The three states that meet where the Missouri River merges with the waters of the Big Sioux have completed a political revolution in the last generation. Republicans rule here now almost without opposition. All three governors enjoy huge GOP majorities in their legislatures and rarely need to think about accountability — or Democrats. They dwell instead on sustaining a politics that was unimaginable just 25 years ago.
Last year, Kim Reynolds, the Republican governor of my Iowa, got a tip from actor and fellow Hawkeye Ashton Kutcher that one of his buddies had organized a covid testing enterprise in Utah. Reynolds soon issued a $26 million no-bid contract.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts, also a Republican, followed suit, issuing a contract of similar size to the same outfit. Tests were delayed or lost. The firm declared itself blameless, and that was that. Nothing more was heard from either side of the Missouri.
Reynolds and Ricketts are simpatico with Gov. Kristi L. Noem of South Dakota. Their three-way tour de force came during a surge of covid infections racing through Midwestern slaughterhouses in April 2020. The trio coordinated with the North American Meat Institute (representing the giant meatpackers, which were hobbled by a sickened workforce), and then with Trump Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, to order meat cutters back to work through the Defense Authorization Act.
The governors threatened to deny unemployment benefits to workers who felt vulnerable. They pledged to shield the firms from liability for workers’ compensation or litigation. They suppressed or prevented testing — or gave the companies the green light to do it themselves. Anything to keep the cheap pork loins rolling.
The three governors are of melded mind, opposing any limits on agriculture and resisting President Biden’s climate plan (even though Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota will profit mightily from more wind turbines and solar arrays — and not so much from fracking). They all moved in some way to ban “vaccine passports.” They retweet each other’s tweets. It has grown familiar.
All three jumped on Biden a few weeks ago when his administration asked states for help in situating refugee children temporarily with families until their cases could be processed. Reynolds took to conservative talk radio to declare that it was not her problem, it was the president’s. Ricketts seconded that motion. Not to be outdone, Noem tweeted, “My message to illegal immigrants… call me when you’re an American.”
It makes me wonder: Is someone calling this tune? If I trundled down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City, who would I find behind the curtain? Because it is sort of uncanny.
I called around to check with folks in the know, but the consensus view is that we may be past the age where any one person calls this dance. Instead, they say, we are living in a giant feedback loop, where a crazy idea can find its way into the political bloodstream in a matter of days; within a few weeks, it can easily become law.
The thinkers and writers at some think tank test a message on talk radio; the host tweets that out to generate audience and attention; soon, the quip or idea shows up as a GIF on Facebook. Next, some political consultant hosts a focus group; Fox News and its imitators pick up on it, and soon, an outside adviser suggests that a governor should tell child refugees, “Hasta la vista.” The advisers talk, someone texts the chiefs of staff, and it soon comes out in the wash.
Maybe so. What I am sure of is this: Republicans grabbed ahold of most statehouses a decade ago and are busy harvesting their gains. The once-a-decade redistricting this year will empower them further. The three governors know where the GOP base is — right where Donald Trump left it. Their lockstep actions are a measure of the grip the former president still holds out here where the wind blows east from the Rockies’ backside.
The base in Nebraska is rumbling that Ricketts should run for president. He is term-limited in 2023. He has plenty of money — the Ricketts clan owns the Chicago Cubs.
Noem is touted as a real contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
Reynolds will defend her seat next year and appears to be in good shape after Republicans swept Iowa last November.
Not long ago, voters here elected (and reelected) the likes of Tom Vilsack and Tom Harkin, Tom Daschle and Tim Johnson, Bob Kerrey and Chuck Hagel. You wouldn’t know it these days.