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The longest-serving governor in the United States is set to become the next U.S. ambassador to China. The Senate could vote as early as today to confirm Iowa's Republican governor, Terry Branstad. Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters reports on the Iowa he leaves behind and how the party has changed since he first took office in the early 1980s.
CLAY MASTERS, BYLINE: On this day, the gray-haired and mustachioed Governor Terry Branstad is finishing up a bill signing at a distillery in the small town of Cumming, Iowa. It's common for Branstad, who served 22 nonconsecutive years as governor, to be greeted by constituents holding old photos from his first time in office.
TERRY BRANSTAD: My hair was dark then.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Iowa State Fair, Life Saving Award.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Thank you for coming to Cumming.
MASTERS: Before Branstad can jet off to China, he had a lot of bills to sign. In November, the state Senate flipped, giving Republicans complete control of the governor's office and both chambers of the Legislature.
For the first time in nearly 20 years, it was a chance for Branstad to sign a lot of conservative legislation, from rolling back public sector union bargaining power to passing some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. As he's leaving this bill signing, I ask him if he could have ever passed this kind of legislation when he first took office in 1983.
BRANSTAD: Well, remember my first 10 years as governor, Democrats controlled everything. We've gone from being a liberal state to being a much more competitive conservative state.
MASTERS: Last year, the state went for Donald Trump by a large margin after having backed Democrats for six of the last seven presidential elections. After taking more than 10 years off from politics, Branstad reemerged in 2010 and unseated an incumbent Democratic governor.
During the second go-round, he was seen as a deal-maker working with a Republican-controlled House and Democratic Senate. But while the color of Branstad's mustache may have changed, his politics have not. Former Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Steve Roberts, who served back in the 1970s, says Branstad has never been a moderate.
STEVE ROBERTS: It isn't that he has changed as much as the party has changed. And people in the party that used to be conservative are now moderate.
MASTERS: Roberts says Branstad signaled a decades-long shift in the party. Back in the '60s and '70s, many in Iowa's GOP called themselves progressive Republicans. It wasn't just Iowa. The party was changing, says John Epperson He's a political science professor at Simpson College. Over time, religious voters and conservatives have flocked to the GOP, especially in Iowa. Branstad is passing the torch to his hand-picked lieutenant governor, Kim Reynolds. Epperson says her own views are little-known.
JOHN EPPERSON: She says all the right things. But she's basically joined to the hip with Terry Branstad.
MASTERS: Reynolds is eyeing a run for governor next year but will likely face a primary challenge from a more moderate Republican. After 30 years of Branstad, Iowa Republicans will get to choose whether they want to stay on the course that he set. For NPR News, I'm Clay Masters in Des Moines.
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