Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable: Upcoming Primary Elections

posted on May 30, 2008

Borg: Anointing candidates. Next Tuesday, Iowa voters will be selecting candidates for November's general election ballot. Iowa political journalists commenting on the primary and campaign nuances on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, May 30th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa's Secretary of State Michael Mauro, the state's election commissioner, is predicting sparse voter turnout in next Tuesday's primary elections. Even so in some regions there is considerable competition among the candidates seeking their party's nomination. And one of those is central Iowa's third congressional district where former state legislator Ed Fallon is asking Democrats to put his name on the November ballot booting incumbent Congressman Leonard Boswell. And in eastern Iowa Republicans are choosing candidates against first term Congressman Dave Loebsack there, he's a Democrat. And in north central Iowa Democrats are picking among four wanting Tom Latham's seat in Congress. And statewide Republicans will be tagging one of three to oppose Senator Tom Harkin's re-election bid. Well, today we're getting political insight from Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson ... Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover ... Iowa Public Radio Statehouse Correspondent Jeneane Beck ... and Lee Newspaper's Capitol Bureau Chief Charlotte Eby. Charlotte, do you agree on that low voter turnout?

Eby: I do. And the thing that low turnout can always bring are surprises on election night. Incumbents that think they're safe, front runners that think they're ahead might end up with a big surprise upset on election night. And that's what some folks are predicting here in the third district between Ed Fallon and Leonard Boswell. Fallon has run a very energetic race, an aggressive challenge against Boswell and we're seeing Boswell hit back pretty hard in interviews, in mailers and other campaign appearances.

Borg: The voter turnout, how might that affect that one?

Eby: Fallon has a lot of very motivated supporters that he can try to get to the polls. If they turn out on Tuesday night that could bring trouble for Leonard Boswell.

Borg: Mike, Leonard Boswell is an incumbent. He's got the Democratic, presumably, establishment behind him. Do you agree with Charlotte that turnout could be in effect there?

Glover: Dean, low turnout in elections scare the heck out of me because low turnout elections can bring surprises, it can bring things that shouldn't happen to happen. Yes, Leonard Boswell on paper has everything going for him. He's a six-term incumbent who has raised a boatload of money, he has every piece of the Democratic establishment behind him and actively supporting him. But his challenge is finding some way to motivate rank and file Democrats to actually show up on June 3rd. And you can tell by the tenor of the mailings you're starting to see show up in mailboxes around the third district that Leonard Boswell is hitting Ed Fallon very, very hard. An incumbent who is comfortable doesn't do that.

Beck: He's trying to walk a fine line, Dean. He has avoided any -- Leonard Boswell, Congressman Boswell has avoided any debates, any one-on-one time where they would sit side-by-side because he doesn't want to let Ed Fallon seem like a legitimate candidate. And, in fact, many of these mailings that are coming from either his campaign or from other groups to try to distance himself from it -- I'm not running, he says in mailers, and Tom Harkin is making phone calls for him, things like that. So, he's not appearing to do the work himself because he doesn't want to give Ed Fallon any legitimacy but clearly there is some concern or we wouldn't be seeing that.

Henderson: And one of the odd things in this race, Al Gore, who has yet to weigh in on the race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton has endorsed Leonard Boswell and has issued a letter on Boswell's behalf soliciting donations all in an effort to remind folks that in 2000 Ed Fallon supported Ralph Nader, the independent candidate for president over Al Gore. In the letter Gore refers to Boswell as a 'real Democrat.' I think the concern here for the Boswell folks is that Fallon has a codway of people who know how to turn out voters because they did it two years ago in June for the time when Fallon's name was on the ballot running for Governor. So, they sort of had a dress rehearsal, if you will, for this June primary and that is a concern to Boswell.

Glover: I was talking to a Democratic lobbyist, hardly an outsider, a very inside figure and she was saying that she's going to vote for Ed Fallon because what's happening in Congress just isn't working, it's time for new blood. And if this really is a change election, as we've been saying for the past year that this is a change election, voters are demanding change, can you think of a better sort of portfolio for a choice between change, Ed Fallon and establishment, Leonard Boswell? It's a poster child for a change election if that's what voters really want. Now, having said all that, you have to offer a couple of caveats. One, Leonard Boswell does have the heft of the Democratic Party in his corner. Every turnout operation the Democratic Party has is going for him. And Fallon has mounted a big enough challenge that I think Leonard Boswell is scared. So, those institutions of the Democratic Party are going to be working overtime to turn out rank and file voters. It will be fascinating to see how well they do.

