Borg: Bail out. Congress votes and presidential campaigns react to new issues and circumstances. Iowa political reporters assess the fallout on this edition of Iowa Press.
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On statewide Iowa Public Television this is Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.
Borg: On Iowa Press this weekend we were intending a conversation with candidates in Iowa's fourth congressional district, Republican incumbent Tom Latham and Democratic challenger Becky Greenwald. But a bail out is preempting our plans with a vote in the House of Representatives on Friday preventing us from bringing the two candidates to the Iowa Press table. We hope to reschedule them. Fortunately, Iowa political reporters, not that they don't have anything else to do, quickly adjusted their schedules and they are ready with perspective on a week packed with seismic political news. Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen, Radio Iowa news director Kay Henderson, Associated Press senior political writer Mike Glover and Iowa Public Radio statehouse correspondent Jeneane Beck. Kay, you adjusted your schedule, thanks a lot for doing that. I know you've been busy and one of the things was covering John McCain this week. He was in Iowa. Does that mean that this state McCain people must think is still in play?
Henderson: Well, if the McCain people think that there are plenty of other people who think otherwise. Every newspaper poll that's been done in the past month shows double digit leads for Barack Obama here. There are plenty of Republicans who privately say that this state doesn't look like a prospective state for John McCain. It was an odd even too, it was an event at which big businesses in Iowa gathered around John McCain to tell stories and the stories they told were hiring more people at Hy-Vee or things are bad we're not hiring but we haven't fired anyone. It wasn't exactly the forum for someone who wants to project care about the economy to appear. John McCain really needed to be among business folks who are suffering, who wanted to talk about that suffering and ways in which it is affecting their business and he didn't get that at the event that his campaign arranged for him and I think it shows that the McCain campaign in Iowa is not serving their candidate very well.
Glover: With barely 30 days to go until the election John McCain came to Iowa and opted to spend about a day and a half in a state where he's double digits down. Why? That was the question that I was asked, that was a question that I was asking. And the answer was he's having trouble in a lot of states and they think Iowa is one of the states where they can turn things around. They think Iowa is a state where they will concede they are behind, they think they have a chance to turn around. Bottom line, Dean, if they're relying on Iowa for a turnaround they're in a lot of trouble.
Borg: Jeneane, you weren't at that event but judging from what you see and what you've heard your colleagues here say are you pretty much in agreement that the organization that Obama set up during the caucuses and has intensified since does not match the McCain thing in Iowa and can anything stop that?
Beck: Well, I think it's a little more than a month out I guess right now and still things could happen. But it does look like more and more that this state is trending Obama, it has been for a long time and it doesn't look like McCain can make the in roads he hopes to. However, when I talked to some of his people one of the things they say is, well, look he really wants to win Missouri, he still wants to be in play in Minnesota so maybe it doesn't hurt him to try to do a regional grouping of the three and if you're in the neighboring state why not stop by Iowa as well. But I do think things don't look great for him here.
Borg: David, it reminds me though of a little more than a year ago we were wondering around this table when will John McCain drop out of the caucus race. He seems to have nine lives and be able to rebound, resiliency.
Yepsen: That's absolutely right and that's why I think we don't want to get too predictive here. The ebb and flow of the battle goes on, McCain is down, Obama is up, that's just a fact. I don't expect conservatives or republicans necessarily to like that. But why is that? It's that largely because the economy has been the driving issue for about the last two or three weeks of the campaign. When this campaign was focusing on foreign affairs, when the Russians invaded Georgia McCain's numbers went up. And so with a month to go it's a dangerous world, lots of things can happen to shift this back in McCain's favor.
Glover: It's a danger for McCain right now. There is a thing in election campaigns called a tipping point which is when you get to a point where the thing just tips over and inevitably it slides towards an outcome. I don't think we're there yet. I don't think we're at a tipping point in this election. Obama is head, David you're right, Obama is ahead and he is nearing that tipping point. And for McCain I think the dangerous thing right now is McCain needs a game changing event. If this campaign rattles the way it's going until November 4th I think Barack Obama probably wins. McCain needs to shake up this game somehow or depend on some outside event to shake up things for him both of which are possible.
