Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad and his running mate, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Since becoming a state in 1846, Iowa has sent 179 people to the House of Representatives and 39 to the U.S. Senate. It has elected 41 governors. Not a single one of those 259 people has been a woman.

Iowa is one of only two states — the other is Mississippi — to be represented and governed exclusively by men.

Gov. Terry Branstad (R) wants to change that. And as he begins his campaign for an unprecedented sixth term in office, Branstad is quietly promoting at least two women, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds and state Sen. Joni Ernst, who would be the first to hold Iowa’s highest offices.

“I think the governor is surrounded by strong women,” said state Rep. Linda Upmeyer (R), the House majority leader. “He certainly wants to support women, but I think he wants the best person for the job even more.”

That starts with Reynolds. In most states, the lieutenant governor is an afterthought at best, a nuisance at worst. Lieutenant governors play ceremonial roles by presiding over a state Senate, or welcoming minor dignitaries, or serving as acting governor when the elected governor travels out of state.

But in Iowa, Branstad and his number two, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds, are seemingly attached at the hip. Every press release mentions both officials. Every time Branstad gives a speech, Reynolds gives a similar address. Branstad even went so far as to merge staffs in the two offices, to better coordinate between them.

And this year, four years after Reynolds beat back a conservative challenge to her nomination at the Iowa Republican Party’s 2010 convention, Branstad spent money from his campaign’s bank account to boost turnout to this year’s precinct caucuses. That was an effort, Branstad allies said, to make sure Reynolds holds on to her spot this year — and maintains the pole position to take over for Branstad four years down the road.

“Gov. Branstad’s approach has always been to select the best and brightest individuals in his work to move Iowa forward,” said Jimmy Centers, a Branstad spokesman. “Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds is a tireless advocate for rural Iowa, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math education and economic development in the state.”

Branstad has also quietly encouraged Ernst in her bid to replace retiring Sen. Tom Harkin (D). Though he won’t publicly endorse Ernst in the crowded Republican primary, in which at least three other prominent candidates are running, Branstad pushed Ernst to enter the race, sources said.

“I would read less politics and more personal commitment in Terry’s efforts,” said Jim Leach, a former Republican congressman who is close to Branstad and who now teaches at the University of Iowa. “He is simply a fiscal conservative with a commitment to gender equality in a state where it is not out of the ordinary for women to play significant social roles.”

Branstad has picked women for several high-profile appointments in recent years. In 1990, the first year Iowa’s governor and lieutenant governor ran as a ticket, he chose Joy Corning, then a state senator, as his running mate. He elevated Marsha Ternus, the only woman to serve on Iowa’s Supreme Court, to the bench in 1993.

More recently, Branstad tapped women to run the state’s Economic Development Authority, Iowa Workforce Development agency and the Iowa Department of Public Health. He chose Mary Mosiman, a longtime county auditor, to fill a vacancy when state Auditor David Vaudt resigned to take a position with the Governmental Accounting Standards Board. Mosiman, the first woman to hold the position, is seeking election to a full term this year.

Despite Branstad’s efforts, Democrats have two good chances to send Iowa’s first woman to Congress. Swati Dandekar, a former state legislator, is one of the front-runners in the crowded Democratic primary vying to replace Rep. Bruce Braley, the Democrat likely to be nominated to replace Harkin. And Democrats have united behind Staci Appel, the former state senator running to fill Rep. Tom Latham’s (R) seat next year.

Iowa may not have sent a woman to Congress, but the state was home to Mary Louise Smith, the first woman to head a national political party. President Gerald Ford tapped Smith to run the Republican National Committee in 1974.