For decades, it was a tradition for Iowa governors to remain neutral ahead of the state’s all-important caucuses — the first major contest of the United States presidential race.
And Republican Governor Kim Reynolds seemed poised to uphold that tradition for much of last year.
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“I’m going to remain neutral,” she told Fox News in May, touting her role in welcoming all Republican presidential hopefuls, no matter who they are, to her state.
But facing pressure from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump to pick a side, Reynolds made a defiant choice: She decided to back Florida Governor Ron DeSantis over the former president, her erstwhile ally.
Now, with the Iowa caucuses only days away, her decision is being seen as a test of her power as a rising star in the Republican Party — and a high-stakes gamble that could alienate her from Trump’s broad base of supporters.
“Governors have long played key roles in endorsing particular presidential candidates and organising their state parties to gear up for the year’s elections,” Ken Kollman, a political science professor at the University of Michigan, told Al Jazeera.
“What’s interesting is the calculations different leaders are making. What’s the right timing to break with Trump, betting that — when the party emerges from Trump and becomes a normal party again — it will be a boost to have opposed him now as opposed to later?”
Whether that bet will ultimately pay off remains unclear, Kollman added. Leaders like Reynolds “are playing a longer game than others, but clearly a risky one”.
Fractures in Trump’s leadership
Going into the Iowa caucuses on January 15, Trump remains the faraway leader in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
A national polling average compiled by the website FiveThirtyEight shows Trump nearly 50 percentage points ahead of his next closest rivals, DeSantis and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley.
So far, no Republican candidate has come close to challenging Trump’s lead. Nevertheless, Reynolds and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu — from another early primary state — have both backed Trump opponents for the party nod, revealing subtle fault lines in the Republican caucus.
Reynolds credited her decision to political pragmatism in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “I don’t think he can win,” she said of Trump’s prospects in the general election, where he likely faces a rematch with current President Joe Biden.
She also noted the 45-year-old DeSantis’s relative youth, compared to the 77-year-old Trump. “We have to look towards the future and not the past.”
But some analysts believe behind-the-scenes friction contributed to Reynolds’s decision, particularly as Trump publicly blasted the governor for her early gestures at neutrality.
No other Iowa governor, however, had endorsed a candidate before the caucuses since 1996.
“Reynolds apparently can’t stand Trump personally, and she likes and clicked early with DeSantis,” Steffen Schmidt, an emeritus professor at Iowa State University, told Al Jazeera.
Schmidt explained that DeSantis and Reynolds bonded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when both of their states resisted federal health recommendations to close public institutions and encourage physical distancing.
“She also thought DeSantis would shortlist her, given her support for him, for the vice president role,” Schmidt added.
A poster child for ‘Trump’s America’
But Reynolds’s defection from the Trump camp was seen as a stark reversal for the Iowa Republican, whose political rise was intimately linked with the former president’s.
Trump’s surprise victory in the 2016 elections quickly catapulted Reynolds into the national spotlight.
At the time, Reynolds was a 57-year-old grandmother and former county treasurer working as lieutenant governor under Terry Branstad, the longest-serving governor in US history.
But when Trump tapped Branstad to be his ambassador to China, Reynolds inherited the executive seat. In doing so, she made history, becoming Iowa’s first female governor.
Very quickly, Reynolds developed into the poster child for Trump’s transformation of the Republican Party. Politico Magazine dubbed her “the governor of Trump’s America”, describing a new political landscape where it would be “dangerous for any Republican to abandon the president”.
And Reynolds embraced the association. Faced with running for governor for the first time in 2018, she appeared on the campaign trail with both Trump and his daughter Ivanka.
“The Midwest has a partner in the White House with President Donald Trump,” she said, standing next to him at a 2018 rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
When Trump made his re-election bid in 2020, Reynolds likewise made appearances on his behalf, helping him to carry Iowa by eight percentage points over Biden.
But Trump ultimately lost that race. Though Reynolds eventually acknowledged his defeat, she was careful not to criticise or contradict Trump — despite his false claims that the election had been “stolen” through widespread voter fraud.
“What we need to do is stop pointing fingers, and we need to move forward,” she said in a call to reporters in January 2021, shortly after Trump supporters attacked the US Capitol.
Surviving Trump’s ire
While Trump briefly faltered, Reynolds’s star continued to rise. She cruised to an easy re-election in 2022, and she has since styled herself as a Republican kingmaker, holding “Fair-Side Chats” at last year’s Iowa State Fair, where she hosted presidential hopefuls for public interviews.
Some of those contenders even courted her endorsement. In July, Haley praised her as a “conservative rockstar” on social media. Meanwhile, Chris Christie, another Republican candidate, told a SiriusXM radio show that she is someone who “has the capabilities, if she wanted to be president, to be president”.
Dennis Goldford, political science professor at Drake University, told Al Jazeera that Reynolds ticks a lot of boxes for conservative voters.
“Reynolds follows the typical Republican list of economic- and business-related policies, but her signature political identity is culture-war conservatism in the guise of every small town’s homecoming queen,” Goldford said.
He believes that combination of qualities will help insulate her against any backlash from her DeSantis endorsement.
“She’s pretty much a MAGA politician anyway,” Goldford said, using the acronym for the Trump slogan, Make America Great Again. “So I don’t see a lot of Trump supporters holding this against her.”
Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa, predicts there could even be a reconciliation if Trump becomes the party pick for 2024.
“I assume that if Trump wins the Republican nomination, she will support him in the general election. That would likely blunt any hard feelings that some Trump supporters might have,” he said.
Rejecting and embracing Reynolds
Still, Trump himself has promised dire consequences for Reynolds’s perceived betrayal. Even before she ended her neutrality, Trump warned that a DeSantis endorsement would “be the end of her political career”.
“I believe in loyalty,” Trump said in a December speech in Ankeny, Iowa, evoking cheers. “I don’t care if she endorses me or not. It’s not going to make any difference. Because the only endorsement that matters is the Trump endorsement.”
The University of Michigan’s Kollman said Trump’s backing still holds significant weight in states like Iowa.
“You essentially haven’t been able to get elected to statewide office as a Republican in a state like Iowa without showing deference or fealty to Trump,” he noted.
And Schmidt, the Iowa State University professor, said Reynolds’s break with the tradition of neutrality could indeed backfire among the state’s voters.
“Many Iowa Republicans don’t think she should have endorsed anyone,” he explained. “A high-level endorsement like hers is seen by many as undermining the caucuses’ impartiality.”
Still, analysts point to a curious phenomenon that could indicate Reynolds’s enduring appeal: Both Trump and DeSantis campaigned in part on Reynolds’s support in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses.
Indeed, last month, the Trump official campaign released what it called a “must see” advertisement, stitching together Reynolds’s past appearances with the former president — and her glowing praise for his track record.
The ad made no mention of her DeSantis endorsement, nor of her recent rupture with Trump.