She tries to suppress the tears but finally they escape, first to the outer corners of her almond-shaped eyes and then, ever so slowly, filling the 58-year-old creases cradling them. “I had three young girls at home. They were either going to see their mom give up on life and crawl into a hole and just say it’s over, or—I’m sorry.” Kim Reynolds is a fast, energetic talker who doesn’t often come up for air. But now she is searching for the right words. “Or they were going to see their mom fight back, and be healthy, and be a good mom and a good wife again.”
Iowa’s new governor is talking about the day she bottomed out—August 23, 2000, when, according to court records, she was driving south of Des Moines with an open container of alcohol (Black Velvet whiskey, per one local report) and pulled over for operating while under the influence. It was her second drunk-driving arrest in 18 months, and Reynolds, the treasurer of Clarke County (population at the time: 9,133), felt her life spiraling out of control. Sitting in a jail cell that night, “scared to death” because of alcoholism’s grip on her psyche, Reynolds says she prayed: “I can’t do this on my own anymore. I need help.” She got it—from her faith, her family, her protective community and ultimately from a 30-day inpatient program where a bed opened up just in time. When she got out, Reynolds bought a calendar and began crossing off each day with an ‘X’ before falling asleep to record another day on the wagon. She will celebrate 17 years of sobriety this summer—most likely with a bottle of water, her beverage of choice these days.
Reynolds, a peppy grandmother of eight who wears a mean cardigan and a permanent smile, sports a parted wave of short brown hair and sounds a little bit like a character from Fargo. She doesn’t easily conjure images of handcuffs. And given her background, Reynolds is equally unconvincing when cast as the governor of America’s most politically obsessive state. Hailing from sparsely populated southern Iowa, the daughter of a John Deere factory worker, she was a college dropout who eventually found work as a motor-vehicles clerk in the treasurer’s office of Clarke County. Only when the boss unexpectedly retired a few years later did Reynolds think to run for office herself—at the request of her husband, who was tired of her complaints about workplace inefficiencies. She served as treasurer for 14 years, leaving in 2008 after winning a state Senate race that turned ugly with late whispers about the drunk-driving arrests. Her political climb to that point was remarkable, but not compared to what came next: Terry Branstad, the iconic former Iowa governor who was attempting a comeback in 2010, shocked the state’s political elite by plucking the first-term senator from obscurity and putting her on the gubernatorial ticket. They were an odd couple—a gruff, curmudgeonly campaign veteran and a cheerful, cookie-baking newcomer to the state capital—but they won handily, and Reynolds, two years removed from the county treasurer’s office, was suddenly heir apparent to the man who would become the longest-serving governor in American history.
The apprenticeship ended when President Donald Trump chose Branstad, who emerged as a key ally during the 2016 campaign, as his ambassador to China. Reynolds was sworn in as governor May 24, and might quickly become one of the nation’s higher-profile chief executives. She came to the White House on Wednesday for an energy roundtable and found that her seat had been reserved next to the president’s inside the Roosevelt Room. Trump has frequently touted his kinship with the working-class people of Iowa, a theme he emphasized again last week during a visit to Cedar Rapids, and is pushing environmental and deregulatory policies in partnership with the state’s GOP officials. Policy matters aside, Reynolds takes over as the top Republican in a battleground state that Trump won by 9.4 points—a bigger margin than his victory in Texas—and in the first-in-the-nation caucus state where, in the event of a primary challenge, the president’s road to reelection will formally begin in early 2020.
If Reynolds’ selection in 2010 was a surprise, her ascent to the governorship in 2017 was not. Branstad, seeing in her a combination of small-town authenticity and big-city ambition, became enamored with the idea of grooming Reynolds as his successor and helping her shatter the glass ceiling as Iowa’s first female governor. When he won a sixth term in 2014, Branstad hinted to friends that he would step aside early and give Reynolds a head start on her 2018 campaign for governor. Her training was complete: Branstad had plugged her into his political machine, helped her navigate the state’s thorny ideological terrain and handed her crucial responsibilities such as chairing a powerful education task force at home and leading trade missions abroad.
“Reynolds’ role wasn’t one relegated to ribbon-cuttings and pictures with school groups at the Capitol,” says Matt Strawn, the former Iowa GOP chairman whom Branstad also considered as a running mate back in 2010. “Terry Branstad made her an active partner in governing our state.”
