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Convention Fever: Stewart Iverson & Scott Brennan

posted on July 11, 2008

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Borg: Convention fever. State and national conventions will be revving up Iowa Republicans and Democrats and providing campaign energy for November's general election. We're questioning State Republican Chairman, Stewart Iverson and State Democratic Chair Scott Brennan 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.

On statewide Iowa Public Television this is the Friday, July 11th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Iowa Republicans and Democrats settled on their candidates in the July primary elections. The state party conventions also scheduled for June were postponed because of Iowa's flood emergencies but some have been rescheduled for this month. The Democrats already had theirs, the Republicans coming up and the national party conventions, Democrats in Denver, Republicans in Minneapolis, are coming up in August and September. It's a busy summer for Iowa Republicans and Democrats and today we're bringing the parties' two state chairs to the Iowa Press table. Former State Senator Stewart Iverson is the Republican State Chair. Attorney Scott Brennan chairs the Iowa Democratic Party. Welcome to Iowa Press, gentlemen.

Borg: And across the table Des Moines Register Political Columnist David Yepsen and Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover.

Glover: Mr. Iverson, let's start with you. I'd like to get the two of you to address what we call conventional wisdom. The conventional wisdom is this is a pretty good year for Democrats with an unpopular war in Iraq, a Republican president who all polls show is pretty far down. Why isn't this a pretty good Democratic year and what can you do about it?

Iverson: Well, the first thing, just looking at face value it does appear to be a decent year in that way. But the biggest thing is when it goes back to what I've seen in Iowa over the many years people vote for individual candidates but many people do not vote for the president but there's many down the ballots. You've got a U.S. Senate race, you've got a Congressional race, you've got statehouse races and you've got county races. And people go to the polls for different reasons. So, I'm eternally optimistic and I think that Republicans will do very well this fall simply because the presidential is one thing but the down ballot is another and I think that we'll do alright.

Glover: We'll get to the other races in a minute. But, Mr. Brennan, let's get to you, same question. An unpopular president, an unpopular war in Iraq. Why isn't this a Democratic year?

Brennan: It's going to be a Democratic year.

Glover: How good a Democratic year?

Brennan: I think it's going to be an extremely good Democratic year. Look at the registration numbers. Since January we've picked up 67,000 new Democratic registrants. In this state we are now almost, we are on the cusp of actually taking over no party registration to be the dominant registration in the state. And we're 90,000 ahead of the Republicans. We have a big advantage that we are going to utilize and we're in very good shape.

Glover: Senator Harkin has suggested that this could be a 1974, a Watergate year, the year he was elected to Congress. Is it going to be that strong a year do you think?

Brennan: Well, we're certainly hopeful. I mean, we are really poised to have a great year. We have a great presidential nominee who did very, very well here in Iowa and was very popular here in Iowa. Senator Harkin is very popular and I think will be re-elected with a strong majority. And then up and down the ballot we just have very good candidates. We really are poised for a great year.

Borg: But the unexpected has happened, Mr. Iverson, and that is the flood emergencies, the tornado damage. A good share of Iowa is hurting badly. How is that going to affect the elections?

Iverson: I don't know if that's going to have a huge impact on the elections. The biggest thing I have seen in the difference between the Iowa flood victims and victims in other areas of the state, Iowans is pretty resilient. I didn't hear a lot of complaining well the federal government didn't come in and bail me out immediately. So, we pretty much can take care of ourselves. The other thing that is happening besides the floods is that the tide in Iraq has changed dramatically from where it was a few years ago. A couple of years ago in the elections the Democrats did pretty well because, one, the president was unpopular but by the same token they couldn't fire the quarterback so they fired the team. And that's what happened two years ago and I think that's turning around. I think the Democrats say another four years of George Bush is absolutely ludicrous, John McCain has showed us he is his own man, he's totally different and I think by the time voters get through all the issues there's going to be a very clear contrast between Senator Obama and Senator McCain. I think he'll be well received, the Republican message will be well received.

Borg: Mr. Brennan, how are you changing the campaign after the floods?

Brennan: Well, obviously we weren't campaigning in those affected areas during the floods at the time and afterward. We moved the state convention out of respect for the flood victims. The bottom line is that that's more important than politics itself. But now we have moved on and now we're seeing great leadership out of the Governor and our legislators on flood relief. We've got Senator Harkin, Senator Grassley, Congressman Braley, Congressman Loebsack, Congressman Boswell. We are doing good things utilizing the federal government.

Borg: Raising expectations, though, too. They're raising expectations. I've heard several of them and the representatives speak and the message is we're here to help, call us. Well, if you don't perform it seems to be a negative.

