Des Moines, Iowa
Gov. Kim Reynolds is eagerly rolling out the welcome mat for Republican presidential candidates in Iowa, showering each of the contenders with attention and pledging her neutrality in the 2024 race – for now, at least.
“Maybe down the road, we’ll do something different,” the GOP governor told CNN. “But right now, it’s really important that they feel like they have a fair shot, and they’re welcome here in Iowa, and I want Iowans to have the chance to interact with them.”
Reynolds is playing a central role in the opening stages of the Republican presidential contest, with candidates eager to bask in her glow in hopes of elevating their campaigns. Her popularity among Republicans in Iowa makes her an asset, and a possible late endorsement from Reynolds could sway voters, adding a wrinkle of unpredictability ahead of the Iowa caucuses.
In an interview at the Iowa State Fair this week, Reynolds repeatedly left the door open to a late endorsement before the caucuses open the Republican nominating contest in January. She said she believed the primary race was far from settled.
“I don’t think you should ever say, ‘Never, never,’” Reynolds said when pressed on whether she’s ruling out endorsing closer to the January 15 Iowa caucuses. “We’ll see what happens. I’ve made it clear, probably looking at neutral, especially in the beginning.”
As a parade of Republican presidential hopefuls descend on the Iowa State Fair, including dueling appearances Saturday from former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Reynolds told CNN that she believed surprises were in store over the next five months.
“There’s always surprises. It’s part of the process,” Reynolds said of the GOP race to take on President Joe Biden. “I can’t think of one caucus where there hasn’t been a surprise.”
Reynolds is hosting one of the main draws at this year’s fair: a series of conversations with Republican presidential hopefuls that offer them an opportunity to appear alongside the popular governor of a key early-voting state.
All the major candidates competing in Iowa accepted her invitation – except Trump.
The former president, who visits the state fair on Saturday, lashed out at Reynolds last month for remaining neutral and for appearing alongside other candidates who have invited her to events across Iowa. In a social media post, Trump claimed credit for her ascent to the governorship and chastised her for not supporting him. Reynolds, as the state’s lieutenant governor, succeeded Gov. Terry Branstad in 2017 after he became Trump’s ambassador to China, and she was elected to a first full term the following year.
Reynolds took umbrage with the former president taking credit for her election, noting that the 2018 midterms saw Republicans suffer substantial losses in Congress and in statehouses across the country.
“It’s actually Iowans who made the decision to elect me in a really tough year,” Reynolds said. “2018 was not a good year for Republicans.”
Following Trump’s attack, many Republican candidates jumped to support Reynolds, including DeSantis, Trump’s leading rival. Advisers to Trump voiced their agitation that Reynolds had appeared alongside DeSantis at several events and stood alongside his wife, Casey DeSantis, during her first solo trip to Iowa earlier this summer.
During a stop in Ankeny, Iowa, last month, DeSantis said he would consider Reynolds as a potential running mate if he wins the nomination. He called her “one of the top public servants in America.”
“I thought the attacks on her were totally, totally out of hand and totally unnecessary,” he told reporters. “Anybody who’s a Republican that’s trying to denigrate her, I think, is way off-base on that.”
An ad released Thursday by the pro-DeSantis super PAC Never Back Down criticizes Trump for focusing his attention on Reynolds at the expense of other issues. The ad running in Iowa blasts the former president for “attacking Republican governors” while “Joe Biden is destroying America” and features a clip of Trump criticizing Reynolds.
When asked about the ad, Reynolds told CNN: “I can’t control what people do, I can’t. I’m just going to continue to do my job.”
A recent New York Times/Siena College poll of likely Republican voters in Iowa showed Trump with a commanding 24-point lead over the next highest candidate, DeSantis. Reynolds acknowledged there was wide support for Trump, considering he carried Iowa in the 2016 and 2020 general elections, but said his nomination is not a foregone conclusion with many Republican voters just tuning into the race.
“People are paying so much attention to the national polls,” she said. “I can tell you, it’s just not reflective of what I’m hearing from Iowans as I’m traveling around.”
One of her roles, she said, is to help the field of Republican candidates draw crowds in Iowa. She has made appearances with almost every hopeful in the race this year, including DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Reynolds, who leads the Republican Governors Association, has carefully tended to her national profile. Her friendly conversations with candidates at the Iowa State Fair, which she calls “fair-side chats,” places her center stage in the 2024 race.
Reynolds sat down with the candidates under the blistering sun outside a restaurant at the state fair on Friday, asking friendly questions and touting her own conservative record. “Amen!” she exclaimed when former Vice President Mike Pence called for less government spending.
When North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum said he’s looking forward to eating “rattlesnake on a stick,” one of the unconventional delicacies found at the fairgrounds, Reynolds laughed and admitted she has yet to indulge.
Long seen as a rising star in the party, Reynolds delivered the Republican response to Biden’s State of the Union address in 2022. She has frequently popped up as a guest at candidate events across Iowa, serving as a tour guide, party cheerleader and more. She also appeared with Trump at his first Iowa campaign visit of the year in March.
She upstaged Republican hopefuls who spoke at the Iowa Family Leadership Summit last month when she opened the evangelical voter gathering by signing into law a statewide six-week abortion ban. The law, which an Iowa judge has since put on hold, received unanimous praise from the Republican candidates on hand.
Reynolds, who turned 64 last week, said she has long been a political junkie.
She served four terms as the Clarke County treasurer in southern Iowa before winning a seat in the state Senate in 2008. She was then tapped by Branstad to serve as his running mate in 2010.
Reynolds dropped out of college and raised her family before completing online classes and receiving a bachelor’s degree from Iowa State University in 2016, while serving as lieutenant governor. A deep opposition to abortion rights and a strong Christian faith have helped guide her agenda in the governor’s office as Iowa has moved from a closely divided state to a reliably Republican one. After her narrow first win as governor in 2018, she romped to reelection last year by 19 points.
Reynolds is the 43rd governor of Iowa but the first woman to hold the position. She and her husband, Kevin, have three children and 11 grandchildren.
While she said Iowa voters will make up their own minds in the presidential race, the prospect of her making a recommendation – or offering full-throated endorsement – could be significant, given her popularity among Republican voters.
Suzy Barker, a Republican from North Liberty, Iowa, who previously voted for Trump, said Pence and DeSantis are her top two candidates. She appreciates what Trump did for the country but thinks he “just maybe comes across too crass.” She said she values Reynolds’ leadership and believes the governor has Iowans’ best interests in mind.
An endorsement from Reynolds, Barker said, could influence her vote, depending on whom the governor chooses.
“If she gets behind a candidate and it means that … perhaps they will be the candidate and have a chance, then I guess I would get on that train,” she said. “So in that sense, yeah, I do care who she ultimately chooses.”