Now a month into the job—and having bid adieu this week to Branstad as he departed for Beijing—Reynolds has experienced the highs and lows associated with being the boss. Every decision is under closer scrutiny now, as she learned after flying around the state on an Iowa casino owner’s private plane days after taking office. It was an unforced error—“egregious,” in the words of one ally—that made her sprawling network of longtime Branstad loyalists cringe. But the governor has also received plaudits for some early maneuvers, most notably for nudging into retirement the state’s director of the Department of Human Services on the heels of two Iowa teenagers dying from starvation in high-profile abuse cases.
Her official duties notwithstanding, Reynolds has experienced perhaps the biggest perk for any Iowa elected official: the conspicuous amount of attention paid by ambitious national Republicans. “Oh, it’s unbelievable,” Reynolds says in an interview inside the Iowa Events Center, which is hosting a daylong education and workforce development summit. She had grown accustomed to the face-time with presidential aspirants—“I’ve flipped pork chops with most of them,” Reynolds tells me of the 2016 field, “and my lieutenant governor colleagues were always so jealous”—but this is different. When I ask about her sudden popularity, and whether she’s been fielding an unusual number of phone calls, Reynolds lets out a knowing laugh. “Oh yeah,” she says. “From all of the above. They’re all my friends.”
But before the next class of Republican contenders can line up to kiss the ring—as they did for Branstad three of the past four decades—Reynolds must secure the throne.
It starts with winning a Republican gubernatorial primary that doesn’t project to be terribly competitive. Her only challenger looks to be Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, a competent if uncharismatic former state House speaker who won praise for orchestrating the city’s comeback from its devastating 2008 flood. He comes to the race equipped with a potent populist message, comparing Reynolds to Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton as “dynastic” candidates who had the blessing of party leaders but generated little enthusiasm among voters. “In Iowa, we like to pick our candidates—we don’t just accept that somebody is anointed,” Corbett tells me in a Des Moines coffee shop, two days after launching his campaign. “If President Trump has showed us anything, it’s that people who are outside the establishment have a chance.”
Branstad bestowed much to his pupil, but not everything is an advantage: Reynolds inherits the power of incumbency, but also the baggage attached to it. For instance, Iowa’s budget is a disaster because of lower-than-projected revenues, the result of tumbling crop commodity prices. With the state borrowing from its reserve fund and Branstad owning the criticisms, there’s an imperative for the new governor to distance herself, ever so delicately, from her former boss.
“As we saw with Hillary Clinton and the criticism that she was seeking a third Obama term, Kim Reynolds is going to have to figure out how to stay connected with Terry Branstad’s people while making clear that she’s not running for his seventh term,” says Eric Woolson, a longtime Iowa GOP operative and former Branstad spokesman.
She will also have to establish her brand: When I ask Reynolds which of the state’s political tribes (evangelicals, tea partiers, libertarians, moderates) she most identifies with, she replied, “My goal is to fit in all those boxes.” When I press her, asking how she defines herself on the ideological spectrum, Reynolds thinks for several moments but says nothing. Finally, her deputy chief of staff Tim Albrecht chimes in: “A conservative.” She laughs. “Well for sure I’m conservative. But I mean, I think people know that, but you need to be careful because you want to bring people together.”
This matter of forging her own identity seems more a political puzzle than an electoral threat. Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann, who is neutral in the primary, says Reynolds’ opponent has a “huge, huge uphill battle,” and Corbett himself concedes he is “the underdog,” which is putting it generously. Reynolds, sources say, received an early heads-up of her predecessor’s imminent departure from Des Moines and had months to monopolize the political and financial assets in the state; as a result there are no cracks in Branstad’s vaunted political apparatus, which is now at her disposal.
That’s not the only favor the former governor did his protégé: After years of mounting tension inside the Iowa GOP tent, pitting evangelicals and tea party activists against the state’s center-right governing class, the outgoing governor let the steam out of the kettle this spring by rubber-stamping the most conservative legislative session in memory. With Republicans in control of the House, Senate and governor’s mansion for the first time since 1998, Branstad signed bills to curtail collective bargaining, expand gun rights, ban most abortions after 20 weeks, defund Planned Parenthood and establish new voter ID legislation while reducing the state’s early voting window, among other policy victories for the right.
