Staff Columnist

Reynolds has no reason to shy from debates

Popular leader of America's best state has not yet accepted debate invitations

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstand, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and US Rep. Rod Blum view flood protection progress on the west side of the river in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstand, Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and US Rep. Rod Blum view flood protection progress on the west side of the river in Cedar Rapids on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

Gov. Kim Reynolds is officially running for governor.

Reynolds brought her announcement tour to Marion last week, where she was greeted by nearly 100 people at Legacy Manufacturing. I was listening closely for Reynolds to mention other gubernatorial candidates, hoping to get a sense of whether she’s thinking about the June primary or fast-forwarding straight to the November general election.

It never came. Reynolds was laser-focused on her positive accomplishments as governor, hardly even hinting about her opponents. Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg made the case that nobody is better prepared to lead the state, calling Reynolds “the most qualified new governor in Iowa history.”

Looking at the Democrats’ primary field, Gregg is right. Among seven active candidates, most have never held elected office and only one is a legislator.

But there is one other candidate whose resume in public service is nearly as heavy as Reynolds’. Former Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett is the other Republican running for governor, and so far, Reynolds hasn’t said whether she’ll debate him.

Corbett won election to the Iowa House at age 26, serving seven terms, including a stint as House Speaker. He went on to serve as mayor of Iowa’s second-largest city, earning widespread praise for his leadership after the 2008 flood.

Corbett issued a message last week calling for Reynolds to agree to eight debates across the state before the primary. Reynolds has not yet agreed to any.

“The campaign just officially announced this week, and there’s still time to make that decision. The Governor’s focus remains on traveling the state and talking to Iowans about the positives happening across our state and her efforts to build an even better Iowa.” Reynolds spokesman Pat Garrett said in an email.

I have been openly skeptical about the viability of Corbett’s gubernatorial ambitions. His path to the nomination is thinner than a corn kernel, and it’s obvious to me that Republicans’ best chance of retaining the office lies in an incumbent governor with a statewide reputation.

I would have been more excited to see an intraparty battle of competing ideologies, but Corbett and Reynolds don’t exactly come from different wings of the party, just different congressional districts. They have plenty of practical policy disagreements, but their underlying philosophies about the proper role of government are similar.

Nonetheless, I’ve long believed anyone who has the organizing skills to get their name on the ballot deserves to debate. Corbett offers that, and a lot more.

And Corbett seems serious about open and fair debates, telling me he asked for the two Libertarian Party gubernatorial candidates to be included in a mental health forum he participated in late last year. He said he will push to include viable third-party and independent candidates in general election debates if he’s nominated.

“We don’t change governors very often in the state of Iowa. … Gov. Reynolds is filling out Gov. Branstad’s term. She is officially the governor, but I think it’s important in both the primary and general election that there is a debate,” Corbett told me this week.

After Reynolds’ announcement speech in Marion, her staff whisked her away from me and two other journalists before we could ask questions. In contrast, I had a call from Corbett on my cellphone about 10 minutes after I put the request in to his campaign manager.

To be fair, both responses are typical of candidates in their positions. Incumbents have lots of media requests and only a little time, while challengers are eager to get their names in the news. Between the best-state ranking and her announcement tour, Reynolds probably got more media mentions in the past two weeks than Corbett has all year.

Still, I’m a conservative columnist at the state’s second-biggest newspaper, so I don’t imagine Reynolds will encounter media much friendlier than me on the campaign trail. I expect to be ducked by Democrats, but not my own Republican governor.

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Reynolds has an impressive resume of accomplishments, a compelling personal story and plenty of campaign cash for the primary and general elections. Those things win elections; skipping debates does not.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

Updated March 12, 11 a.m. — Ron Corbett first took office as Cedar Rapids mayor in 2010.

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