“I watched Terry Branstad up close and very personal. … This small-town guy from Leland, Iowa, had the strongest work ethic of anyone that I’ve ever known. He absolutely just churns all the time. It was interesting to see how he took that to a level of political and governmental success where he never lost an election. By most measures, he is the most successful political figure in Iowa history.”
~Chuck Offenburger, former “Iowa Boy” columnist, in “Hangin’ with Winners”
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’s service as the state’s chief executive totaled 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 years-old at the time, he became the youngest chief executive in Iowa 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 during the1990 election cycle. 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. Branstad moved on from the primary to easily win the general election over Bonnie Campbell by more than 15 points.
Conventional wisdom held that Branstad was finished with politics when he chose not to run for re-election in 1998. But a political comeback took shape when loyal supporters encouraged him to file papers and run for governor again in the 2010 political cycle. He survived a competitive, three-way primary contest against Bob VanderPlaats 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 played an important role in his eventual unseating of Culver by a wide margin, 52.9% to 43.1%. In 2014, Branstad easily won re-election over Jack Hatch by an even wider margin, 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. While he didn’t always agree with Branstad’s policies, Knapp told me that his support was 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 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 … my old friend President Xi Jinping for the mutual benefit of both our countries and the rest of the world,” Branstad stated following his confirmation.
Given the oftentimes harsh rhetoric by Trump towards China during the course of the 2015-16 political campaign, Branstad walked into a challenging role that would revolve around one of the most complex and contentious foreign relationships in the world at that time. However, Branstad’s longstanding relationship with President Xi Jinping of China made him uniquely suited to take on such a challenge.
Branstad first met President Xi in 1985 during 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 ahead of 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 loudly and often about a darker view of Sino-American relations, leveling charges of currency manipulation, expressing concerns about intellectual property theft, and even calling for steep tariffs. But the trusting, personal relationship forged years earlier — one that led to Branstad and Xi to refer to each other as “old friends” — had the potential to alter the geopolitical state of affairs between the two countries. It is disappointing that the pandemic in early 2020 further strained the level of trust between the parties which prevented Branstad from making much progress prior to his stepping down as ambassador late that same year.
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) has 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.”
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: October 30, 2022