the supreme court by the governor.
Reynolds record in the Iowa Senate is not one that would cause much concern for most social conservatives. Beyond social policies, Reynolds also backed legislation that extended hunting seasons, extended second amendment rights, and limited the federal government’s ability to impose nationalized healthcare on the people of Iowa. Despite some of the comments in various publications, her actual record would be considered a strength in a Republican primary.
Perhaps Reynolds’ greatest weakness as a U.S. Senate candidate is the fact that she received two OWI’s over a decade ago. Those opposed to her running for the senate have already indicated that they would use the personal issue in a campaign against her, but using that information in a campaign is a double-edged sword. The two OWI’s would be more of an obstacle had she not openly talked about it during Branstad’s 2010 race.
The incidents are a blemish on her record, but it is also a story of perseverance. One probably doesn’t need to knock on many doors in the neighborhood they live to find Iowans who have similar or even worse struggles. To hit Reynolds with that kind of attack would likely backfire. It would be one thing if there were any indication that Reynolds still experienced similar lapses of judgment, but throughout the 2010 campaign and her two years as Lt. Governor, it would be wrong to say that she has not represented Iowa well.
Maybe the biggest obstacle that Reynolds will have to overcome is knowledge of federal issues verses state issues. Her day job requires her to know and understand state polices. At a recent breakfast club meeting in Des Moines, Reynolds displayed that she has no problem dealing with state issues. It’s unknown how well she will deal with the plethora of federal issues that a candidate can be asked about on the campaign trail. That’s where discipline and hiring a good staff is vitally important.
Sometimes people look so hard for the perfect candidate that they ignore or can’t see the positive attributes of the most obvious candidates. That may be the case with Iowa Republicans and Reynolds. She’s not perfect. Nobody is. That said,
Reynolds at least deserves serious consideration for the open U.S. Senate seat. Republicans could do a lot worse.
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