Brennan: Well, we're already performing. I know we've acquired funds for flood relief already. And we've had all these counties recognized as disaster areas and so I think while the bar is high there's a lot that has been done, a lot more to be done. There's the new commission, I apologize I can't remember the name, that just came out and General Dartus I think is the head of it and they are going to be looking at a multitude of options to move Iowa forward past this flood problem.

Iverson: But that's one of the problems because a lot of people said we have $600 million in economic emergency funds or a cash reserve and we should be using that to help flood victims. But legislative leaders from the Democrats say no we shouldn't use that, we bond or maybe we do something else. There's a reason we can't use that economic emergency fund because the spending has already happened in Iowa and this economic emergency fund is going to be used for ongoing spending instead of one-time things like flood relief. That's one of the big problems that they're going to have trying to do something with that economic emergency fund because it's already obligated into the future.

Yepsen: Mr. Iverson, does the flood change the issues that people are talking about at this campaign?

Iverson: No, I don't think it changes the issues that much. All of us have personal things we have to take care of. If your house is flooded we have to face that immediately. But we're going to do the best we can. Does that change the issues? I don't think so. Probably one of the most important issues I think to all Americans is national defense. Well, there's a very clear difference between Senator Obama and Senator McCain on national defense. And the price of gas, everybody is talking about the price of gas. Well, there's a very clear contrast there. The Democrats want us to continue to be dependent upon foreign oil, the Republicans want to drill our own oil. And it was actually President Clinton that vetoed really and end. I understand that Senator McCain doesn't want to drill in America but we have offshore drilling. We have China drilling off the coast of Cuba and yet we can't drill there? That's absolutely crazy. We've got enough oil in this country to take care of us for two or three hundred years and we can't get to it because Congress won't let us.

Yepsen: Mr. Brennan, there are two issues here that he's raised. One is have the Democrats squandered the emergency fund and committed the state emergency fund to the point where you're constrained and the Democrats at the statehouse are constrained in what they can do to respond to the floods?

Brennan: Absolutely not. First, a lot of the flood relief is actually federal dollars and that's where we're real poised with Senator Harkin and our Congressional delegation to acquire those funds to do a lot of flood relief efforts. I think it is mischaracterized by squandering. I think the question was flood relief, how does that affect politics and I'm not sure that Stew actually even answered the question. But, in fact, the bottom line is what Iowa is concerned about are jobs and this Governor and this legislature focused on jobs and have worked on jobs. That's what people are concerned about and these are issues that people are talking about.

Yepsen: Since Democrats are the incumbent party up and down the line here is there a danger that come November when people are still out of their homes that they are going to be angry at the Governor, at the legislature for not doing anything? It's easy to say now we're all rallying around and helping one another but those people in Cedar Rapids aren't going to be moving back into their homes by November. Is there a concern that Democrats are going to get blamed for not having a more rapid response?

Brennan: It's not easy to govern. That's the bottom line, it's not easy. But this Governor and this legislature will step up and they will do the appropriate things. It's going to be a tough thing to come back from these floods but I think we'll do the work that needs to be done.

Glover: Senator Iverson, can you make an argument on the campaign trail that you just made here, that Democrats have squandered the reserve funds and because of that we can't respond to the floods? Can you make that political argument?

Iverson: Absolutely. David Vaudt, first of all, is a CPA and he's an auditor. When he speaks about the financial condition he's speaking facts, it's not made up stuff. The facts are that the Democrats the last two years have spent about between eighteen and nineteen percent with only ten to twelve percent revenue growth. That extra six percent, where's that going to come from? Out of the economic emergency fund because they have ongoing obligations that were voted on last year and this year that are going to hit next year. Absolutely it is going to be a huge problem come next year. And I will predict that the Democrats if they are in control the first thing they're going to have to do is raise taxes because they can't pay the bills.

Glover: Mr. Brennan, how are you going to respond to that on the campaign trail this fall?

Brennan: Well, I don't think it's been squandered. It's completely mischaracterized. They have to balance the budget. They did another fiscally responsible budget and the fact of the matter is that it is going to require a lot of funds. That's why we have the new commission to looks at ways that we can acquire the funds, you know, address those needs because we have long-term needs and this isn't something that's going to be taken care of in next year's budget or the budget after that. The levees, we have a lot of things that have to be done over time and so it needs to take a long-term view.

