Everybody Loves Kim Reynolds (Unless They Don't)
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds and the rise of women in the GOP
Welcome to the mid-week edition of the newsletter Men Yell at Me. This is a newsletter about the places where our politics and personhood collide, written from inside Iowa. I am an author and journalist and Iowan. This newsletter is about Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, who is delivering the response to the State of the Union address. It’s a look at the politics and people shaping a state that has an outsized effect on the politics of our nation. If you value the work of this newsletter, please subscribe!
The rise of Kim Reynolds in Iowa shouldn’t be surprising. Not to anyone in Iowa anyway. Reynolds embodies the “just one of us,” no airs, no frills kind of politicking that is popular in the state. But it was a pandemic and a Biden administration that helped her find her foothold on the national stage, making her a top contender as the vying for 2024 begins.
Who is she?
Born Kimberly Kay Strawn in 1959, Reynolds grew up in rural Madison County, Iowa, and graduated from Interstate 35 Community Schools, a consolidated school system, in Truro. According to the Osceola Sentinel Tribune archives, Kim Strawn played basketball and softball, ran track, lettered in poms and cheerleading, and was part of the honor society. When she graduated in 1977, she received an award for leadership and balance in “physical, mental, and social” character development.
A 1998 feature on Reynolds in the Osceola Sentinel Tribune notes that Reynolds went briefly to Northwest Missouri State University in Maryville, Missouri. But she didn’t graduate. She also worked briefly at a pharmacy in Mount Pleasant. In speeches, she’s talked about working bagging groceries at Hy-Vee, an Iowa-based chain of grocery stores, and waitressing at a Younkers Department store, back when they had a tea room. In the early ’90s, Reynolds began working in the Clarke County Treasurer’s office, first in motor vehicles, and then she became deputy treasurer for two years. Finally, she ran for county treasurer, when Opal Shewman retired. Reynolds served as county treasurer from 1998 until 2006, when she decided to run for Iowa state Senate in 2008.
In her one term in the Iowa Senate from 2009–2010, Reynolds worked to introduce bills that limited government and helped to track government spending, limit the accessing of porn on library computers, requiring drug testing for people receiving state assistance, easing restrictions on firearms, defunding health-care mandates enacted under Obamacare, and establishing voter ID laws.
In 2009, Iowa became the third state in the nation to legalize gay marriage. Along with her Republican colleagues, including current congressman Randy Feenstra, Reynolds introduced a joint resolution, establishing marriage as between one man and one woman. In sum, Reynolds was a Republican. And not just a Republican, but an Obama-era reactionary. Her politics, as described by the bills she put her name on, show a politician ready to slash Obamacare, cut gun regulations, and repeal the right to marriage for gay people.
This sense of Reactionary Republicanism would become the defining feature of her politics.
But back then, under the Obama era, and under then Democratic governor Chet Culver, only one of Reynolds’ bills passed into law. That was SF 112, a bill regarding lowering the state flag to honor the death of veterans.
When former governor Terry Branstad, who served as Iowa’s governor from 1983 to 1999, decided to run again, he picked Reynolds as his running mate. It was a strategic decision. Iowa was, at the time, a purplish state, and the GOP needed an old favorite, remixed with something newer: a woman.
Reynolds was the perfect candidate. She was a rural mother, and now grandmother, and a true Republican. The only blemish she had on her past were two drunk driving arrests, one in 1999 and the other in 2001. The arrest records from 1999 no longer exist, and Reynolds has told the Des Moines Register she doesn’t remember that event. The Warren County court records show that a 911 caller said Reynolds’ white minivan nearly caused a crash as she merged onto the interstate. When she was stopped by a trooper, Reynolds said she’d only had a glass of wine, but her blood alcohol was .228. A nearly empty bottle of Black Velvet brandy was found in her backseat. Reynolds entered treatment. And in 2017, she told the Register that her community supported her, bringing her family food while she was in the hospital. And in 2008, during her run for state Senate, when the Register published a story about the arrest, both Sen. Joni Ernst and Reynolds’ daughter, Jennifer Fagan, wrote letters to the editor supporting Reynolds.
People are allowed to be complex and to change, and Reynolds’ story is relatable. Iowa ranks as one of the top ten states in the nation for excessive drinking, so a DWI isn’t exactly a drawback in politics. In a rural area without public transportation, the feeling is often, “There but the grace of God…”
In fact, in Iowa a far more disqualifying sin is putting on airs, or going to an Ivy League school. I’m being glib, but it’s a truth universally known in these 99 counties that if you want to succeed in Iowa politics, you have to peddle in “regular guy” politics. The kind of political gauntlet of hand shaking, baby kissing, hay-bale sweating, corn dog eating that the Iowa Caucuses are famous for. Otherwise known as retail politics.
It’s worth noting that being successful at retail politics is less about talent and more about voters seeing themselves in you. So it becomes a loaded game that sits at the intersection of race, class, and gender. And in Iowa, it’s a careful dance of appealing to voters who don’t want to be condescended too, who have a real chip on their shoulders, and who are largely white. And here, Reynolds succeeds. Like the most long-lasting Iowa politicians, she’s normal. Like Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, her folksy speech is often mocked, but it’s the source of her appeal. She talks like your mom’s friend from church. She has a strong Midwestern accent that shows up when she says words like “wash,” which come out “warsh.”
