Why Kim Reynolds’ Republican State of the Union Response Matters

5 minute read

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If the Republican Party has an id, it might look like Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Mask requirements? Scrap ‘em. Vaccine mandates? In the trash. Distance learning? Nah, thanks. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Reynolds was among the loudest critics of any efforts to modify personal behavior in order to curb the spread of the virus. It made her something a celebrity among conservatives who saw government overreach with every effort to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The posture fit perfectly with her political identity honed over decades in Iowa, climbing from rural county treasurer to become the first woman elected governor of her state.

And, on Tuesday, she will be the Republican anointed to give the party’s official response to President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union speech. Given her background and temperament, it’s highly likely she’ll keep the pre-canned criticism focused on Biden’s domestic agenda and steer clear of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that is sure to crowd out at least some of Biden’s yearly report card to Congress. But as an acolyte of Trump’s reboot of the GOP, she will surely have plenty of barbs for a President trying to de-escalate what could be the biggest ground war in Europe since the 1940s.

So, who is Kim Reynolds?

In many ways, Reynolds is Sarah Pailn 2.0, a conservative avatar who is shaking up her party’s good ol’ boys network that runs state government. A quick-witted rejoinder to institutional inertia, Reynolds is a ready foil for liberal instincts and a nemesis for those who would try to constrain politics to the familiar footprint. The culture wars are familiar ground for her; the norms of polite politics are meant to be shredded. At this point, fighting convention is a winning quality for aspiring Republican leaders like her and meritorious on its own.

Reynolds got her start in the rural fields of Iowa politics, spending four terms as a county treasurer before rising to the state senate in the 2008 election. From there, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad—the longest-serving governor in American history—elevated her to be his running mate during her first term in the Des Moines legislature. When Branstad decamped from the governor’s mansion on Terrace Hill for the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2017, Reynolds rose from Lieutenant governor to the top job. She won her first full term in 2018.

A rising star in the era of Donald Trump, Reynolds quickly understood the potency of a good troll. She was among the fiercest critics of pandemic-era restrictions. She didn’t implement a stay-at-home order or order mask mandates until late in 2020. A strong ally of Iowa’s powerful pork industry, she didn’t push limits on processing plants even as COVID-19 hit the factories. In fact, her opposition to checks on the pandemic drew this fateful line from a Washington Post op-ed writer: “Welcome to Iowa: A state that just doesn’t care if you live or die.”

In picking Reynolds, the Republican Party seems to affirm that Trumpian politics are durable and remain the de facto position of the base. Reynolds is about as conservative as they come, but her appeal inside the GOP goes beyond any of her policies. She embodies a plucky spirit of the party that takes delight in fighting expectations—even though it runs counter to her home state’s “Iowa Nice” reputation. In many ways, the pick of Reynolds tells America as much about the current state of the GOP as any words that are loaded on her teleprompter.

The Republican Party at the moment is trying to coalesce around a message to criticize Biden, despite his sour polls and languishing standing even among allies. A looming Supreme Court confirmation could be a bright spot for him, and the situation in Europe has shown Biden to be a steady grounding in a fast-changing world. The choice of Reynolds is unlikely to challenge Biden’s stature on the global stage, but the selection could help ding him, especially among female voters who helped him win office in 2020.

That’s not to say Reynolds is universally beloved. Far from it, even among voters who know her best. Her pandemic peacocking cost her and her Republicans standing in 2020 among independents and moderates according to polling in the state. The open contempt for science is only good for the slice of the electorate who wants to embrace raw rejection of civility. For Republicans to win this fall, they’ll need those suburban swing voters who decided to dump Trump in 2020 on the promise of a boring Biden presidency.

So as the world waits to hear Biden give his assessment of the state of American politics, there will be plenty of attention to the counter-argument, coming from a Heartland governor with a sharp tongue of her own. While Trump is not giving a scheduled speech, his strain of politics will still have a voice via Reynolds. And with the midterm elections just a few months away, her speech will need a close reading. Given how much is at stake for the second half of Biden’s first term, the thesis coming from Des Moines will be a helpful hint at what Republicans see as the most viable message for the GOP’s prospects this fall.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com