Glover: Mr. Iverson, let's go to your presidential nominee in waiting, the presumptive nominee, John McCain. You have referred to him often. Make a convention case for John McCain winning this state. He doesn't have the political infrastructure here that Barack Obama has. Mr. Brennan mentioned they've got 90,000 more registered Democrats than you have registered Republicans. The energy and the enthusiasm seems to be higher on their side and he's ahead in the polls. Given that make a realistic case for John McCain.

Iverson: There's a number of things that have to happen between now and November. One, I think it will be a proven fact that John McCain is stronger on national defense. It's a proven fact John McCain has an energy plan that is workable, doesn't cost us more money. Healthcare, John McCain has a workable plan ...

Glover: Those are issues.

Iverson: Those are the issues. The other things are taxes, everybody loves to complain about taxes and everybody is for tax relief for the middle. Senator Obama has come out and said, you know, I want to tax the wealthy. Well, who is the wealthy? He has voted twice to tax people who make $32,000 a year. That's not the wealthy. The other thing is I know I've spent a lot of time traveling around the state trying to create enthusiasm for John McCain and he's going to have to spend some time here too. The biggest thing is with the caucuses Senator Obama came in first on the Democratic side. Well, Governor Huckabee came in first on the Republican side. So, when the rest of the country weighed in now Senator McCain is our nominee. So, all these folks that were with other candidates are saying, well gee, our candidates didn't get there. That's kind of normal but I think before November we will pick back up.

Yepsen: Doesn't that put John McCain behind an eight ball in this state?

Iverson: I think that puts him at a limited disadvantage today. But I think that will change before November.

Yepsen: Are you going to get the commitment out of his campaign for him to spend the time here?

Iverson: We have been told that John McCain will be spending much more time in Iowa. Now, can I tell you exactly when? I don't know. A lot of times we find out about five minutes before or after you do.

Glover: Mr. Brennan, let's turn the question on its ear. You have about a 90,000 vote lead in registered voters. Senator Obama spent a year building up political infrastructure here. He's ahead in the polls. He's ahead in money so far. Can he lose Iowa?

Brennan: I don't believe so. He has really put together an excellent organization. He really is very popular. He still draws great crowds when he comes back to the state. And, let's face it, contrast him with John McCain. McCain tenth in the straw poll, fourth in the caucuses. When you look at the contrast John McCain, he's never been popular with Iowans and he's never going to be.

Yepsen: Why are you so confident given that the average lead that Barack Obama has is about six to seven percentage points. That is not a big lead.

Brennan: John McCain has had months to try to hone whatever message he's trying to hone, spend time doing politics in a multitude of places. Barack Obama was busy competing with Hillary Clinton all over the country and wasn't spending the time doing general election stuff. Now that is the focus. And I think his numbers will tick straight up as he spends more time focused on general election ballots.

Iverson: I think Senator McCain, there's different styles, Senator Obama is a fantastic speaker, I will give him that. John McCain is not as eloquent but he gives you straight talk. Now, the American people if you choose between a great speaker or somebody who is experienced in getting things done I think that's a clear contrast and that's our responsibility to get that message out there.

Brennan: I need to at least respond to that a little bit. The stuff about John McCain and straight talk, it's an abomination, frankly. Talk about a flip-flopper and Washington politics as usual. John McCain, the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, he's against it. He's against his own bill. And you talk about any number of issues, John McCain has pushed so far to kiss up to the hard right that he can't get back to the middle.

Yepsen: You both are on your talking points. Barack Obama has changed his position too. What about public funding, for example? He said he was going to do it, now he's not. Isn't the reality that in American politics candidates do have to change their positions once in a while?

Brennan: Absolutely, it is the reality, that's very true.

Yepsen: I want to turn to issues inside the two parties.

Brennan: We don't have any.

Yepsen: Well, the Hillary Clinton people in this state are still upset with the Barack Obama people. They are complaining about the coordinated campaign, Obama is pulling out of that. The Clinton people are upset that not enough of them are being included in the Obama campaign. How do you address the very real tensions that exist inside your party between the Clinton people and the Obama people?

Brennan: Well, I think that Senator Obama's people in Iowa have reached out to the Clinton people a lot and they're really making progress in that area. The bottom line is Senator Obama has a different campaign structure. A nominee is entitled to run a campaign, the campaign they want to run. And so we have a coordinated campaign because we didn't have a nominee from the get go. We set up a structure, he wants to do a somewhat different structure but at the end of the day the two, the coordinated campaign and the presidential campaign are working hand-in-hand and it's a very successful melt. In fact, I think we're doing more to get Democrats out and elect Democrats in November than we could have just under our regular coordinated campaigns.