Beck: I'm just struck by the ebb and flow of this campaign because several months ago we were talking about how Ed Fallon could be a legitimate challenger to Boswell and that the Congressman should take it very serious. The last reporters' roundtable we were saying, well, things aren't looking that good for Fallon, the legislature had kind of slapped his hand for spending some of his own money to help finance the end of the campaign and that kind of thing. And so now here we are a couple of days before the primary and we're saying, ooh, now things have sort of ebbed and gone his way because Boswell is taking it seriously. So, it will be interesting to see how it turns out.

Glover: And the interesting thing -- I had an observer tell me this a few weeks ago -- it's tough to run an insurgent campaign against an incumbent who has no obvious weaknesses such as a scandal, something gone bad in his term in office, a major mistake that they've made. That's when you can get an incumbent, when there's something vulnerable there. And Leonard Boswell, for all of his shortcomings as a candidate, he does have some, he doesn't have the big wound laying out there to attack.

Henderson: Finally back to your comment about sparse turnout, Dean, I think the thing that I'm going to look at when I look at turnout overall statewide is to see if among Democrats there are more Democrats who turn out on June 3rd than did on January 3rd. I think that will be a very interesting figure to look at.

Borg: I'm just wondering as I heard you speaking here, of course, the Democratic Party isn't monolithic, Jeneane. But what is it that within the party there must be an activist wing that is supporting Ed Fallon against the traditional Democratic Party.

Beck: Well, I think that Congressman Boswell would even describe himself as somewhat of a conservative Democrat and so while he has the establishment behind him there is always going to have been some Democrats that are on the more liberal side of the party spectrum that disagree with him. He's voted to support the war in Iraq, some liberal Democrats don't like that. And Ed Fallon just says, look, you voted with Bush too many times and so that's the wing of the party that is upset.

Glover: And the weaknesses that he faces is Leonard Boswell has never been a great fit for central Iowa's third district. We've got to go back to a little history. He had to move here, you remember, he was a southern Iowa farmer who was representing a heavily rural district in southern Iowa. He moved to Des Moines and he's still a slow talking, slow walking southern Iowa farmer that ain't a real good match for an urban district like the third district. That's a basic vulnerability. If you look on paper Ed Fallon's profile is a better mix for this district than Leonard Boswell's is.

Borg: Charlotte, earlier Jeneane mentioned that Leonard Boswell hasn't allowed himself to be exposed to legitimize Ed Fallon's candidacy in debates. There are other candidates, too, who are passing up debates and that is in the senatorial contest.

Eby: That's right. Steve Rathje, a businessman from Cedar Rapids is not participating in some of the debates that his other Republican rivals are going to participate in. I don't know why. It seems a little odd that someone who is seeking statewide office would not go for some more statewide exposure.

Beck: He's been in the race longer than the other two candidates so maybe he thought as a front runner he didn't want to let these Johnny-Come-Latelys get some attention. But I don't think the name Rathje is well known enough across the state to turn down appearances on statewide networks.

Glover: He has raised the most money of any of the Republican Senate candidates. He's raised about $85,000.

Borg: But he still has to get the nomination.

Glover: Which compares to Tom Harkin's $4.8 million, by the way. He still has to get the nomination. Neither he nor any of his two opponents, Chris Reed or George Eichhorn are very well known. George Eichhorn's biggest claim to fame is he lost his last election for the Iowa House. So, these are three candidates who are not known. A have a funny feeling a lot of Republicans are going to go to the polls on Tuesday, if they bother at all, and it will be just a flip of the coin about who they vote for. So, it's a mystery to me why somebody who has been out there longer than anybody else, who has raised more money than anybody else, but has very little name identification around the state, why he would skip any opportunity to become better known.

