Good luck, governor – Questioning presidential candidates will be harder than she seems to think

by Iowa Capital Dispatch
July 24, 2023

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who rarely speaks to Iowa journalists, now wants to try her hand at their job.

Reynolds announced last week that she plans to personally interview all of the GOP presidential candidates at the Iowa State Fair. And not only that, but she plans to “go beyond just the issues of a presidential campaign and allow fairgoers to see who the candidates really are.”

That is an ambitious goal. Presidential candidates, like most politicians, tend to be extremely invested in making sure nobody can pin down “who they really are.” It gets in the way of their aim to be all things to all people.

I asked Reynolds last week during a rare media availability how she planned to come up with her questions for the candidates, and she admitted she hadn’t given the subject much thought.

“You know, I want to try to keep it consistent. So, we haven’t sat down and thought about that,” she said.

Over the decades, I’ve interviewed many presidential candidates. I’ve written debate questions, planned editorial board sessions and interviewed them on stage and on TV. The process of writing questions usually took weeks and involved a team of reporters and editors.

We had no illusions of revealing who the candidates “really are.” The goal, generally, was to make news by giving voters information they didn’t already have about the candidates. An equally important objective was to be fair to all candidates.

That’s a hard job for trained and experienced journalists, who are increasingly scrutinized and criticized for any perceived imbalance in how they treat different candidates. Reynolds, who has adhered to tradition by pledging to remain neutral in the Iowa Caucus campaign, will have to walk a similar tightrope.

After national media noted how chummy she was with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and his wife, Casey, former President Donald Trump posted on social media that she owes him her fealty. That put a spotlight not only on Reynolds’ impartiality but also her own potential ambitions (she is on most media watch lists for VP).

We don’t know yet which candidates have agreed to participate in Reynolds’ “Fair-side Chats.” If Trump and DeSantis both accept, you can be sure Reynolds’ choice of questions will be part of the story.  Trump certainly won’t hesitate to complain if he doesn’t like a question.

It could be that she’s going to just sit back and let the candidates give their stump speeches with minimal interruption. She could toss in a few fair-themed softballs:  Corn dog or pork chop? Have you ever thrown a cow chip?

Or, she could follow Sean Hannity’s example from last week’s “town hall” with Trump and alternate between fawning praise of the guest and loaded questions about how the Biden administration is wrecking the country.

But either kind of “interview,” while low risk, would be unlikely to enhance Reynolds’ reputation as someone ready for the national stage.

She said last week, “So I want to have a little bit of fun but I also thought, you know, I might reach out to Iowans and try to see if they’ve got some questions for some candidates.”

Reaching out to Iowans? What a concept! Reynolds is not known for consulting Iowans. Over the past two years, she has pushed through more unpopular, nationalized legislation than any Iowa governor before, ranging from taxpayer-funded private school vouchers to a six-week abortion ban. She championed a ban on sports participation for transgender girls without meeting with any of them.

Last week, she unveiled a new state “slogan,” “Freedom to Flourish,” dreamed up by a high-paid consultant. I’m not sure which, if any, Iowans got to weigh in on that one. If she’d consulted Google, she would have learned the phrase is already the title of a book about God’s purpose for women.

Soliciting questions from Iowans might give Reynolds some cover if someone wants to complain. But I know from experience that it adds exponentially to the workload – you have to wade through perhaps hundreds of responses and vet not only the questions but also the contributors. If Reynolds is serious about consulting more than a few of her pals about questions for presidential candidates, she’ll have get started soon.

Reynolds will be doing Iowa voters a service if her interviews can offer some insight into who the candidates “really are.” I hope she succeeds. And maybe, just maybe, the experience will give her a little more appreciation for the job that real journalists do.

Iowa Capital Dispatch is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Iowa Capital Dispatch maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kathie Obradovich for questions: Follow Iowa Capital Dispatch on Facebook and Twitter.

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