Yepsen: Mr. Iverson, one of the divisions in your party is this question over religious conservatives and social conservatives. A lot of them are not happy with the direction the party has taken. You've come under some criticism. How are you going to get the social conservatives who backed Mike Huckabee to warm up to John McCain? Many of them don't like him?

Iverson: Well, and I understand that, and the biggest thing, first of all, social conservatives are a very, very important part of our party, it's a good chunk of it. Mike Huckabee is actually going to be at the convention and address the convention and talk about unity. And I think we have to be unified. It's not unusual for families to have squabbles and to have arguments but once you get that resolved you move on and you work together. That is going to be the key that we continue to work together because I think we have to focus on winning elections with Republicans and doing what we have to do to make sure we win elections.

Yepsen: Why should a social conservative, why should a religious conservative vote for John McCain?

Iverson: I think the biggest reason is, one, we look at who is going to appoint the judges over the next few years, who is the president that's going to appoint the judges? John McCain will appoint judges that are constructionists. They don't try to make up new laws. They look at the Constitution and say is this part Constitutional or is this not and that is probably one of the most important issues -- being president is who are the judges. We all like to say Congress can do things or the President can do things but the final say ends up in the court system or the Supreme Court. That's why it's so important.

Glover: Mr. Brennan, I'd like you to address a fundamental question mark we have about your nominee, Barack Obama. Polls have shown that only a small number of people care that he's an African-American, that doesn't make a big difference in their voting decision. We know that people lie about race in the polls. Do you think that race will play a factor in this campaign?

Brennan: The honest answer is I don't know. But I think if you look at the results here in Iowa we have a fairly small African-American population in Iowa and he won the Iowa caucuses. I think that certainly speaks to the open-mindedness of Iowans and really the way he has worked around the country I think it speaks to people's open-mindedness.

Yepsen: But that's a Democratic electorate you're talking about. You're talking around the country in primaries, even there he had trouble with working class whites in some states. In Iowa you're talking about Democratic activists. Mike's question goes to the general election. How worried are you or are you worried about racism hurting Barack Obama?

Brennan: I'm worried about racism just as a concept.

Yepsen: We all are but what about the political ...

Brennan: But the bottom line is that we won't know until election day whether it is a factor. He has done a lot to reach out to people across the whole spectrum and there's no way of knowing.

Glover: Senator Iverson, I'd like to turn to a fundamental weakness that polls have shown your candidate has, that's his age. He's about to turn 72. If he wins the election he'll be the oldest president ever inaugurated and even people who back him are talking about a one-term presidency and history will teach us that old candidates have their biggest problem with older voters, a lot of them in Iowa. How do you deal with his age?

Iverson: Well, first of all, I don't think age is a hindrance for him. He's got 72 years of experience. I know the polls say that and the biggest thing is when you look at people who has the ability to lead and I think ...

Glover: You're going back to talking points. How do you deal with the age issue?

Iverson: The age factor is one that I think when people stop to think about it, I know tons of people that are 72 years old that are very sharp and do an outstanding job of whatever they're doing. So, I don't think that the age the polls are showing right now is a huge concern. I think that concern will start to melt and go away when they see more of John McCain and I think that's going to happen. 72 years old is not old.

Borg: Who would be his strongest vice presidential selection to offset that?

Iverson: I tell you, that's a tough question. There's probably about ten, twelve, fifteen ...

Borg: Give me the one or two.

Iverson: I'm not going to narrow it down to one or two that would offset because most of the people that are in the running for president I'm going to say in their mid-50s to 60, that's not unusual. 72 may be a bit older than Ronald Reagan was but not by much.

Yepsen: Mr. Brennan, same question to you, who should Barack Obama pick for a running mate? Who would do the best in Iowa?

Brennan: I'm available.

Glover: Would he heal the Hillary Clinton rift if he picked Senator Clinton?

Brennan: Well, obviously I think some of the Clinton partisans would like that. But I'm not privy to any of that information. I don't really have any sense ...

Yepsen: You're a politician, you have a sense of who does well and who does poorly. If Barack Obama called you up and said, Scott, who should I pick, who would help me the most in a battleground state like Iowa, what would you tell him?

Brennan: I really genuinely have no idea. I've seen the list of folks that people talk about, Governor Sebelius, you saw Chris Dodd came out and said they've asked him for information for a viding process. Any of the people who ran here in Iowa clearly have levels of popularity, they'd be fine.

Yepsen: Sounds good. I can tell we're not getting anywhere with that one so let's try something else. After the race for president in Iowa the real political battle is the battle for control of the Iowa House of Representatives. Mr. Brennan, give me your handicap there. Democrats control by one vote. How are you going to hold on?