Borg: Well, he did it once, Kay, and that is selecting a vice presidential running mate that really energized and brought him up in the polls, brought that ticket up in the polls, that has sort of faded a bit. But this week we also had Sarah Palin in a debate with Joe Biden. Did you see anything there or from what you've heard and read, talking with voters that might have changed that? Might there be a new energy back in that campaign now?
Henderson: Well, republicans would like there to be new energy in the campaign. What I'm struck by is the number of people that I know that didn't watch the debate on Thursday night. They had other things to do. They had kids with activities and so the impression that they are getting of the debate is what they are hearing and seeing and reading from the media. And so I'm struck by the fact that the polls that were done on the night of the debate showed that not a lot of minds were changed. People went into that debate with preconceived notions and I think that not a lot of minds were changed by the debate.
Borg: What you've just said a lot of people didn't even bother to watch. What does that say? It says to me that minds are already made up, which you've said, and they didn't expect much to come out of that debate. Is that right?
Henderson: Just what I said, you sort of synopsized what I said. The interesting thing to me about the Sarah Palin phenom, if you will, is when the two candidates appeared together at an event in Cedar Rapids there was incredible energy in that airport hanger when Sarah Palin was standing beside John McCain. When John McCain came here this week and appeared at a forum in Iowa it was very -- he didn't have Sarah Palin with him and it was very low energy in the room.
Yepsen: In the context of Sarah Palin it's always discussed that she fires up the base and that's true, that's fine, you've got to do that in politics. But the term base, Dean, implies that you build something on top of it and to this point I don't see John McCain doing that.
Glover: And it's a very worrisome thing, to me anyway, a lot of people looked at that vice presidential debate and said what a great thing, Sarah Palin is firing up the base. A month out if you're a republican worried about the right wing of the Republican Party, the base, you're in trouble. If you're a democrat a month out from an election and you're worried about nailing down the democratic base, the left wing and labor you're in trouble. If John McCain on October 3rd or 4th is worried about the base John McCain is in trouble.
Borg: Jeneane, as I watched the vice presidential debate I heard Sarah Palin say many times common sense. It seems that common sense in this campaign not only with the McCain campaign but in some others common sense is being substituted and touted as better than experience and that goes back to change which is the buzz word in this campaign. Does change from what races you've covered go further down the ticket than just the presidential campaign?
Beck: I have talked to some people who say to me they are going to vote against every incumbent that is before them on the ballot. And then you say, really, if you're talking to a democrat, you're going to vote against Tom Harkin this time around? Well, and they back off a little bit. But there are some people who just want blanket change. But it's interesting to listen to Sarah Palin make those comments when Senator McCain has been in congress more than 20 years, he's been in the senate. So, it's interesting that she can make that argument but I'm not sure he can. Obama can make that argument but I'm not sure Biden can. So, it's kind of a strange juxtaposition to watch her debate Biden, it almost seems like the change ticket if you put her with Obama you might have a better argument.
Glover: Todd Harris who worked for McCain in 2000 and he worked for Fred Thompson this year, a respected republican consultant put it best I thought when he said, with Sarah Palin in that debate she had a very limited up side. There was very little she could do to help the ticket. There was a lot she could do to hurt the ticket given the gaf she's done in recent days. To her credit, you have to give her this, she didn't hurt the ticket down side, she probably didn't help a lot, she didn't do something really bad to hurt it.
Henderson: As you mentioned, Dean, this is shaping up to be a change election and I think the underlie here is that the republican brand has been hurt by the years of George Bush in office. He is incredibly unpopular with the public and he has even become unpopular with his own party in many respects. And so I think that is what is trickling down and making this the change election at all levels.
Yepsen: Let me take a contrary view to some of this. I think it is a change election at the presidential level but if you look at Iowa all the incumbents are favored basically for re-election to congress with one exception, Tom Latham may be in some trouble. Democrats are looking to control the legislature and maybe expand their margins. So, I'm not sure that the change thing goes much deeper than the White House.
Glover: I think change goes to candidates you don't have any personal connection to, candidates you only see on TV, candidates you only see in the media. Candidates like Tom Harkin or your local state legislature who you know I think you make a judgment on them or I think voters make a judgment on them based on their take on who they are or what they've done and what they are proposing, so forth and so on. So, I agree with David, I think it stops at the very top of the ticket but it's very powerful there.