Additionally, Reynolds was a good choice for Branstad because she is a Republican. A real Republican. In Gendering the GOP, Catherine Wineinger, assistant professor of political science at Western Washington University, points out that for years Republican female politicians were seen as more moderate, because they were more moderate. But that day, she argues, is long past. Reynolds is the perfect vehicle to promote a Republican agenda, while escaping some of the criticisms. It’s one thing to criticize abortion as a man. But far more powerful to do it as a wife and grandmother. This would prove especially true during the pandemic, when Reynolds would be accused of putting kids at risk. But she, a mother and grandmother, leaned hard on that identity. Her actions, she said often, were informed by her care for her family.
Branstad easily won again, defeating Chet Culver and making Reynolds lieutenant governor. She wasn’t the first female lieutenant governor in the state; that honor went to Jo Ann Zimmerman, a Democrat, who won the role in the 1986 election, opposite Terry Branstad. But she did become the first female governor in 2017, when Branstad stepped down to take the role of ambassador to China under then-president Donald Trump.
A 2017 Register profile of Reynolds tells the story of how Branstad, deadlocked on budget issues in the state, sent Reynolds to head up a trade delegation to China. It was a success.
In 2018, Reynolds ran for governor and won. And for two years, she headed up the state pushing a radical anti-abortion agenda (many of Iowa’s anti-abortion laws have been struck down by judicial challenge), and a tightening of the governmental purse strings, which has resulted in Republicans boasting about the state’s balanced budget and healthy rainy day fund, and Democrats bemoaning the lack of state investment in projects like water quality. Iowa, after all, is infamous for our watershed pollution. She had an initiative to push mental health-care access in schools, which was praised by politicians on both sides, but that fizzled out with lack of funding. Reynolds also spearheaded the state’s efforts to defund Planned Parenthoods, replacing them with a family services system that was woefully ineffective and has lead to rising abortion rates, rising rates of STDs, and reproductive care deserts. Still, her supporters don’t care about that. They like that she and her party have done that, and furthermore, have expanded gun rights and undermined unions with right-to-work laws.
A Reactionary Republican
But if it weren’t for the pandemic, Reynolds might have just been another Republican governor from a small state. But the disease and the divided political response gave Reynolds the chance to do what she does best: react. In 2022, Reynolds is one of nine female governors, three of of whom are Republicans. By aggressively keeping her state open and by forcing schools to meet in person, Reynolds became the embodiment of the Republican response to a nationwide crisis: normalcy at all costs.
In early 2020, like so many governors, when the pandemic hit, Reynolds took the threat seriously, shutting down the state,at least on the surface. Hobby Lobbys and gun stores never really had to close.
On March 16, Gov. Kim Reynolds refused to close bars and restaurants but encouraged Iowans to order takeout. The next day, though, she signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency. After the emergency declaration, the governor soft-pedaled, refusing to issue a stay-at-home order.
She issued an order stating that all gatherings with 10 or more people should be canceled but then allowed a horse auction in northeast Iowa to continue: It drew more than 600 people. Afterward, Reynolds issued an order that said only 10 people could be present at an auction—unless it’s for food animals, in which case it could have up to 25 attendees.
When Iowa reached a critical level of cases during the week of April 6, with the virus in 75 of 99 counties and nearly 1,000 cases statewide, instead of issuing a stay-at-home order, the governor closed shopping malls, bowling alleys, amusement parks, and other places of entertainment. “We are doing everything we can,” Reynolds said repeatedly, without issuing a stay-at-home order. Meatpacking plants, which are now the center of virus activity in Iowa, for the most part remained open. Because of that, Tyson plants are dealing with a wrongful death lawsuit.
In other states where governments contracted with universities and hospitals for COVID testing, Reynolds was one of a handful of red states that outsourced testing to a for-profit tech company, which has come under scrutiny in more than one state and is the subject of a lawsuit. Iowa was the only state that had summer sports for high schoolers. My friends who were sports reporters told me that if they reported on the crowd size or mentioned that the gatherings flew in the face of CDC recommendations, they got death threats.
What was the reality of COVID in the state? We still don’t know. Iowa under Reynolds has a problem with transparency. Reynolds is being sued by the ACLU for refusing to answer journalists’ FOIA requests. Relatedly, the Reynolds administration is being sued because it’s refusing to provide information from its testing program.
With a lack of information, experts like University of Iowa epidemiologist Eli Perencevich sounded the alarm. Rogue data collectors like Sara Anne Willette began to fill in the gaps. But it wasn’t enough to sway Reynolds. In August of 2020, school was in session. And schools that refused to provide in-person learning options were punished. Without mandatory reporting from schools, what we don’t know is what was lost in the shuffle of data and lives. But Reynolds went on a Fox News blitz declaring that the school openings were a success and attacking the Biden administration over mask wearing. Iowa was a success, she declared. They all declared this. It was a virulent reactionary response, one that resonated with pandemic-weary Republicans.
