Branstad going to China: Let the IA-Gov speculation commence

Jennifer Jacobs reported for Bloomberg last night that Governor Terry Branstad has accepted President-elect Donald Trump’s offer to become the next U.S. ambassador to China. Jacobs cited three unnamed sources, and an unnamed member of Trump’s transition team confirmed the news to the Washington Post this morning. I expect Trump to make the official announcement during his Thursday “thank you” rally in downtown Des Moines. (By the way, many central Iowa Democrats as well as Republicans received a robocall invitation to that rally, featuring Donald Trump, Jr.)

I wish Branstad well in his new adventure. He’ll have a lot to contend with: the president-elect’s recent overture to Taiwan was destabilizing; Trump’s threats to punish China for supposedly unfair trade and currency practices could spark a trade war; and horrific air pollution has made Beijing “almost uninhabitable.”

Kim Reynolds is the fifth woman to hold the office of Iowa lieutenant governor and will soon become the first woman governor in our state’s history. Branstad has been saying for years he wanted her to succeed him, and many Democrats expected him to step down before the end of his sixth term, to give her the advantages of incumbency going into the 2018 campaign. The domain has been registered since 2012, Mark Langgin pointed out today.

Reynolds will select the next lieutenant governor, and she may use that power to neutralize a potential rival, such as Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey. (Why Northey would agree to that arrangement is a mystery to me.) I don’t expect Reynolds to clear the field for the 2018 Republican primary, but as governor, she will be able to raise more money and possibly deter some ambitious people. Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett has been laying the groundwork for a gubernatorial campaign for years. I don’t know how many major donors would back him now that Reynolds will be the incumbent, though. Running a credible campaign against her would require millions of dollars.

Many Democrats were delighted to read this morning that Representative Steve King told The Hill’s Scott Wong he is thinking about running for governor himself. I suspect this will play out like the early months of 2013, when King attracted a lot of attention by saying he might run for U.S. Senate. I never believed then and don’t believe now that King will run for higher office. However, two recent developments may have changed the equation for him.

First, Iowa’s sharp turn to the right this November may have convinced King he has a chance to win a statewide election, which didn’t appear to be the case a few years ago. Second, he and Branstad are not on good terms. King was a leading surrogate for presidential candidate Ted Cruz, whom Branstad attacked shortly before the Iowa caucuses. Reynolds and many other prominent Iowa Republicans endorsed King before this year’s GOP primary in the fourth Congressional district, but Branstad didn’t join them. Adding to the insult, soon after King defeated State Senator Rick Bertrand in that primary, the governor’s son Eric Branstad hired some of Bertrand’s former staffer to work on Trump’s campaign.

Any thoughts about Branstad’s prospects in China or the 2018 campaign are welcome in this thread.

UPDATE: The Des Moines rumor mill sees State Representative Peter Cownie as a likely lieutenant governor choice for Reynolds. Further updates are after the jump.

SECOND UPDATE: Three Iowans who have served as ambassadors shared their advice for Branstad with Radio Iowa’s O.Kay Henderson.

It occurs to me that these developments create real problems for State Representative Pat Grassley. He’s well-positioned now, chairing the Iowa House Appropriations Committee, but he is widely believed to have higher ambitions. Specifically, Grassley was seen as a likely candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture once Northey ran for governor. But if Northey chickens out of a primary against Reynolds–which seems probable–Grassley has no easy path to statewide office before his grandfather retires from the U.S. Senate in 2022.

THIRD UPDATE: Iowa GOP chair Jeff Kaufmann made clear today that the state party will try to discourage primary challengers to Reynolds. Ed Tibbetts quoted Kaufmann as saying, “As far as the Republican Party goes, the minute Kim Reynolds takes the oath of office, we will be behind her 100 percent.”

A Republican reader commented that the Republican Governors Association might spend money against a primary challenger to Reynolds.

As expected, Northey chickened out of running for governor, issuing the following statement:

I was beginning to explore a run for a potentially open seat for Governor in 2018. If I made the decision to run, it would not have been a decision to run against a fellow Republican, but because I feel I have more to give by serving in a different role. I encourage Iowa republicans [sic] to unite behind Lt. Governor Reynolds, help ensure her election in 2018 and join me in working to keep Iowa red for the next generation.

At this point, Reynolds has no reason to choose Northey for lieutenant governor. Perhaps she will pick someone with strong roots in eastern Iowa to reduce a possible base of support for Corbett. Another name that has circulated is Debi Durham, who was Doug Gross’s running mate in the 2002 gubernatorial race and has been the Branstad administration’s economic development director since 2011.

In a statement released today, Reynolds said, “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.” Barbara Rodriguez reported for the Associated Press,

During her six years as lieutenant governor, she has focused on economic development and education.

“Watching her take such a role leading the state just as lieutenant governor … she is more than prepared to step into those shoes as governor,” said Sen. Amy Sinclair, the sole female Republican in the state Senate. “I would say that whether she was a woman or a man.”

Before meeting with Trump, Branstad was asked about Reynolds. He noted her multiple international trade missions and her involvement in key appointments in his administration. Branstad also highlighted her promotion of education efforts, especially those involving science, technology, engineering and math.

“She’s very well-prepared and has great leadership ability,” he said.

I’m still amazed that Chris Branstad, who is reportedly a very involved grandmother, agreed to this move. I have been wondering whether she will stay in Iowa, but the governor’s official statement indicated his wife will be “by my side”:

Today, Gov. Terry E. Branstad issued the following statement in regards to being nominated to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to China in the Trump-Pence Administration:

I love Iowa and I love my country. For 22 years, I have been honored and privileged to serve the people of Iowa as their governor. My family and I will always be grateful to Iowans for trusting me to lead and putting their faith in me to serve.

