DES MOINES, Iowa — Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad — a graying little man who relies on Midwestern stick-to-itiveness rather than personal flair — is about to enter the political record books as the longest serving governor in American history, dating all the way back to colonial times.
On Dec. 14th, the six-term Republican will mark his 7,642nd day of service as governor. That’s just shy of 21 years in the office. Branstad will move beyond former New York Gov. George Clinton, whose service includes some pre-Constitution time, and is far out in front of any recent or current governor.
The milestone is a testament to the fact that while political fashions have changed in the last three decades, this serious son of small town farmers has managed to remain relevant. And it comes at a political moment when the contrast between Branstad and the high-wattage stars of the GOP is on display in Iowa, as hordes of candidates flood the state before the leadoff presidential caucuses.
Unlike many of the 2016 hopefuls touring Iowa, Branstad is not a culture warrior, a business tycoon or a policy maven. He’s an old-fashioned retail politician who visits all of Iowa’s 99 counties every year. His schedule is jammed with tours of mom and pop businesses, keynote speeches at trade shows, talks at rural schools and the signing of seemingly endless proclamations on everything from motorcycles to college applications.
“He’s everywhere. People say he came to our ribbon cutting,” said Bonnie Campbell, a former Democratic attorney general who ran unsuccessfully against Branstad in 1994. “Everybody feels they know him.”
Most other long-serving governors topped out at four four-year terms, including former South Dakota Gov. Bill Janklow, former Alabama Gov. George Wallace, former Ohio Gov. Jim Rhoads and former North Carolina Gov. Jim Hunt. All served more than one stint in the office.
Helping Branstad, 69, go longer is that Iowa is a rare state without a term limits law. Also, he has never sought higher office. He took a break in the private sector after serving four terms from 1983 to 1999, but came back to oust an incumbent Democratic governor in 2010.
“The odds of anyone passing him in the 21st Century are next to none,” said Eric Ostermeier, a research associate at the University of Minnesota who has compiled a comprehensive list of governors’ length of service.
David Yepsen, a former Des Moines Register political reporter who knew Branstad when both were University of Iowa undergraduates in 1960s, said Branstad had his own style as a student and as a young state lawmaker.
“He was this right wing kid from northern Iowa,” said Yepsen, now director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, adding, “a lot of elites dismissed him or ridiculed him.”
Branstad said in an interview that while others in the 1960s wanted to tear down the system, “I hoped someday to be part of it.”
And in Iowa, his hint of nerdiness would never be a problem.
“I first met him when he was wearing a white belt buckle with a blue leisure suit in the 1970s,” said Republican strategist Doug Gross, who served as chief of staff during his first stint as governor. “No one would have predicted that he would be the longest serving governor in the history of the universe.”
Branstad’s brand of Republicanism can seem charmingly old-fashioned in today’s GOP. He talks about government stability and working out compromises, which comes in handy since Democrats control the Senate. In recent years, Branstad and lawmakers have cut property taxes, but also raised the gasoline tax to pay for infrastructure.
One of his most passionate callings may be as a defender and cheerleader for Iowa’s best known event — its early presidential caucuses — which other states would love to jump in front of.
“There’s a lot of people that are jealous,” Branstad said.
As a governor, Branstad likes campaigning more than policy, which he tends to leave largely to staff. He can recall election returns from 20 years ago down to the percentage point and discuss in detail which counties he has won and lost over the years.
“It’s uncanny, his memory,” said Jeff Boeyink, who managed Branstad’s 2010 campaign. He said people frequently brought Branstad photos of themselves with him as a baby and the governor could nearly always remember the moment.