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GOP women rise to power in Iowa

Two years ago, Iowa had never even elected a woman to Congress. Now, Republican women are taking over the state.

With Gov. Terry Branstad accepting President-elect Donald Trump’s offer to become the U.S. ambassador to China, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is set to become Iowa’s first female governor, putting a capstone on the rapid rise of women in Iowa state government and putting Reynolds in pole position to win a full term in the 2018 election. It comes just two years after GOP Sen. Joni Ernst became the state’s first female member of Congress.

It’s a sharp contrast to a national GOP that has only slowly been able to advance women in Washington — and Branstad’s appointments, selections and suggestions in Iowa have played a big role as he prepared his final act in state politics.

“I have been honored to be a full partner with Gov. Branstad in this administration and know that the experience I’ve gained over the last six years has prepared me well for this next chapter of service to all Iowans,” Reynolds said in a statement.

When Reynolds passed on running for Senate in 2014, Branstad quietly pointed the NRSC toward Ernst, then a little-known Iraq War veteran in Reynolds’ old state legislative seat who became a GOP rising star in a matter of months. (This year, Trump considered Ernst as a possible running mate during the presidential campaign.) In the fall, as Branstad coasted to reelection, he made helping Ernst a top priority.

“Gov. Branstad has been hands-on in making sure every office in Iowa is in Republican hands,” said Tim Albrecht, a GOP operative who used to work for the governor. “And that means including women in the mix. He doesn’t default to men when making choices.”

Four years earlier, Branstad has selected Reynolds to be his running mate. Next year, as governor, Reynolds will work with Iowa’s first female House speaker in Republican Linda Upmeyer. And Branstad’s administration has touted the record number of female agency heads in charge of Iowa’s state government in recent years.

“In Iowa, women are leading in key positions throughout state government,” Branstad said when Upmeyer ascended to the top position in the state House.

Ernst’s rise was a particularly welcome development for Washington Republicans, who have struggled to elevate women in the Capitol. The ranks of Republican women in the House and Senate are each set to decline by one next year, after the results of the 2016 election.

Branstad has picked women to be his lieutenant governor every time he’s had the opportunity — first in the 1990s with Joy Corning, and in the 2010s with Reynolds. Branstad also appointed Iowa’s first-ever female auditor.

Reynolds’ pending promotion also gives her a leg up for 2018, when Iowans were preparing for the likelihood of an open gubernatorial contest. Branstad had long groomed her for the top slot, regularly promoting her initiatives and mentioning her in press releases. The Republican Party won full control of the state Legislature in November, giving Reynolds two years to rack up accomplishments with allies in both chambers.

If Branstad was still in office, she likely would have needed to win a primary, but incumbency could scare off some challengers. (It also gives her the backing of the Republican Governors Association even before the primary.) One GOP potential challenger, Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey, has already said he no longer plans on running.

“I encourage Iowa Republicans to unite behind Lt. Gov. Reynolds, help ensure her election in 2018 and join me in keeping Iowa red for the next generation,” Northey said.

Totally clearing the field will be difficult but not impossible: There are plenty of Republicans with pent-up ambition after Branstad’s decades as governor. Republicans mentioned Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett as a possible challenger and Rep. Steve King, an immigration hawk, said Wednesday he was considering a bid.

But Albrecht thought Reynolds wouldn’t face much intra-party difficulty: “I’d be very surprised if a competitive primary emerged,” he said.

Democrats, who just lost Iowa by 9 percentage points at the presidential level and hold just one of Iowa’s seats in Congress, see some opportunity for a bounce-back in Branstad’s departure. He was a historically popular figure in the state, and the Democratic Governors Association reminded reporters Wednesday that Reynolds has twice been arrested for drunk driving.

“Iowa Republicans said it best: Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is simply ‘not viable,’” DGA executive director Elisabeth Pearson said in a statement, linking to a 2013 POLITICO story. “Democrats already had Iowa as a pickup target. Gov. Branstad’s departure increases the chances for Democrats to win back the Iowa governor’s office in 2018.”

The most prominent Iowa Democrat — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack — has seemingly ruled out running in 2018.

“I have no plans on running again,” Vilsack said in an interview with Radio Iowa. “I think there’s a new generation of younger leaders out there.”

State Democratic Party chair Andy McGuire had long been a rumored 2018 gubernatorial candidate, but might have difficulty making the jump to elected office after Democrats’ poor performance in November. State Sen. Rob Hogg, who lost a primary bid for Senate in 2016 but was just elected to lead Democrats in the state Senate, and state Sen. Liz Harris, a former TV anchor who is well-known in the Cedar Rapids area, could also make bids. Other names mentioned include former House candidate Jim Mowrer and former state Rep. and party chair Tyler Olsen.

“Had Branstad run again, he would’ve been very, very difficult to beat,” said Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic consultant. “The way things were sitting a week ago was not great for Iowa Democrats. So any reshuffling of the deck is a plus.”

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