Governor Terry Branstad confirmed on Iowa Public Television this weekend that he wants Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds to succeed him in office.
Although he added that it's "his intention" to serve an entire sixth term if re-elected this year, his comments are not likely to persuade skeptics (including me) who believe that he would resign early to give Reynolds a chance to run as an incumbent governor in 2018. I explain why after the jump, following a video clip and partial transcript of Branstad's remarks.
Clip from the "Iowa Press" program that originally aired on January 31:
My partial transcript:
Branstad: She's in on all the decision-making, she is next in line to be governor. I want to make sure that's she's as well-prepared, I'd say she's probably already as well-prepared as anybody ever has been to be governor [...]
Dean Borg: Are you saying, are you saying..
Branstad [interrupts]: We're grooming her to be the next governor.
Borg [laughs]: Ok, that's what I was asking.
O.Kay Henderson: So Governor, barring serious illness or, I guess, death, do you pledge to serve all four years of a sixth term, or do you intend to resign and let Kim Reynolds become governor?
Branstad: Well, first of all, I think we're a great team. It's my intention to serve the entire term as governor. But, you know, life, you have to take one day at a time, and you try to do the very best you can. I just want people to know, I love the state of Iowa, I want to continue to work hard every day and try to accomplish as much as we can. I think we're a great team, and I think we've got a great team working with us.
Bleeding Heartland has commented before on the Branstad administration's consistent (almost obsessive) branding of the "Branstad-Reynolds team" as a single unit. I want to emphasize how unprecedented it is for Iowa's governor and lieutenant governor to do so many public appearances together. Traditionally, the lieutenant governor's role has been to help the administration cover more ground. Reynolds' predecessors were sent around the state to attend events that did not fit into the governor's schedule.
The "joined at the hip" scheduling has fueled rumors that Branstad has an undisclosed health problem, requiring Reynolds' presence in case the governor has some kind of episode. (It doesn't help that Branstad has held very few in-person meetings with key Democratic lawmakers during the last couple of legislative sessions, even when negotiators were hashing out the final details on important bills.) Releasing some kind of annual medical report, similar to what recent presidents have disclosed to the media, could dispel questions about whether Branstad is physically fit to serve out a sixth term.
To my mind, political realities rather than health factors point to a likely resignation if Branstad were re-elected again. He is not subtle about wanting Reynolds to be his successor. But she didn't come up through the system the way he did before he ran for governor the first time in 1982. He had several terms in the legislature under his belt and was elected lieutenant governor when that office was still a separate ballot line.
In contrast, Reynolds wasn't even halfway through her first term in the Iowa Senate minority when Branstad overlooked more prominent figures to pick her as his running mate in 2010. Having been a country treasurer rather than a well-known local activist before winning her Iowa Senate seat, she has no natural constituency in the Republican base. Social conservatives don't fully trust her, nor does she have many fans on the "Liberty" wing. Why else would the governor's campaign feel compelled to turn supporters out to precinct caucuses, if not to head off any challenge to her as the 2014 lieutenant governor nominee?
I don't see any way Reynolds could win a statewide primary in today's Iowa GOP. However, a year or more time to campaign and fundraise as the incumbent governor could give her a fighting chance in a 2018 primary. Even then, other ambitious Republicans might seek the office, but she would have some advantages she couldn't bring to a campaign in her current position. If Branstad is re-elected, I expect him to recognize that reality and step down at some point after he has cemented his place as the longest-serving governor in American history.
Any relevant thoughts are welcome in this thread.
UPDATE: I should also mention that the train wreck otherwise known as the current Iowa GOP primary for U.S. Senate gives Branstad even more incentive to leave nothing to chance in ensuring that Reynolds will become governor.
SECOND UPDATE: At his regular weekly press conference on February 3, Branstad did not rule out seeking a seventh term as governor.
"I'm feeling good and I'm intending to serve a long time, so I'm not ruling anything out," Branstad said. Reynolds added: "I can back that up because I just challenge you to travel a week with him and he will demonstrate his energy."
I want to make clear that my opinion has nothing to do with Branstad's age or level of energy. He has no big policy ambitions, and he is committed to making Reynolds the next governor. The only way he can be sure that will happen is to turn the reins over to her directly.