Henderson: Speaking about name identification, if you sit in the Iowa House or Senate and you look up at the board and you see the names of people who are legislators, lots of Millers, lots of Hansons, lots of very common names unless you're from an ethnic area like Pella where you elect a person named VandeHoff. In terms of our discussion previously about there being surprises in this election, if I'm a voter I don't know any of these three people, I look at those three names, Christopher Reed has the most common name among them and so he's going to pick up votes because he has the most common name because polling will tell you that often times people choose a name that is common. The other thing about this race is, as Jeneane mentioned, Rathje has been in this a long time but for some reason he's pulled back. If you want to call me you can do that, Mr. Rathje. He has refused to return my call this month. I don't know why he's doing that. He is the only candidate before this week to actually run paid advertising. Mr. Reed has started running radio ads this past week. But there's really I think a need if you are a challenger of a guy like Tom Harkin to actually do a little pre-game work and a part of your pre-game work is debating either candidates. Can you imagine someone who has never practiced basketball playing in the NBA playoffs? That's what this is going to be like. You're going to have a candidate among these three facing off against somebody who has been in this arena, if you will, for a long time.

Borg: Jeneane, I did mention just briefly as we opened the program that we have two contests in the congressional districts. One is over in the second district with Dave Loebsack the incumbent there.

Beck: And that has gotten a little bit of attention. He's a freshman lawmaker so sometimes people think that's the best time to try to knock them off, before they've really solidified their base in their community and so that's why they're going to go after him. But the problem is in that district Democrats hold like a 54,000 voter registration edge. Well, so whoever wins among those three candidates -- that race has turned a little bit negative in that area anyway -- but whoever wins that does face a definite uphill battle.

Glover: It's a Democratic district as Jeneane mentioned. Dave Loebsack, he is a freshman, first-termer, but he has not made a major mistake during his first term in office, not said or done something stupid. He's got a very high profile back in the district. He's gotten over his aversion to raising campaign money. He's raised a whole heck of a lot of campaign money.

Beck: Funny how that happens, that aversion just goes away.

Glover: Once you get in office you have access and suddenly your whole attitude changes. But he's not made a major mistake. Like we were talking about Leonard Boswell, there's no obvious place for a Republican to attack him. They could use the old, you're too liberal, for the district. That doesn't go well in a district with the Democratic voter registration as that district has.

Borg: And Johnson County ...

Glover: Yeah, it's really a shame to be called a liberal in Johnson County.

Borg: Let's go to the fourth district then, Charlotte, and that's Tom Latham, an incumbent Republican there. And yet what do we have -- four, I believe, Republicans seeking or rather Democrats seeking to unseat him.

Eby: It's not a strong Republican district but voters there are familiar with Latham. But they do have some strong candidates. Becky Greenwald is one. She is a Dallas County Party Chair and she's well known within the party and seeking that position. She'll get a lot of establishment support if she does manage to win that nomination.

Glover: And that's an election where I think a lot of Democrats, Charlotte, are holding their breath thinking how good a year is this going to be for Democrats. We're talking about a year where the Democrats are starting off with an edge in the state in the presidential race, a lot of enthusiasm among Democrats for the likely nominee, Barack Obama. There is a sense this is going to be a really good Democratic year in Iowa and if it's a really good Democratic year there are some Democrats who think this may be an incumbent we might get in a swing district. You're right.

Borg: That's how Dave Loebsack got there.

Henderson: I mean, they look back to the Loebsack, Leach race in a year that was not a presidential election. There would be infinitely more people voting in an election year in which there is a presidential candidate at the top of the ticket. And so those Democrats are hungry to see if perhaps this is the year that they can deliver.

Borg: That would explain why there are four candidates?

Glover: But having said all that remember that Tom Latham has several things going for him. A, he has all the advantages of incumbency, all those mailings, all that name identification you can pile up as an incumbent. He's got an advantage in fundraising so far. He's known better than any of his potential Democratic challengers. So, even though it's a swing district, could be a Democratic year, I think it's still an uphill climb to get him.

Henderson: The other thing that Mike just mentioned that is really important is that there will be outside resources from Washington D.C. flowing to Latham. The reason is there are very few competitive congressional races around the country. Iowa writes its district lines in such a way that makes Iowa unique in having congressional races that are actually competitive so that in a year when you look at a list and they've identified 35 races around the country among, you know, more than 400 that are competitive and how many of them are in Iowa every year.

Borg: Jeneane, are you watching this primary, the turnout -- I'm going back, first of all, to the national prediction that Iowa is among the swing stats in the presidential election. Are you watching this primary for any harbingers of Iowa being a swing state?

Beck: Well, I think there's a couple of things. It would be interesting, like Kay said, will more people turn out at the primary than did in January at the caucuses? Or will people, the newness of it worn off? I think also this is the first time you can register at the polls, same day voter registration which is kind of interesting. Is Barack Obama, is John McCain continuing to bring in new people that suddenly just want to get involved and do those numbers go up? And if so, then the state looks pretty good for Obama and it starts to look better for Ed Fallon if you see a lot of same day voter registration.

