Government

Branstad pick scrambles 2018 election picture

Republicans get incumbent governor; Democrats won't face long-term officeholder

Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds speaks before Governor Terry Branstad signing a property tax reform bill at Hawkeye Ready Mix in Hiawatha in June 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa Lt. Governor Kim Reynolds speaks before Governor Terry Branstad signing a property tax reform bill at Hawkeye Ready Mix in Hiawatha in June 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad’s nomination to become ambassador to China scrambles Iowa’s 2018 political picture.

Democrats now know they won’t have to face the man they have never been able to beat.

Meanwhile, Republicans who may have been considering a run for the office in the event the governor didn't seek a seventh term now will have to deal with the fact that Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will ascend to the job more than a year before any 2018 contest could take place.

Reynolds, who has been at Branstad’s side in Des Moines and in their travels across the state since he won a fifth term in 2010, has long been seen as his heir apparent. In a statement Wednesday, Reynolds praised Branstad and said “the experience I’ve gained over the last six years has prepared me well for this next chapter of service to all Iowans.”

Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann made clear that Reynolds will have full GOP support.

“As far as the Republican Party goes, the minute Kim Reynolds takes the oath of office, we will be behind her 100 percent,” he said.

Branstad has praised Reynolds, frequently calling her his equal in terms of energy and commitment. Still, a clear path to the gubernatorial nomination for her hasn’t been a certainty.

Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey has been mentioned as a possible 2018 candidate. And Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has been traveling the state in what is widely taken as a testing phase for a 2018 race.

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In a statement reacting to Branstad’s nomination, Northey made it clear he won’t run. He said he had begun to explore a bid, but he urged Republicans to “unite behind Lt. Governor Reynolds, help ensure her election in 2018 and join me in working to keep Iowa red for the next generation.”

Corbett declined to address his own ambitions but said Wednesday’s developments don’t necessarily close the door to somebody challenging Reynolds in a primary.

“I don’t know that it does,” he said.

Corbett said the governorship should be considered an “open seat” but added the change will hasten the decision-making process for those considering running.

U.S. Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, also had people guessing. He said Wednesday he was considering his options, according to The Hill, a Washington publication that covers Congress.

“The thought is in my mind. Immediately, it locks in there,” he said, according to the Hill. “But I don’t want to send any message that I’m making plans actively.”

Kaufmann downplayed the idea that King would run for the nomination, calling it natural for somebody in his position to think about it.

Former state party chair Matt Strawn said a challenger would not only face difficulty with the Republican Party but the incoming Trump administration.

“I have every anticipation that Iowa Republicans are going to rally around Gov. Kim Reynolds,” he said. “And I hope they do.”

As for Democrats, Branstad’s new job may be an opportunity.

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Norm Sterzenbach, a former executive director of the state Democratic Party, said Branstad’s exit from Iowa will surely spur conversations among people who were thinking of a 2018 bid.

He said the news also could provide a psychological lift to Democrats.

“Democrats need to believe that they can win, and Terry Branstad moving on provides that opportunity for Democrats to get excited about 2018. That more than anything is what Democrats need right now.”

B.A. Morelli of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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