Tonight was probably the first time that many Americans had ever heard of Kim Reynolds. It almost certainly won’t be the last.
The 62-year-old governor of Iowa delivered the official Republican response to Joe Biden’s State of the Union address from outside the capitol in Des Moines. Reynolds has been involved in Iowa politics for more than a decade. But she’s a new face on the national stage—a female Republican leader who has managed to avoid engaging in Donald Trump’s wild-eyed conspiracy theories, while being praised by her own party for her mostly hands-off response to the coronavirus pandemic.
By selecting Reynolds to deliver the State of the Union response, GOP leaders are hoping to send a message to America’s swing voters: Not all Republicans are off-the-deep-end election-fraud conspiracists, they’re trying to say. Some Republicans are nice, stable conservatives who simply want to keep schools open, lower taxes, and stop teachers from talking about “critical race theory.” The audience for State of the Union addresses is huge—37 million people watched Trump’s in 2020—and the speeches generate loads of media attention for both parties. So Republicans want to be thoughtful about their message. In a party that seems to be going full MAGA, GOP leaders “are doing everything they can to highlight some of the few Republicans that they can count on not to say anything insane,” Sarah Longwell, a GOP political strategist and the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, told me. Kim Reynolds is how Mitch McConnell would like his party to look.
In her response, Reynolds condemned mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and school closures that have prevented children from attending in-person classes. Keeping Iowa schools open, she said, is only part of the “pro-parent, pro-family revolution that Republicans are leading in Iowa and states across the country.”
Reynolds has been Iowa’s governor since 2017, after Governor Terry Branstad left to be Trump’s ambassador to China. Her backstory is familiar to most Iowans: A college dropout and former alcoholic, she seemed to find her calling in politics, rising up the ranks from county treasurer to lieutenant governor to governor in just a handful of years. Republicans see Reynolds as a kind of fusion politician who can appeal to moderates and Trump fanatics alike, someone who won’t scare off the swing voters Republicans need to sweep back into power in November. She’s friendly with the former president, and has received his endorsement in the past. But she hasn’t trumpeted his claims that Democrats stole the 2020 election—although she did sign a slew of new voting restrictions in Iowa last year. “She doesn’t go into odd or bizarre topics that strain credulity, and I admire that,” David Oman, an Iowa-based Republican strategist, told me. “She advocates for federalism and the rightful role of the states as the Founders wrote.” And right now her approval rating is 20 points higher than President Biden’s.
Reynolds’s actions during the pandemic have earned her plenty of criticism from scientists and medical professionals in Iowa, as well as state Democrats. I wrote about that criticism two years ago. But she’s drawn widespread praise from members of her own party. Reynolds never issued a stay-at-home order for Iowa, and she allowed bars and restaurants in the state to mostly stay open. Although hospitals were overflowing with patients, she held off on imposing any mask mandates—and even attempted to block Iowa cities from instating their own—until after the November 2020 election. In January 2021, Reynolds required schools to offer in-person classes.
The governor has been praised for her actions beyond COVID-19, too. Over the summer, she signed a law prohibiting educators from teaching that the United States or Iowa is fundamentally racist, and she’s pushing to pass a bill that would require school districts to post curricula and reading lists online. “Republicans believe that parents matter,” Reynolds said in her speech tonight. “They have a right to know and have a say in what their kids are being taught.” Reynolds is vehemently anti-abortion, and she’s been supportive of a law under consideration in the state legislature that would ban transgender women and girls from playing women’s sports. “Reynolds represents what it means to lead with conviction and true faith in our fellow citizens,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said in a statement announcing Reynolds’s selection to give the State of the Union response. “She handled COVID by choosing freedom over lockdowns and personal responsibility over mandates—leading to real economic recovery from the pandemic. She kept kids in school and critical race theory out.”
GOP leaders see this message as a model for success in the midterms because it’s worked before. Republican Glenn Youngkin, a mild-mannered suburban venture-capital executive who ran against COVID mandates and critical race theory, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race in November. By staying vague about his allegiance to Trump, Youngkin was able to make the election a referendum on Biden and the direction of the country, rather than on the former president. In the end, he won independent voters in Virginia by double digits. “You’ve got to give them permission to vote Republican,” Tom Davis, a former GOP representative from Virginia, told me. Someone like Reynolds gives voters that permission. “She is nonthreatening, she’s attractive … a good face for the party,” Davis said.
Many Republicans, and especially the party’s congressional leaders, McConnell and McCarthy, are eager for people like Reynolds and Youngkin to be seen as the faces—and future—of their party. But by pushing them out in front, they’re papering over the reality of the present-day GOP. Candidates running for school boards, state legislatures, and governorships all across the United States are campaigning on Trump’s stolen-election lies, endorsing unhinged conspiracy theories, and attempting to out-MAGA one another. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert were shouting about “building the wall” during Biden’s speech. “There is just an increasing wing of the party whose entire reason for being is to support Trump and repeat his wild claims,” Longwell said. The “circus-ification of the GOP,” she added, is only beginning.