Borg: What about those newly energized Barack Obama people who were brought in as Democratic registers?

Glover: I'll be a naysayer, I don't think Iowa is a swing state. I think Iowa is a ten point Democratic win. John McCain doesn't have a big base here, John McCain did not run an active, tough Iowa caucus campaign. He didn't build a massive organization around Iowa. Barack Obama did, Barack Obama campaigned here for a year, put together a massive organization to turn out voters in the state, energizing voters. He's kept that organization together. He has certainly targeted the state. Once he got through the primary season what was one of the first states he returned to? Iowa. Once he had the nomination in hand he came back here to begin the general election campaign in Iowa. He will put a big focus on this state. John McCain came here and John McCain used his appearance in Iowa to hose down the farm bill and talk about how big subsidies to farmers, how awful they were. That plays well in California, that plays well in New York, that plays well around the country. It doesn't play very well in a big farm state. I don't think he cares about Iowa.

Henderson: And the weirdest thing that, to me, has happened politically in Iowa the past month is that John McCain bought television air time in Iowa on commercial television outlets. That, to me, is the strangest thing. It may be more an indication of how strangely run the McCain national campaign is but to run advertisements in Iowa in May as a presidential candidate seems, frankly, a misuse of dollars.

Glover: He may as well take that money and put it out in the middle of the street and set it on fire.

Borg: I want to call your attention to, maybe not call your attention to, you all know what the Democratic National Committee is doing this weekend and that is looking at Florida and Michigan primarily. Now, does Iowa have any horse in that race? I know you may look at that and say, oh, that's just Florida and Michigan's business. But I go back to Michael Mauro on this program last week in which he said, Michigan particularly is focused on knocking New Hampshire and Iowa out of being first in the nation in primary and caucuses. What I'm looking at is could a long-term deal be struck, that is, that might have implications for Iowa?

Glover: There won't be a long-term deal struck right now. What we're seeing is the opening bell of what will be probably a three-year long debate over the shape of the campaign calendar in 2012. Iowa, New Hampshire are fighting to keep the first spot. There are a number of states who will be fighting to move around. The main impact of Florida and Michigan will be if somehow the delegation from those two states get seated, maybe even the way they voted. If that eventually happens, it wont' be decided right now, that will be decided down the road, then I think every state in 2012 will be free to say we don't care what the rules are, we're going to pick a date that fits best for us and gets us the most attention. But I think it's ironic Florida and Michigan got almost no attention after they moved up this year. Had they stayed in their regular spot they would have probably gotten a heck of a lot of attention. So, it backfired but the effect of this could be sending a signal to other states, it's okay to move around but the debate is just beginning. It will last for three years.

Henderson: I think one of the most significant developments in terms of Iowa's status in 2012 that occurred was discussion about who Obama may place in the DNC apparatus to run it if he indeed winds up being the nominee. It's Paul Tooze, it's the guy who ran his Iowa campaign on the ground here. If Paul Tooze ends up in that position Iowa is in a great place to maintain its first in the nation status for 2012.

Glover: And the next president will decide the next calendar and actually Iowa is not in a terribly bad situation because Iowa gave Barack Obama, in essence, it legitimized his candidacy because, remember, Hillary Clinton started this thing as a presumptive nominee, Iowa ended all that. So, Barack Obama probably has pretty good feelings about Iowa ...

Henderson: An infection, if you will.

Glover: An infection, if you will, and John McCain probably got what he needed for Iowa and should he become the next president I don't think he has much interest in blowing the whole schedule up.

Eby: You asked if Iowa had a horse in the race or a dog in the fight, it's Barack Obama. If Iowa wants to keep the caucuses first they want to see Barack Obama in the White house.

Borg: I want to shift gears, Charlotte, and I'll stay with you and your comments. Look at Governor Culver. He's not named on the November ballot this time but he is looking down the road. There are indications of that. Did you see his veto of the collective bargaining expansion for public employees in Iowa as an election made veto?

Eby: He could see all of campaign ads being written already for, you know, 2010 when he's up for re-election. He knew that would be something he'd have to face down the road if he signed it and he decided to do probably the politically smart thing by vetoing it. He has angered organized labor and that will be something he'll have to deal with in the coming years.