America is at a crossroads, and the American people are looking for bold change to renew our position as the leader in the world. To once again hold America up as that ‘shining city upon a hill’ as President Reagan so proudly proclaimed. By electing President-elect Trump on November 8, this message was sent loud and clear by the voters.

During our 30-year friendship, President Xi Jinping and I have developed a respect and admiration for each other, our people and our cultures. The United States – Chinese bilateral relationship is at a critical point. Ensuring the countries with the two largest economies and two largest militaries in the world maintain a collaborative and cooperative relationship is needed more now than ever. The President-elect understands my unique relationship to China and has asked me to serve in a way I had not previously considered.

After long discussions with my family, I am honored and humbled to be nominated to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to China. I also accept President-elect Trump’s charge to prioritize collaborative policies that will Make America Great Again. This is an extraordinary opportunity. I believe that the respect and admiration built over a decades-old friendship between President Xi and I give me an opportunity to help the President-elect and serve Iowa, the United States and the world for the better.

This new mission to continue serving my state, and my country, in a new role is essential to building a bright future for our children and grandchildren. With my wife Chris by my side, I look forward to the work ahead but we will never have Iowa far from our hearts.

For more information on Gov. Branstad’s experience and relationship with China, please click here.

Additional information on a transition will be forthcoming.

Also from the governor’s official website:

1983–Branstad signs a formal agreement establishing the sister-state relationship between Hebei province and Iowa
1984–Governor leads fifty-person delegation to Hebei
1985–Xi Jinping, then a county-level party leader from Hebei, visits Iowa for the very first time and meets with Branstad at the state capitol in his formal office
2011—Branstad meets with Chinese provincial governors in Salt Lake City, Utah
2011–Branstad has the honor of meeting with Xi, then vice-president, in the Great Hall of the People; Branstad extends an invitation to him to visit Iowa
2012–Vice President Xi visits Des Moines and Muscatine after 27 years; Branstad sends a personal thank-you to Xi and invited him to an “old friends” reunion dinner
2012–Branstad and Xi’s 20 Iowa friends return to China for an “old friends” reunion dinner
2014–Marks the 5th trade mission to China with other governors led by Branstad and meets with President Xi
2015–Branstad meets with President Xi in Seattle, Washington to discuss trade opportunities between Iowa and China
2016–Becomes the 6th Chinese trade mission led by Branstad to expand beef and pork exports
 Served as governor of Iowa for 6 terms equaling over 22 years (1983-1999 and 2011-present); longest-serving governor in American history
 Considered an “old friend”, a culturally significant title, by President Xi Jinping
 Has long-standing relationship with Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai
 Collaborated with Ministry of Agriculture for China, including meetings with Minister Han Changfu
 Worked closely with Madam Li Xiaolin of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to further relationships between states in America and Chinese provinces
 As an active voice for trade, Gov. Branstad has met with leaders from the Ministry of Finance
 Gov. Branstad has led 6 trade mission to China during his time as governor meeting with numerous provincial governors and local officials
 Gov. Branstad first visited Hebei Province in 1984
 Supports President-elect Trump’s mission to negotiate trade
deals that put America’s interests first
 Wife, Christine; 3 adult children, Eric (Adrianne), Allison
(Jerry), Marcus (Nicole); 7 grandchildren

FOURTH UPDATE: Missed this from the Des Moines Register’s December 6 story:

[Jake] Ketzner, who also worked as the administration’s liaison to the legislature, suggested lawmakers could expect continuity and stability if a transition from Branstad to Reynolds occurs.

“I don’t sense a huge difference in governing style, but obviously there’s going to be some,” Ketzner said. “Right now there are still a lot of unknowns out there after the November election and folks are trying to figure out what the art of the possible is heading into the legislative session.”

Tim Albrecht, another former Branstad aide, emphasized Reynolds’ unusually hands-on role as lieutenant governor over the last six years, calling her “without question” the most qualified person in the state to take over as governor and ready to engage with lawmakers.

“She has a strong grasp of the governorship,” Albrecht said. “She’s not going to be simply a transitional governor for the session – she’ll be a check and balance on the legislature.”

A “check and balance” on the Republican-controlled legislature? Pure spin from Albrecht. I’m going on record now: Reynolds will not veto a single bill that comes out of this legislature. Everything on taxes, guns, abortion, education, or anything else that reaches her desk, she will sign. Maybe she will item-veto a little spending from appropriations bills to build a reputation as “fiscally conservative,” but that’s it. She won’t want to upset the GOP base in any way, and I’ve never seen any evidence that she has public policy opinions of her own.

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  • Surprised

    I’m amazed he took the job. I cannot see him living there, especially since he’s in poor health, and so far from his grandkids – will his wife go there?

    • it's hard for me to believe

      Chris Branstad agreed to this. From everything I’ve heard, she is very involved with the grandkids. I wonder if she will stay behind.

      I don’t expect him to do this job for more than a year or two. I don’t know any details about his health (many conditions can cause a tremor), but the polluted air in Beijing would be terrible for anyone’s health.

  • This is a good step.

    I appreciate this nomination. Iowa agricultural exports alone merit extraordinary attention to the relationship between China and the US. I never voted for TEB; for a lot of my career, I was a Democratic appointee. The relationship between IA/US and China is far bigger than any of that. So, I sincerely wish him well, and success, in this position, and am pulling for him.

  • Cownie rumor

    That would leave an open seat that could be an opportunity to try a new strategy to stem the tide. Granted, it’s a West Des Moines based seat, so not rural.
    Cownie’s opponent this fall is a non-starter, so finding a good city council person, school board member, ANYONE with a respected track record and community connection, not a political neophyte.