Brennan: In the House we're at 53-47. They have recruited a number of very good candidates. The Republicans have more open seats than the Democrats do. You look at some of the people we've recruited like Jerry Sullivan, the Mayor of Windsor Heights, he's a very good candidate, will run very strongly in House district 59. You look at Jim Hoy. We have a number of folks who we think will pick up. I think we're poised to really expand that majority. Mr. Iverson, I stand corrected, they've got a three vote margin. How does it look for Republicans in controlling the Iowa House given this atmosphere that so far has not been a good one for Republicans? Can the GOP retake the House?

Iverson: I think it is very possible. First of all, everyone in Iowa runs I'm going to say by themselves. We're really not coattails any more. Years ago there might have been -- it goes back to the individual candidates -- but I think our candidates, I know that they're out there working hard. I think they've got a better message. They want accountable government spending and one thing the Democrats have failed miserably at, when there's been more spending in two years under Governor Culver and the Democrats than eight years ago under Vilsack how can you say they're fiscally responsible? When you've spent more money than you've taken in for two years that's a huge issue in the state of Iowa.

Glover: I want you to deal with a mechanical question. There are 49 Democratic incumbents running. There are fewer than 40 Republican incumbents running. Incumbents usually win, open seats are swinging. How do you overcome that mechanical edge?

Iverson: Generally, Mike, you're exactly right. It is generally that way. But I heard this same thing in 1996 when we took control of the Iowa Senate. They say it's not possible but we defeated five sitting Democrat Senators. Can it be done in the House? Absolutely. But it's going to take effort by the candidates themselves. I want to tell you, this will probably be at least the third or fourth election cycle in a row the Democrats will have more money than we do. They say that they're always at a handicap and they have continually had more money to spend than we have. But it goes back to the individual candidates and I truly believe that they are going to work hard enough to win the seat back and gain control of the Iowa House.

Glover: Mr. Brennan, let's flip issues again, let's talk about Iowa's lead on precinct caucuses. Every four years there is a fight over Iowa going first. What is the status of the caucuses and what are you doing to protect your status?

Brennan: Well, I think the status of the caucuses is actually pretty good right now. Steve Roberts on the Republican side was involved at their rules and bylaws committee in setting sort of a proposed calendar that the Republicans will take up at their convention. Our process is very different. Ours starts a lot later. But the fact of the matter is that Barack Obama has already publicly committed to maintaining Iowa's first position. And so, I think we're well poised. Obviously, you know, there's a lot of work that we do kind of behind the scenes to talk to folks but the bottom line is we doubled the turnout from '04, we ended up selecting the person who is our nominee and I think that poises Iowa very well.

Glover: So, to keep Iowa first voters ought to elect Barack Obama?

Brennan: I think that's an excellent message.

Glover: Senator Iverson, same question to you. And Mr. Brennan mentioned it, there is some maneuvering already on the Republican side. What is the status of the Republican caucuses and what are Republicans doing to keep it first?

Iverson: Well, basically Steve Roberts and some other of our members went to a meeting in Albuquerque in March dealing with this. Right now we are poised very well. At that time the committee voted to stay with the caucuses the way they are, that Iowa and New Hampshire would be first. We went through this eight years ago and I know Steve Roberts and I went to Philadelphia, same type of thing. I feel very good that we'll be able to do that and in large part because of some of the work that Steve Roberts has done and he's got a lot of history with a number of these folks over the past several years and I think Iowa has done a good job of being first in the nation and I know there's going to be a push at the national convention to change some of that and I know some folks are trying to do that but I feel confident that we have enough folks working with us to keep Iowa first.

Brennan: I just want to say thing.

Iverson: We've got to work together on this too.

Brennan: Yes, that's exactly my point.

Iverson: We did it eight years ago when the push was on and both Democrats and Republicans are working together to make this happen.

Brennan: I worked with Stew's predecessor and I've worked with Stew ...

Glover: Wouldn't John McCain be bad news for the Iowa caucuses? He skipped them entirely in 2000 and he basically skipped them this time.

Iverson: No, but right now Senator McCain is perfectly fine with Iowa staying first in the nation with the caucuses, he is okay with that.

Borg: We're out of time. Just when we were getting going. Thanks so much for being with us.

Iverson: Thank you.

Brennan: Thank you.

Borg: On our next edition of Iowa Press we'll be talking with Iowa Governor Chet Culver. It's been a summer of major disasters and we'll be questioning Governor Culver about the state's role in rebuilding those areas and we'll be profiling the political landscape from the executive branch viewpoint. You'll see our conversation with Governor Culver at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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.

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