Glover: Our history is being repeated. During primary campaigns when Democrats were choosing a gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver was not endorsed by labor. Chet Culver owes no great favors to labor and what he did, I think you're right Charlotte, it's smart politically if he wants to be Governor for a very long time. If he wants to be Governor for a very long time he's just cast himself as a very nice centrist, the sort of centrist that gets elected in Iowa politics. If he ever has any ambitions for being anything else like United States Senator he's just guaranteed himself the primary.

Beck: The one issue, though, that he will face maybe even next January is he's angered a lot of legislative Democrats and if they retain control and come back and he wants, say, a bottle bill expansion they're not going to be too happy with him because he just killed one of their major initiatives and a lot of Democrats took a tough vote on that issue in more conservative districts and so they're angry with him and his priorities may face a little more uphill climb.

Borg: But doesn't that indicate, Jeneane, that they didn't consult Governor Culver?

Beck: Yeah, it does but that's just, people always assume when one party holds both chambers and the governor's seat that we're going to have, yeah, we're going to hold hands and sing Kumbaya and they don't. The fightings went from between the two parties to in-party fighting.

Glover: And interparty fighting is usually more bitter and more harsh than fighting for the Republicans and Democrats because it's family fights and they're more personal, they're harsher.

Borg: So, Kay, what are the implications of that veto and labor being disappointed in the Democratic legislative races? Any implications?

Henderson: Well, I think that people who took a tough vote in a tough district are going to get labor turning out for them. I think the saving grace for Democrats in this situation is that this is a presidential year and people are going to get ginned up by that top of the ticket name and the fact that there is not a George Bush on the ballot. So, Democrats be they union people or farmers are going to be energized because this is a presidential election year.

Glover: And the biggest factor, I think you're right there, and the presidential race will have a major effect on that and the other effect is going to be Barack Obama has energized a lot of Democrats, a lot of new Democrats. One of the problems John McCain is going to face in this election in Iowa is he doesn't have the motivational power that George W. Bush did amongst the evangelical right as a Republican Party. George W. Bush carried the state in the last election because he energized the evangelical right and I don't think John McCain can do that.

Henderson: And the other thing Obama has done is his campaign in partnership with the Iowa Democratic Party has been organizing at the grassroots. That is not occurring on the Republican side and that is going to hurt them.

Glover: I just sense an energy on the Democratic side that I don't sense on the Republican side which is not to mean that this isn't going to be a competitive place to be. But I just don't sense the energy.

Henderson: There could be a cataclysmic event, we don't know what's going to happen.

Glover: 24 hours is a lifetime in politics.

Borg: Charlotte, go back to another veto and that is the pay raise. I could look at that and say, legislators gave the executive committee, the executive consult pay raises and they said, no thanks.

Eby: That's another veto a lot of legislators are angry about. Culver initially when asked by the press about whether he's sign that said he was likely to sign those pay raises. He thought better of it and a few weeks later decided to veto a pay raise for himself and all other statewide elected officials and they were very substantial double digit pay raises. He said, you know, in these uncertain economic times I don't necessarily think I should be given a pay raise. And public servants should be under the same circumstances as regular Iowans.

Beck: And what that means, Dean, it doesn't impact the legislative Democrats in the sense that they didn't lose money because of it, you're going to see Republican fliers that say, you know, legislative Democrats voted for a pay raise that even their own Governor thought was a bad idea. And that's how it hurts them, not that the money isn't getting spent or that the Governor isn't going to earn a little bit more. It's the campaigns that will come out because of it.

Glover: And there will be a lot of those and a lot of it on the collective bargaining bill but I just don't sense this is a very good year for Republicans. I've got a funny feeling that the overall political climate of 2008 is going to be a bigger factor on who controls the legislature, P.S., it'll be Democrats, than any of these particular individual campaign issues.

Borg: Just a final comment, so you're saying top of the ticket is going to rule even in legislative races?

Glover: In presidential years, that's the case.

Borg: Good, thanks. Thanks for your insights. That's this week's edition of Iowa Press. Between now and then as we've just been saying and our return next weekend will be learning who the voters are selecting for their candidates and we hope to be talking with a winner or two next week. I hope you'll watch. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

Archive editions of Iowa Press can be accessed on the World Wide Web. Audio and video streaming is available as are transcripts at

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Iowa Bankers Association -- for personal, business and commercial needs Iowa Banks help Iowans reach their financial goals. And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure.