Terry Edward Branstad served as the 39th and 42nd governor of the state of Iowa. On December 14, 2015, Branstad served his 7,640th day in office, making him the longest-serving governor in the history of the United States. He passed George Clinton from New York in gubernatorial longevity, someone who just so happened to be one of our country’s founding fathers! By the time he stepped away from the Iowa governorship for the second and final time in May 2017, Branstad had served as the state’s chief executive for a total of more than 22 years.
Branstad served as Lieutenant Governor from 1979-1982. When Governor Robert D. Ray decided not to seek re-election, Branstad waged his own successful campaign to hold the state’s highest office. Only 36 at the time, he became the youngest chief executive in Iowa’s history. And when he left office in 2000, he had become Iowa’s longest-serving governor. Branstad did face numerous challenges to his governorship along the way from capable and well-funded Democrats such as Roxanne Conlin, Lowell Junkins, and Bonnie Campbell. Our Sioux City station, KCAU-TV, sponsored a debate between Branstad and Donald Aversion, an imposing and powerful figure in the Iowa Legislature, at Eppley Auditorium on the Morningside College campus just ahead of the 1990 election. While the debate itself was competitive, Branstad overwhelmed Avenson at the ballot box by a 60.6% to 38.8% margin. What proved to be one of Branstad’s toughest challenges during his first stint as governor actually came in the 1994 primary election. He narrowly defeated the popular actor turned Congressman Fred Grandy by a margin of 51.8% to 48.1%. (Grandy was best known for his role as “Gopher” on The Love Boat which aired on the ABC Television Network from 1977-86 -Ed.) Branstad then went on to easily win the general election over Bonnie Campbell by more than 15 points.
Conventional wisdom held that Branstad was done holding public office when he chose not to run for re-election in 1998. It was in 2009 that his political comeback began, when loyal supporters encouraged Branstad to file papers and run for governor again in the 2010 election. He survived a contested, three-way primary battle against Bob Vander Plaats and Rod Roberts. For the general election, KCAU-TV partnered with The Sioux City Journal to sponsor a debate between Branstad and the incumbent, Chet Culver. Held at the historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown Sioux City, the debate was highly publicized and widely watched. Branstad’s strong debate performance that night played an important role in his eventual unseating of Culver on election night by a 52.9% to 43.1% margin. In 2014, Branstad easily won re-election over Jack Hatch who ran a disorganized and poorly-funded campaign, 59.1% to 37.3%.
To be sure, Branstad had his foes and critics. During his first stint as governor, the state’s Republican auditor, Richard Johnson, was a frequent critic who often made the point that Branstad needed to be more “transparent” with Iowa voters in the way he reported the state’s finances. There were many other unpopular positions (often within his own party) and vetoes along the way. But no matter your political persuasion or party affiliation, it was hard not to be impressed by Branstad’s election in 2014 to an unprecedented sixth four-year term as Iowa’s governor, and his remarkable record of public service. Even longtime Democratic fundraiser and kingmaker Bill Knapp publicly endorsed Branstad! Knapp would later tell me that while he didn’t always agree with Branstad’s policies, his support was ultimately fueled by a deep respect for the Governor’s incredible work ethic and demonstrated commitment to Iowa. I’ve had the opportunity to work with, and be around, Governor Branstad for more than thirty years, and couldn’t agree more with Knapp’s bottom line assessment.
In December 2016, Governor Branstad announced that he would be stepping down as the state’s governor in order to accept an offer from newly-elected president Donald J. Trump’s to represent the United States as ambassador to China. Branstad was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in May 2017 by a 82-13 vote, after a lengthy but non-controversial confirmation process. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that a boy from a small farm in Leland, Iowa would one day have the opportunity to represent my country and my state on the world stage. I look forward to working with both my friend President Donald Trump and my old friend President Xi Jinping for the mutual benefit of both our countries and the rest of the world,” said Branstad following his confirmation. (Branstad was succeeded by Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds resulting in her becoming the first female to hold the state’s highest office –Ed.)
Given the oftentimes harsh rhetoric by Trump towards China during the course of the 2015-16 political campaign, Branstad will be challenged in a role revolving around one of the most complex and contentious foreign relationships in the world today. However, Branstad’s longstanding relationship with President Xi Jinping of China makes him uniquely suited to take on such a challenge. Governor Branstad first met President Xi in 1985 while serving in his first term as governor, hosting a Chinese delegation that came to Iowa to study our agricultural practices. At the time, Xi Jinping was a young official from the rural Hebei Province. Xi would return to the state in 2012 on a similar visit as vice president while awaiting his widely anticipated promotion to Communist Party leader later that same year. Branstad led a trade mission to China in 2013 shortly after Xi became the country’s president and said at the time, “I am excited to catch up with our old friend, Xi Jinping. The value of this relationship cannot be overstated.” As a candidate, Trump spoke repeatedly about a darker view of Sino-American relations, leveling charges of currency manipulation and even making calls for steep tariffs. But the trusting, personal relationship that has led to Branstad and Xi referring to each other as “old friends” through the years has the potential to alter the geopolitical state of affairs between the two countries.
Governor Branstad is a WINNER who served his native state with purpose and passion, and whose influence will be felt for generations to come. Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley said it well when talking about Branstad’s ambassadorship appointment in a speech on the floor of the U.S. Senate: “The fact is, (Branstad’s) been an ambassador for Iowa to the nation and to the world for his entire career…He will bring Midwestern humility and level-headed leadership to the job. He is a workhorse who is unafraid to get in the trenches to get the job done.”
It didn’t take long for Ambassador Branstad to make his WINNING presence felt on the world stage. In November 2017, he welcomed President Donald Trump to China during the commander-in-chief’s 12-day Asia trip. It fell on Branstad to serve as a liaison between Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping when they discussed the nuclear threat from North Korea, and a new trade deal in the hopes of lowering the trade deficit between the two countries. Branstad’s continuing role may well determine the extent to which any such diplomatic efforts are successful.
“Terry Branstad” Retrieved from www.wikipedia.org
Pugh, Mike (September 10, 2010). “Governor’s Debate: A Win for Sioux City” Retrieved from www.SiouxCityJournal.com
(November 3, 2015). “Events Planned to Mark Gov. Branstad’s Tenure Milestone” Retrieved from www.whotv.com
Appelbaum, Binyamin (December 7, 2016). “Terry Branstad, Iowa Governor, Is Trump’s Pick as China Ambassador” Retrieved from www.nytimes.com
Noble, Jason and Pfannenstiel, Brianne (May 22, 2017). “Terry Branstad confirmed as U.S. ambassador to China” Retrieved from www.desmoinesregister.com
Last Updated: August 20, 2019