DES MOINES, Iowa — The afterglow of Gov. Terry Branstad's sixth inauguration is still hanging in the air, but Iowa Republicans are already speculating about the political future for Branstad's faithful Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds.
Reynolds, serving another term as Branstad's second-in-command, is viewed as a likely candidate for governor in 2018, if Branstad steps aside. She's keeping quiet about her ambitions, but her political mentor is showing no such reticence.
"There's no question that we're trying to groom her and I think she's better prepared to be governor than anyone has ever been," said Branstad, recently sworn in for his sixth non-consecutive term, which he says he plans to serve in full. "I don't want to say I wouldn't run again because then I'll be a lame duck, but I think it's more likely that I would support her."
Reynolds, 55, is one of the most high-profile lieutenant governors since Branstad himself held the role from 1979 to 1983. She appears frequently at Branstad's side, campaigned with him across the state throughout 2014 and gives press conferences and holds meetings in his absence.
"She's a full partner. She has led trade missions. She's taken the lead on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math education). She's very involved in economic development," said Branstad. "We can cover twice as much territory."
Reynolds said Branstad promised her a partnership back in 2010, when he was working on his comeback bid for a fifth term and sought her out as his running mate.
"When he asked me to run he said we're going to run as a team and we're going to serve as a team," said Reynolds. "He's been very true to his word."
Reynolds said she is not thinking about a 2018 bid for governor. If Branstad chooses not to run again, many Republicans could enter the primary race and Reynolds would need to make a convincing case about her policy achievements and demonstrate her ability to fundraise and organize independently.
For now, she is not talking about those issues.
"We just got through an election," Reynolds said. "I'm really focused on the job at hand."
Reynolds has been a leading voice on improving STEM education in Iowa. She has also worked on economic development projects and served as a liaison to county governments. Before Branstad recruited her for the role, she served in the state Senate and as Clarke County treasurer.
"Her background in local government was a big help," said Sen. David Johnson, R-Ocheyedan, who served with Reynolds in the Senate. "She knew local government very well and that has been lacking in our caucus."
Reynolds was courted to run for the U.S. Senate after former Democrat Sen. Tom Harkin announced his retirement. But she decided against it and offered her support to now-Sen. Joni Ernst.
"I seriously thought about that. I'm just more focused on the state," Reynolds said.
Looking ahead to 2018, some say Reynolds should continue to find ways to branch out on her own.
"She needs to be seen out there doing different things by herself. I would say to her, if she asked, it's time to get out there and establish her own identity," said Brent Siegrist, a Republican from Council Bluffs who once served as speaker in the state House. He said Reynolds' background in the executive branch gives her a solid basis to run.
Reynolds said she already has a broad portfolio and hopes to continue working on a range of issues. Key, she said, is continuing to work on education and economic development in partnership with Branstad.
"We are proud of what we have done. We have a tremendous amount of work to do," Reynolds said.
Before any new political moves, Reynolds is hoping to finish one long-held personal goal — getting her bachelor's degree. She has been working toward it part-time for several years and said she hopes to complete her studies in 2016.
"I don't like to start something and not finish it and it's important to me," Reynolds said. "My husband always tells me, 'Kim I don't think you need that piece of paper because I think you've been successful in what you've done." But I always flip it right back on him and tell him, 'You can say that because you have that piece of paper.'"
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