“I don’t see too much conservative energy out there—this legislative session was one of the best we’ve had in Iowa in my time in politics,” says Steve Deace, a prominent conservative activist and former radio host. He says the Iowa grass roots are lukewarm on Reynolds, but believes the power of her newfound incumbency, coupled with the ideological realignment of the Trump era, makes it difficult for anyone to organize a viable campaign that runs to her right “And now she’s got a primary challenge from the left,” he adds, referencing Corbett. “I think it’s an opportunity for Kim Reynolds to rally conservatives in a way that Terry Branstad never did.”
From Reynolds’ perspective, locking down the base means building an alliance with Trump. The president made a point of name-dropping her twice during his rally in Cedar Rapids—“Kim is going to be a fantastic governor,” he told a raucous audience of nearly 6,000—after they met on the tarmac and toured a local community college. (Reynolds rode with Trump in his limousine, “The Beast,” and at the giddy president’s insistence pounded her fist on an interior window three times to test its indestructibility.) The two politicians could not be more different in tone and temperament, and it might ultimately behoove her to establish some daylight with the polarizing president. But having traveled to all 99 Iowa counties each year, just like her old boss, Reynolds has witnessed the resilience of his base. When I ask if she notices Republican voters tiring of Trump, the governor interrupts me with a vigorous shake of her head. “I’m just not seeing it. There’s still a great amount of support there,” she says. “I think when you get inside the bubble sometimes you forget there are everyday Iowans working to just make a difference and survive and take care of their families. They’re just looking for an opportunity to have a better quality of life. They’re just not focused on Russia and all the chaos and the noise.”
Reynolds has an answer prepared for my related question—has Trump improved the lives of those Iowans?—even though she fails to offer specifics. “We spent six years with an adversary in the White House, and there’s just no other way to say that. They were overregulating, overreaching,” the governor says. “And so I’m so grateful … to have an ally and friend in the White House that wants to give individual states the flexibility to really look at what their needs are and implement their own ideas.” Does she have any frustrations with this administration? “Well,” Reynolds says hesitantly, “I don’t know if it’s my place to critique the president.”
This party-line approach to Trump’s presidency could imperil the second part of Reynolds’ political equation: winning next year’s general election. Mobilization of the Democratic base nationwide is observable and Iowa is no exception, with at least eight candidates expected to seek the nomination for governor. One of the favorites, former state party chairwoman Andy McGuire, argues that Trump—together with the Legislature’s hard right turn this past session—will energize Democrats to bounce back in what she insists is still a battleground state.
“I think this was a national wave that came over Iowa,” McGuire tells me. “I see a purple state. I think what may have happened is what happened with Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—the national wave just rolled over the top of us.”
But there’s a problem for Democrats: What happened in Iowa is nothing like what happened in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Those states were each decided by a fraction of a percentage point; Trump carried Iowa by the most lopsided margin of any battleground state. And whereas other swing states boast diversifying electorates—with higher numbers of non-white, college-educated urban dwellers who overwhelmingly disapprove of Trump—Iowa remains heavily populated by white, non-college-educated rural voters who have proven to be his most loyal constituency.
In this sense, Reynolds didn’t just take over as chief executive of Iowa—she became the governor of Donald Trump’s America, a place where the economic, cultural and demographic stars have aligned in a way that makes it dangerous for any Republican to abandon the president. The upside for Reynolds specifically is that she now leads a state where Democrats, however galvanized by Trump, find themselves on the ropes. The downside: They are desperate for a statement win next November, and see the untested new governor as their best hope.
“The thought on the Democratic side here is, it’s 2018 or bust,” says Pat Rynard, a former state party operative and founder of the liberal blog IowaStaringLine.com. “Either we take back the governor’s mansion or the Democratic Party in this state goes into the wilderness for at least a decade.”
Incumbents become harder to defeat the longer they hold office. As Democratic groups pour money into Iowa next year, implicit in their targeting of Reynolds is the fear that she, if elected to her own term, will become entrenched like Branstad—with deep connections across the state, a political machine of her own and eventually, a protégé to whom she can pass it down. Corbett, for his part, hopes to prevent that same thing from within the Republican camp, and proudly touts term limits as part of his campaign platform. Reynolds tells me she opposes term limits of any kind, but promises that she’s not interested in breaking Branstad’s record of 8,169 days in office as governor. “I don’t know if it’s doable,” she says, shaking her head. “I’m a grandma.”