Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, giving the Republican response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union speech, said Tuesday night that he is dragging the nation back to the era when the old Soviet Union was threatening its neighbors and Americans were reeling under high inflation.
Drawing an implicit comparison to one-term Democratic President Jimmy Carter, Reynolds said, "It feels like President Biden and his party have sent us back in time — to the late '70s and early '80s, when runaway inflation was hammering families, a violent crime wave was crashing on our cities and the Soviet army was trying to redraw the world map."
Reynolds stuck mostly to domestic issues in her 15-minute address, with the Capitol building in Des Moines serving as an illuminated backdrop. As Biden did in his speech, she praised Ukraine's staunch defense while assailing the "tyranny" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Reynolds, who wore twin U.S. and Ukrainian flag pins on her red jacket, didn't explicitly fault Biden's handling of Russia's assault. But she suggested that he has shown "weakness on the world stage" that may have emboldened Russia. Reynolds said, "We shouldn't ignore what happened in the run-up to Putin's invasion," referring to the Biden administration's decision last year to waive sanctions on Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Germany. Biden's "approach to foreign policy has consistently been too little, too late," she said.
Reynolds' political profile is one that Republicans are looking to showcase. She is favored to win re-election this year in a heartland state that looms large in presidential races. Polling shows most Iowans approve of her handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Reynolds has opposed mask mandates in schools, styling herself as a parents advocate. Republicans see that as a winning message, as evidenced by Glenn Youngkin's upset victory in the Virginia governor's race last year.
Reynolds highlighted the theme in her speech, stressing that she worked to keep schools open during the pandemic despite attacks from "the left" and "the media."
"Republicans believe that parents matter," she said. "It was true before the pandemic and has never been more important to say out loud: Parents matter."
As Iowa's first female governor, Reynolds provided a visual counterpoint to a piece of history that Democrats want to celebrate: For the first time ever in a State of the Union address, two women, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., sat directly behind the president. Reynolds, 62, described herself as a governor, "a mom and grandmother of 11 who's worried our country is on the wrong track."
Kellyanne Conway, who was a senior adviser in Donald Trump's White House, predicted before the speech that "Kim Reynolds — the first female governor of Iowa — will steal the show with her response to the State of the Union."
Reynolds is bound to be on the short list of running mates for the 2024 Republican presidential nominee. She could prove helpful in winning back the suburban female voters who soured on the party during the Trump presidency. Empathizing with families who are struggling to pay bills, she described how as a "young working mom" she worked nights at a grocery store.
"From across the checkout counter," she said, "I saw the pain of inflation on my neighbors' faces. I saw what happens when prices rise faster than wages."
As her name recognition grows, so will the scrutiny she faces. Democrats cast her as a polarizing figure who has muscled through a one-size-fits-all GOP agenda that includes tax cuts and measures to make it tougher to vote early. One poll last year found that 88 percent of Republicans approved of her performance in office, while about the same share of Democrats disapproved. "She's really adhering to the Republican playbook where we're getting copy-and-pasted bills rammed through and passed in the state of Iowa," said Deidre DeJear, a Democratic candidate for governor.
Reynolds said Biden and congressional Democrats are pushing up inflation through rampant spending. By contrast, she said, "Republican leaders around the country are balancing budgets and cutting taxes, because we know that money spent on Main Street is better than money spent on bureaucracy."
Left unmentioned was Trump's spending record. The national debt rose by nearly $8 trillion during his term.
Reynolds appeared at a rally in Iowa last year at which Trump again claimed falsely that he won the 2020 election. But she didn’t devote any time to his baseless contention that the election was stolen, keeping her focus instead on pocketbook issues that preoccupy voters.
Delivering the State of the Union rebuttal is a double-edged assignment. The speakers from the opposing party get to introduce themselves to a national audience who may have never heard of them. If all goes well, they can parlay the attention and publicity into campaigns for higher office. If not, they may face headlines like one from Politico in January 2018: "Was that drool coming out of Joe Kennedy's mouth?"
Kennedy, then a Democratic House member from Massachusetts, had given the Democratic response to Trump's State of the Union address, but what grabbed viewers' attention that night wasn't what he said as much as the mysterious sheen on his lips. No, it wasn't drool; it was actually ChapStick, Kennedy later revealed.
"It's important to appreciate that the risk is just as high as the reward," said Brendan Buck, a former House Republican leadership aide. "People tend to remember much more the people who performed poorly than the ones who performed well."