Today, in the politics of Iowa, it’s hard not to see Republican Governor Kim Reynolds standing in for the frowning woman in the apron. Reynolds has eschewed all claim to the image of “Iowa nice,” preferring to embody the mean and stingy side of the American pioneer spirit that Wood’s painting sought to capture.
Earlier this year, Reynolds engineered a cut in unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 16 weeks. “The safety net has become a hammock,” she said, and saw to it that unemployed workers would be forced to take any available job, even one well below their previous pay grade.
One defenseless target down, Reynolds moved on to public school teachers, equally vulnerable since the Iowa legislature stripped them of their bargaining rights in 2017. No more “critical race theory” in schools, she and the legislature decreed, despite CRT never having been taught in Iowa schools.
Whom to bully next? How about transgendered children and their families? Reynolds met with parents concerned about school bathroom usage but has never met with the kids and parents trying to navigate their way through difficult gender decisions. Her latest television ad proudly boasts that in Iowa, “We still know right from wrong [and] boys from girls.”
Anyone else to punch down on? Well, a previous Reynolds ad talked about crime in a state with one of the lowest rates in the country, featuring the face of a Black congresswoman from Missouri. Sheer coincidence that the Democratic candidate for governor is a Black woman. The current governor has done nothing to alleviate racial disparities in Iowa, content to let her state rank as third-worst for Blacks in the country.
Apparently fearful of overlooking any marginalized group, Reynolds announced last week that the state will appeal a federal judge’s ruling that a mask requirement is a reasonable accommodation to protect students with disabilities or medical vulnerabilities.
The Democratic Party’s candidate for governor, Deidre DeJear, is a smart and charismatic consultant for small businesses. But the party’s major financial donors have been reluctant to back her, unable to see past the color of her skin. By withholding their usual contributions, they have hurt the entire ticket in Iowa. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has been similarly unhelpful—all but ignoring excellent women candidates in three of Iowa’s four US House races.
Democratic donors have been more generous to the white male candidate for US Senator, Mike Franken, whose most admired credential is his many years of service as an admiral in the US Navy. Franken has generated some excitement in Iowa and nationally by raising decent cash and trailing his Republican opponent, incumbent US Senator Charles Grassley by only 3 percent in a Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll.
Grassley is vulnerable in many ways (his 89 years of age, his increasingly harsh partisanship, his selfish unwillingness to pass the baton after 63 years in public office), but most Iowans are comfortable with him. He is familiar, well-funded, and a Republican in a state that went for Trump in 2016 and 2020. While Franken is giving him his toughest race, any watcher of the World Series knows that close doesn’t count in baseball—or in politics. It’s hard to foresee the admiral winning, especially when the rest of the ticket is struggling.
Still, at least Franken has a shot. Sadly, DeJear does not. Despite her accurate description of Reynolds’s policies as “restrictive, retaliatory, and full of repercussions,” the pinched-lipped governor remains quite popular in the American Gothic underbelly of Iowa.