Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds embraces role as a key player in Republican presidential race

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FILE - Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds reacts after signing a new law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy before speaking at the Family Leadership Summit, Friday, July 14, 2023, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

DES MOINES, Iowa – When Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds seized the spotlight from a half dozen Republican presidential contenders on Friday by signing a restrictive abortion measure into law at an event meant to showcase the candidates, she embraced her front-and-center role in the 2024 presidential election.

The standing ovation she received from some 2,000 conservative Christians gathered in Des Moines only reinforced the influence she wields, not just in Iowa but increasingly on a national stage.

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“I could not imagine a more appropriate place to sign this bill,” Reynolds said. “Today, the most glaring injustice of all is about to be put right.”

Reynolds had always been scheduled to give remarks at The Family Leadership Summit, one of many places this summer where Republican presidential candidates are expected to address Iowa's voters, who will cast the first ballots in just six months. But the appearance morphed into a triumphant demonstration of the governor's rising national profile after she spent the week shepherding abortion restrictions into Iowa's books, after a similar 2018 law she had championed was sidelined.

Reynolds pressed forward to sign the bill into law even as she shrugged off pointed criticism from former President Donald Trump.

Trump, in posts on his Truth Social social media platform, had accused Reynolds of shirking her commitment to neutrality in the campaign, claiming credit for her rise to the governor's office. Other presidential candidates, well aware of her popularity with Iowa voters, rose to her defense.

Those included Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been the beneficiary of kind words from Reynolds, though she's stopped short of violating her pledge to stay neutral in the presidential contest with an endorsement. DeSantis, whose campaign has struggled since its launch to establish him as the only plausible rival to the former president, doubled down on Saturday by saying he would consider Reynolds as a potential running mate.

At least publicly, Reynolds isn’t likely to wade into the drama. Republican strategists in Iowa say the bill signing showcased her devotion to the issues she cares about.

“She’s out there doing the right thing and we’re coming along beside her,” said Family Leader President and CEO Bob Vander Plaats, who introduced her. “She is arguably the best governor in the country.”

Reynolds decided to sign the bill at Friday’s event to celebrate the victory with those who have spent years fighting for new restrictions on abortion. The audience of a couple thousand people — including conservative leaders, presidential hopefuls and national news outlets — was a bonus.

Signing the bill there on Friday, with all of the attention directed toward Iowa, was a deliberate effort to drive a national conversation.

“I love it when we’re leading and showing other governors in other states that we can get it done,” Reynolds said in February to the Des Moines Register.

Reynolds has said she is not entertaining rumors about her prospects as a 2024 Republican running mate. Still, the governor has not shied away from plunging into the middle of the campaign or comparing her record favorably to those who are running for president.

“I’m proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with them united in our respect for life,” she said Friday of the presidential candidates who addressed the forum.

The feeling appeared to be mutual at Friday's event. Former Vice President Mike Pence called it a historic day, telling reporters he “couldn’t be more proud of Gov. Reynolds’ stand” on abortion. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson congratulated her, too, and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley said she always “knocks it out of the park.”

Reynolds, meanwhile, tends to go her own way. She's just as apt to press ahead on policies cutting taxes and shrinking government as the social issues that have dominated the GOP presidential campaign so far.

She is willing to put conservative issues front and center when the moment calls for it, as she did in 2018 when the original abortion ban passed. But she's also willing to take on Republicans who challenge her, as she did in 2022 when she campaigned against incumbent lawmakers in her own party who had stood in the way of “school choice” legislation. Reynolds had made it one of her top priorities, though critics raised concerns that it would drain money from public schools.

Four races in which she intervened went in her candidate's favor, and the legislation she pushed forward was tied up in a bow by the end of the first month of this year's legislative session.

Reynolds also hasn't been afraid to buck party orthodoxy, signing an executive order on the restoration of voting rights for former felons and proposing things like over-the-counter birth control.

“Let Iowans know what you’re going to do? Tell them your plan and then execute? Follow through on your promises that you’ve made? Wow,” Reynolds said with a laugh in a radio interview Thursday. “Shocking.”

Her success in Iowa garnered attention even before 2024 candidates officially entered the race. She was chosen to give the GOP response to President Joe Biden's State of the Union address last year, and she was named to lead the Republican Governors Association after a robust win in her reelection campaign.

But with the caucus campaign well underway, Reynolds is poised to stay in the middle of things. She announced Monday that she's invited each of the GOP candidates for a public one-on-one with her at the state fair in August, a must-attend for presidential hopefuls.

In the meantime, her administration will be defending the state’s abortion law in court.

“The work that we've done together from the statehouse to the public square is making a difference,” Reynolds said Friday. “But as you all know, our work is not done.”

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