Iowa Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to supporters of U.S. Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts governo...

Once an unlikely candidate, Iowa’s governor embraces new job

DES MOINES, Iowa — As a onetime county office worker in rural Iowa, Republican Kim Reynolds insists she never saw herself running for office, much less serving as governor.

But after a mid-career political surge and the appointment of mentor Terry Branstad as U.S. ambassador to China, the former legislator and lieutenant governor acknowledges growing more comfortable with her ascent Wednesday to the state’s top job.

In fact, she was even somewhat envious watching Branstad sign landmark legislation in the just-ended session, the first in nearly 20 years in which Republicans controlled the House, Senate and governor’s office.

“I was kind of hoping, as we watched the bills go back and forth, that — gosh — I’d really like to sign that one,” Reynolds recently told a Republican county dinner in western Iowa.

The 57-year-old former Clarke County treasurer has come full circle, having stood by Branstad for six years, and now in the role of his chosen successor, with the groundwork in place to run for the office herself next year.

Reynolds was sworn in Wednesday, two days after Branstad was confirmed by the Senate for the ambassadorship.

With guidance from the nation’s longest-serving governor, she has established a political base and feverishly studied policy in preparation for the role she would have never seen coming, but now embraces.

“I’m proud of what we’ve been able to do over these last six years,” Reynolds told about 100 Pottawattamie County GOP activists during a recent event. “I didn’t set out to run for office; I actually never thought I would.”

That was after Reynolds left college without a degree; marrying, raising three daughters and, only then, looking to a career of her own.

Reynolds, however, says she quickly saw herself as up to the task of governor, after rising over the past 10 years from Clarke County treasurer, to state senator to one office away from the governorship in the Iowa Capitol.

“I was six months on the job when the governor turned to me,” she recalled in an Associated Press interview last week. It was 2011 and western Iowa had been hit with disastrous flooding as the divided Legislature was deadlocked in budget talks. Branstad was scheduled to lead a trade mission to China and South Korea.

“I need you to do it,” she recalled Branstad telling her.

If that newfound goal was to be governor, she also squeezed in time to finish her undergraduate degree. In December, Reynolds — in black gown and mortar board — stood with hundreds of graduates younger than her own children in Iowa State University’s Hilton Coliseum to receive her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

Fueled by what advisers call an anxiousness to prove her intellectual chops, Reynolds brings the same intensity to policy research.

As lieutenant governor, she has demanded extensive briefing material, complaining at times of being ill-prepped for public events.

“Kim’s a studier and a worrier,” said Doug Gross, a former adviser to Branstad and past GOP nominee for governor.

She took office with a robust $1 million in her campaign account, a big head start on lesser-known Republican primary prospect Ron Corbett, the mayor of Cedar Rapids, as well as the half-dozen Democrats weighing the race. Reynolds also is working with Something Else Strategies, the firm that created Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s memorable 2014 campaign ads.

Reynolds has also had a taste of the political limelight.

In 2012, as secretary of the Republican National Convention in Tampa, she presided over Mitt Romney’s presidential nomination.

She also stood with countless GOP presidential hopefuls as a host of her state’s presidential caucuses. National GOP leaders also sought her for the 2014 Senate race.

Former Iowa Republican Chairman Matt Strawn said Reynolds made it clear to him and others she had her eyes on becoming governor.

“I was left with the unmistakable impression that she would run,” Strawn said of a lunch with Reynolds a year ago in Des Moines. “It was done very artfully. But, make no mistake. She was interested, if the situation arose.”

Still, she has kept in touch with key GOP leaders around the state.

Reynolds, for instance, has visited bellwether Cedar County in eastern Iowa to promote business openings, tour storm damage or headline county GOP dinners, as she did two years ago, county GOP chairwoman Dawn Smith said.

“Kim has been here quite a few times. She really connects with the counties,” Smith said.

Reynolds rushed to finish her remarks at the Pottawattamie County picnic, as a steady rain pelted the roof of the cold, metal building where they gathered.

Even curtailed, such appearances demonstrate what adviser Jeff Boeyink calls Reynolds’ political work ethic.

“Lots of guest shots on FOX News? They’re fine,” said Boeyink, a former Branstad chief of staff. “But I’d rather have her doing the Muscatine County Republican dinner or the Davenport Rotary.”