Branstad had entertained the idea of running for an unprecedented seventh term in 2018. If he goes now, it will open the door to any number of Iowa Republicans who have been waiting off and on for two decades for this seat to open up — and give those angling to steer Iowa sharply to the right a chance to do so.
Here's what you need to know about Branstad and all the dominoes that could fall if he becomes Trump's ambassador to China:
1. He's “old friends” with China's president: Their relationship goes back decades, and it's one of the most unique in international politics. On his long path to the presidency, China's Xi Jinping visited rural Iowa in 1985, when Branstad was in his first term as governor, and again in 2012, when Branstad was also governor. (One likely reason Xi chose Iowa to visit in the first place: A growing China has been gobbling up Iowa's corn and soybean production for the past decade.)
The two got along so well, Xi even invited Branstad to China a couple times. Aides say the relationship is authentic.
“They like each other — it's not just smile for the cameras, pomp and circumstance,” then-Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht told the Des Moines Register. “They get along really well, and the governor believes that President Xi is very personable.”
2. Branstad could be a smart, strategic pick for Trump: Trump tapping one of Xi's “old friends” to be the U.S. face in China comes right after Trump completely upended U.S.-China relations by unapologetically chatting with Taiwan's president, whose legitimacy China doesn't recognize. Then, Trump tweeted this:
Tweets and Taiwan aside, moving Branstad to Beijing could indicate that Trump is entertaining the idea of playing nice with China.
3. He's the longest-serving governor in U.S. history: Nearly 22 years and counting (not all those were consecutive). Branstad snagged the record almost exactly a year ago, when he was starting his second term since his 2010 comeback to Iowa politics. At the time, his service of 20 years, 11 months and three days passed the previous record held by New York's 18th-century governor (and our fourth vice president) George Clinton.
4. He's never lost an election: Branstad has been on the ballot, whether in a primary or general election, 20 times. Not all those were contested races, but when they were, he always came out on top.
He has such a winning record that in his most recent reelection in 2014, he gave himself the goal of winning over one of the two counties (Lee County in southeastern Iowa) that had never voted for him before. He did it.
5. His departure opens the door to Iowa's first female governor: If the Senate confirms Branstad for the ambassadorship, Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) will ascend to Iowa's top job, becoming the state's first female governor.
From Reynolds's perspective, the sooner Branstad goes to Beijing the better: Being governor now would give her a big head start — as much as two years — to run for governor in 2018 in what could be a crowded GOP primary for the seat. (Governor's races in Iowa without Branstad don't come along very often.)
The Des Moines Register reported that other Iowa Republicans potentially interested in ascending to Branstad's throne include state Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey and Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett, though on Wednesday Northey said he'd back off a potential run.
But Reynolds will have something Branstad did not to cement her position as his rightful heir: This November, Republicans took the Iowa state Senate from Democrats, which gives the party control of the entire state legislature and the governor's mansion for the first time in two decades.
Democrats think Branstad leaving opens up the seat for them to try to take: Reynolds has two drunk-driving arrests on her record, and she's not nearly as well known as Branstad is.
6. Iowa could become more conservative: Some say the Iowa Republican Party has already moved to the right of Branstad. He reentered Iowa politics as an establishment figure during the 2010 tea party wave, where an energized social conservative movement questioned Branstad's commitment to the cause. (Although Branstad is socially conservative, his political bread and butter is fiscal conservatism and economic growth.)
With a GOP legislature, the next governor has the opportunity to shift the state further to the right — next year, the legislature could pursue allowing people to carry firearms without a permit in the state or putting in place voter ID laws, for example.
7. There could be a new GOP presidential primary king (or queen) maker: Branstad's influence in Republican politics outside Iowa comes in part because he is the governor of the first state in the nation to hold its presidential nominating contest. Every four years for the past 22, Republican White House hopefuls have traveled to Iowa hoping to receive Branstad's blessing. (Or at least a photo op. Branstad has remained neutral for most primaries, except this year, when he told reporters two weeks before the Iowa caucuses that he wanted to see Ted Cruz beaten.)
While one governor and one caucus does not decide a presidential race (Cruz won Iowa, after all), the next governor of Iowa will undoubtedly have some sort of sway over the next open Republican presidential primary. How she or he decides to play the game is something all GOP White House hopefuls will be closely watching.
8. Branstad has defended some of Trump's most controversial statements: Unlike other mainstream Republican governors. After the June Orlando nightclub mass shooting, Branstad was asked about Trump's call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, and he said: “I think what Donald Trump is doing is saying we need to take this threat seriously. … We as a nation have to be aware of the real threat; the fact that we have a whole cadre of people throughout the world who are committed to this Islamic radical ideology that says that if you don't share our viewpoint, then we are going to kill you.”
9. His son, Eric, managed Trump's Iowa campaign: Trump won Iowa by 9.5 points.
10. He has the most famous mustache in Iowa: The Des Moines Register has a photo gallery dedicated to Branstad's decades-long political career — and yes, he's rocked that mustache since the ’70s.