And not just Republicans. While Reynolds is deeply polarizing, her handling of the pandemic has been less so, with 52 percent of Iowans approving of her job handling the pandemic. I’m a critic of Reynolds and yet, I have to say, living here as a single parent, I do not hate that schools were open. I benefited from a system that may have harmed others. But what else can any of us do? I didn’t have the option of not working. Left with few choices, we all just try to survive. And I am grateful I live in a state where I could do that without quitting my job. And I’ve heard from other people similarly grateful. What else can we do?
In February of 2021, Iowa’s lawmakers signed an order outlawing schools from requiring masks. That same month, I wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post lamenting the lack of pandemic restrictions. The op-ed, titled Welcome to Iowa, the State that Doesn’t Care if You Live or Die, became a thorn in the side of the administration and was even mentioned in a July 2021 press conference (although not in a nice way).
Just last week, the governor’s former spokesperson, who now works for her re-election campaign, demanded that I retract that article. Iowa did well, he argued, pointing to a tweet from an unverified account that was posting false data. I didn’t bother to respond. The point is not a dialogue; the point is to attack.
But what does it all matter? In a state with an anemic press and an even more anemic Democratic Party, Reynolds is popular. According to the Register, a November 2021 poll showed “more than half of Iowans approved of Reynolds’ handling of three key issues: the economy, at 56% approval; the COVID-19 pandemic, at 52% approval; and schools and education, at 52% approval.”
And she’s using that mandate. Currently, Iowa passed a law outlawing teaching critical race theory, a direct response to the writings of another Iowan, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of the 1619 Project. Iowa has also passed an aggressive “Back the Blue” act, which is designed to push back against police reform initiatives and a bill outlawing transgender girls from playing in girls sports. Currently, GOP lawmakers are asking the Iowa Supreme Court to overturn its 2018 ruling that a 72-hour abortion waiting period is unconstitutional. And Reynolds has said she’s eager to sign a bill establishing a 3.9 percent flat tax in Iowa. The push for the flat tax has its roots in an Evangelical Worldview, so it’s not surprising that in a state where the Republican party is heavily influenced by the far-right christian group, The Family Leader, this would be a legislative priority. And if you are a Republican, these are all wins. Hence, Reynolds’ popularity.
And Democrats are floundering. As the 2022 campaign swings into gear, Democrats in the state have had a hard time landing blows that stick. Social media attacks that hit Reynolds on her perceived lack of education (Reynolds got her BA through Iowa State during her time as lieutenant governor) or her DUI are condescending and miss the fact that it’s precisely these things that make Reynolds relatable. Many of the memes about “COVID Kim” or “Killer Kim” rely on misogynistic tropes, depicting Reynolds as cold and shrewish, emulating Republican attacks on Pelosi. Misogyny, after all, is a bipartisan problem.
And attacks criticizing Reynolds’ handling of the pandemic only work for Democrats, and it’s a red state. Or have you forgotten? Right now, Democrats are attacking Reynolds over unions. The state has been awash in pickets and union strikes, and Reynolds is proudly anti-union. Or so she told the Register in 2017, when she talked about her father, a Deere worker, refusing to join the union. Recently, she’s been largely silent on the most recent strikes, saying only she’s confident a deal can be reached.
Meanwhile, Reynolds’ campaign isn’t afraid to hit hard and often. Her campaign manager is notorious for scraping with people on Twitter and yelling at journalists on the phone. But he gets away with it. In this state, it’s all about who is in power, and that, for now, is Kim.
2020 was a banner year for electing Republican women. Rep. Elise Stefanik’s Elevate PAC, dedicated to electing Republican women to Congress, led to 35 total Republican women elected into Congress. Sure, it pales to the Democrats’ numbers. But so what? That only fuels the fires; Republican women are tired of being ignored by the “mainstream media” for the AOCs of the world. This chip-on-your-shoulder motivation works well with Reynolds’ politics of Reactionary Republicanism. And the rise of Republican women signals a new future for the party.
And that future seems to be vested, in part, in Kimberly Kay Reynolds, who will deliver the GOP response to Biden’s State of the Union tonight. It’s an honor to be chosen, but not one that necessarily indicates a shining future. While future presidents like Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Joe Biden have all delivered responses, so many of the other politicians have faded away into obscurity.
But to underestimate Reynolds is to underestimate Iowa and the quadrennial stranglehold the state has on American politics. And dismissing Reynolds’ rising star is to miss the future of the Republican Party in America.
Further Reading: For this newsletter, I read Gendering the GOP, and listened to a lot of interviews with Elise Stefanik. Also, last year I interviewed NPR gender correspondent Danielle Kurtzleben about gender and politics and the media.
I’ve also been writing about Iowa and the pandemic for a long time. Here is something I wrote in 2020, that puts a lot of the pandemic here into context. Also, the story of Iowa outsourcing pandemic testing is wild. Here is a story I wrote about how all of that came to be and the Ashton Kutcher connection.
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