DES MOINES — Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds has argued successfully in convincing Iowans to stay the political course Tuesday, claiming a hard-fought victory over Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell in her first solo statewide election.
Reynolds, 59, became Iowa’s 43rd and first female governor when she succeeded her mentor, Terry Branstad, in May 2017 when he signed on as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to China. She rode the current economic resurgence to a narrow win over Hubbell in a race that came down to a turnout battle on Election Day.
At 11:12 p.m. NBC-TV projected Reynolds would prevail in the closest gubernatorial race in years — and the costliest in Iowa history.
Reynolds thwarted talk of a blue wave in Iowa for Democrats by garnering 50 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s unofficial results, compared with Hubbell’s 48 percent, with more than four-fifths of the ballots counted. Libertarian Party candidate Jake Porter received about 2 percent.
In defeating Hubbell, a Des Moines business executive who was making his first bid at public office, Reynolds avoided becoming the second sitting governor in eight years to be ousted from public office. Branstad defeated one-term Democrat Chet Culver in the 2010 governor’s race.
The 2018 governor’s race was the most expensive in state history, with Hubbell raising more than $18 million — padding his contributions with about $7 million of his own money — while Reynolds’ campaign generated about $14.3 million in support with about $5 million coming as a late infusion from the Republican Governors Association to keep Iowa in the red column.
Reynolds also got help energizing the Republican base from two visits by Trump as well as campaign stops by his daughter, Ivanka, Vice President Mike Pence and White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
Democrats generally steered away from making Trump an issue in Iowa’s 2018 midterm but drew help from outsiders like Vice President Joe Biden, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and a parade of other 2020 presidential wannabes as they pressed a message of change and inclusion. Former President Barack Obama endorsed Hubbell, but did not campaign for him in Iowa.
Reynolds appealed to rural interests and her conservative base by focusing on her small-town roots and working-class values that enabled her to raise a family while scaling the political ladder, first as a Clarke County treasurer, then as a state senator and finally as Branstad’s lieutenant governor for six years.
Hubbell was winning in metro areas including around Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Ames, but was losing in most counties.
Both campaigns bombarded the television airwaves with a mix of commercials showing positive images of Reynolds romping with her grandchildren and Hubbell looking relaxed and fatherly talking with Iowans of all ages — as well as hard-hitting messages that challenged Reynolds’ handling of Medicaid privatization and Hubbell’s forthrightness in disclosing his wealth and his plans to change Iowa’s tax policy.
For his part, Hubbell touted himself as a change agent that would halt the sharp right turn that Statehouse Republicans had taken in the past two years to undo the state’s public sector collective bargaining law, revamp the workers’ compensation program and enact what is viewed as the nation’s most-restrictive abortion law — a law that is being challenged in state court.
The scion of one of Iowans wealthiest families, Hubbell campaigned on a theme of getting Iowa moving in “the right direction” after two years of GOP underfunding of education, cutting taxes in a way that favored the wealthy and switching Iowa’s Medicaid system to management by private out-of-state insurance companies without public input.
Hubbell drew on his experience as a past chief executive of the Younkers department store chain and Equitable of Iowa Companies and his brief government stints as head of the Iowa Power Fund Board and interim director of the state Department of Economic Development to make the case that he was better equipped to be the chief executive of state government.
Midterm elections — which normally favor the party not in power at the White House — drew unusually high interest this year with more than a fourth of the 2 million-plus Iowans who registered to vote taking advantage of the 29-day early-voting window to cast their ballots before Election Day, eclipsing the previous record set in 2014.