If the game is pandemic politics, Reynolds wins the first round

June 7, 2021 8:00 am

Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks in a TV ad on coronavirus mitigation in November 2020. State Auditor Rob Sand claimed the ad violated state law. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

The story played like the opening bell of the campaign for 2022 gubernatorial election: State Auditor Rob Sand, potential Democratic challenger to Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds, accused her of improperly using federal coronavirus aid dollars for “self-promotion.”

Reynolds denied the claim and defended the spending nearly $150,000 on a public awareness advertising campaign related to COVID-19 mitigation. Republicans accused Sand of playing the issue for political gain.

We’ll look at the merits of the argument in a minute, but first a question: How much do Democrats stand to gain from the politics of the pandemic?

For the short term, it seems there are benefits for Democrats regardless of whether Sand is a candidate. Reynolds’ coronavirus motto, “We can’t prioritize lives over livelihoods,” practically writes its own campaign ads. Democrats could run a different TV spot every day from now to Election Day 2022 featuring an Iowan who lost a loved one to COVID-19 while the governor was turning a blind eye to conditions in meatpacking plants, failing to protect vulnerable residents in nursing homes, spending federal pandemic aid on software boondoggles and staff salaries, discouraging and later banning local mask mandates and taking away expanded federal unemployment benefits from families struggling to make ends meet.

It might help engage the Democratic base and counter Reynolds’ self-congratulatory narrative on FOX News. But is this a winning strategy a year from now? Assume the state continues to make progress, after a fashion, on vaccinations and there’s no new wave of infections or emergence of a new, lethal variant. Chances are, Iowa will be booming.

We’ll be rolling in billions of federal COVID relief dollars (if Reynolds doesn’t give it all back) and potentially will be wallowing in billions more if even a fraction of President Biden’s infrastructure plan passes. Iowa will be in the process of spending $100 million or more on expanding broadband, plus tens of millions on affordable housing options. Kids will have been back to school for a whole year. Happy days, here again.

Will Iowans really want the reminder of how scared, depressed and angry we all were back in 2020-21? I can only say for certain that I will not.

That’s not to say Sand shouldn’t be trying to scrutinize how Reynolds was spending money, and in particular the millions Iowa received in federal coronavirus relief dollars. It’s his job. Sand already caught the governor using the federal aid as a slush fund to circumvent the legislative appropriation process. The state had to return to the federal treasury $21 million spent on Workday software that could have been used to assist small businesses, many of which are still struggling. Republican lawmakers won’t exercise any oversight, so Iowans should be thankful that someone will.

Republicans can and will try to distract from any evidence of mismanagement by making it about politics. Sand made their job a little easier by choosing a relatively petty issue to criticize: Gov. Kim Reynolds’ use of her own image and likeness in a public awareness ad campaign to encourage Iowans to practice pandemic safety.

Sand’s office found that Reynolds broke a law that says statewide elected officials “shall not permit the expenditure of public moneys under the control of the statewide elected official for the purpose of any paid advertisement or promotion bearing the written name, likeness, or voice of the statewide elected official.”

The governor’s office argued that she had the power to suspend the law during the public health emergency and complained about how Sand communicated the audit’s findings. Sand responded that there was no evidence the governor actually suspended that particular law and said his office followed its usual process for communicating audit findings.

It may take a court ruling to figure out who’s right. That would be a waste of even more taxpayer money.

The public awareness campaign, “Step Up, Stop the Spread,” was announced in November 2020, at a time when new virus cases in Iowa were at an all-time high. The TV ad featured not only Reynolds but also former Democratic governor Tom Vilsack, medical leaders and other well-known Iowans. I thought the ad should have emphasized mask-wearing more than it did, but otherwise it seemed like an appropriate, timely and nonpolitical message. To the extent Republicans tended to be more resistant to COVID mitigation, the governor’s personal appearance in the ad might have been helpful. At the time, a much bigger concern was the lack of any other significant action to keep Iowans safe as infections continued to spike.

In contrast, the governor used many hours of free television time on Iowa PBS for weekly “news conferences.” These widely viewed events consisted almost entirely of Reynolds spinning and promoting her administration’s actions and leaving only a small fraction of the time for media questions. It was better than nothing, but I’d argue these appearances were far more political than that 60-second TV spot.

So to summarize: Sand was doing an important and necessary job by reviewing Reynolds’ COVID-19 spending. But he chose a weak target this time, and that may undermine his efforts, even if he’s ultimately proven correct. Reynolds has played fast and loose with federal coronavirus aid and may have been sloppy about following the letter of the law here. But the public service campaign was appropriate and timely and not at all political.

Reynolds wins this round and she’ll keep on winning if Democrats get too wrapped up in pandemic politics.

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Kathie Obradovich
Kathie Obradovich

Editor Kathie Obradovich has been covering Iowa government and politics for more than 30 years, most recently as political columnist and opinion editor for the Des Moines Register. She previously covered the Iowa Statehouse for 10 years for newspapers in Davenport, Waterloo, Sioux City, Mason City and Muscatine. She is a leading voice on Iowa politics and makes regular appearances on state, national and international news programs. She has led national-award-winning coverage of the Iowa Caucuses and the Register’s Iowa Poll.