Borg: David and Mike have mentioned, Jeneane, the Iowa legislature so let's talk just a little bit about the Iowa economy. Some reports out this week indicate that it's slowing. That says to me that that will mean less tax money coming into state coffers and a little tighter budget next time around. Not so easy going in the legislature.
Beck: That's right. Democrats have enjoyed two years of prosperity in which they gave to almost every special interest group that asked that that owed after being elected and now the coffers are, they have the economic emergency fund, they have the reserves, those are full, they like to talk about that. The problem is they have promised in the out years a lot of spending and now the revenues are going to slow. We're looking at a one to two percent increase I think over the next couple of years and that's going to be an issue as they try to pay for the promises, as they try to do something about the flooding and relief from the state government and if they have to do any sort of economic stimulus plan on the state level, which they are not as inclined to do as the federal government, but if they would try to do that there's just not money for it.
Glover: They're going to have a problem and Jeneane just touched on it. There are a lot of angry people out there who got flooded out in May and June. They have been sitting there with damaged, stinking homes for months and there is a lot of pressure on this legislature to act. The first thing out of the box I think they're going to have to do something about the flood and that's going to be very expensive, not only are revenues going to be slowing the unanticipated expenses are going to be big.
Yepsen: The politics of the state budget right now, Dean, is such that actually Iowa is not in as bad a shape as many other states.
Yepsen: That's right. Ethanol, farm prices, there is some good news here in this state. Unemployment isn't as bad. Secondly, the state just got a AAA bond rating. That's a pretty objective source of information. There aren't many states that have it. And part of the underlying reason for that is that the bond raters say that Iowa's economy has become more diverse and can repay its loans. But in 2009 Chet Culver is going to start worrying about his own re-election campaign in 2010. He's got to ratchet down the budget to avoid any of the problems we've talked about here with revenues potentially dwindling that may make some of the democratic interest groups nervous because come 2010 he's got to make sure he's got plenty of money to throw around to his friends and the issue of the state's finances are off the table. Voters are concerned about the democrat's competence to run finances. Culver needs to take that off the table. That means he's frugal in '09 so he's got money to spend in 2010 because if Barack Obama does win the White House in 2008 that means 2010 is an off year for democrats. It's going to be a tough time for democrats, particularly in a state like Iowa.
Borg: It's going to be tough though isn't it, Kay, to do for Culver what David is saying there, ratcheting down the state budget in a time that there are demands particularly as Jeneane mentioned, people standing out there beside homes that are still boarded up. I drove through Cedar Rapids just earlier this week and was struck by the inactivity every place in that flooded area.
Henderson: The other thing about our economy that I think we underestimate is how this credit crunch is going to affect farmers. Farmers operate on lines of credit to buy seed, to buy gasoline, to put their crops in the field in the spring and so there's going to be a trickle down effect on Main Street when farmers perhaps aren't spending as much money or finding credit tight so there's going to be a Main Street effect to what is happening in the farm community because of what is happening in the credit community. There's also things happening at car dealerships which are huge businesses around the state of Iowa. And so I think what's happening with the economy is truly going to put a damper on what state government can do in response to anything in terms of teacher's salaries, they're going to have to perhaps scale back promises made. They won't be kept because of the economy.
Glover: And it's going to be very interesting. One of the most interesting tests -- I happen to think the democrats are likely to keep control of both chambers of the legislature. So, beginning of January of 2009 I think you're going to have a democratic legislature and a democratic governor who is beginning to gear up for re-election. They haven't always gotten along that great in the past years. It will be a very interesting test on both sides to see if Culver can go to this legislature and say guys, look, I'm up this time, we're going to have to be a little frugal this year, you can't keep all those promises you made during the campaign, help me out here and see what their response is. All the sayings around the statehouse is we're all in this alone. If that happens it could be an ugly year.
Yepsen: Franklin Roosevelt once said of some democrat that he didn't like, he may be an SOB but he's our SOB and I think the legislature is going to take much that same attitude toward Chet Culver. We're unhappy but he's our guy.
Glover: But it will be a very interesting test of that relationship because it's been a little frayed around the edges.
Yepsen: Can we have just one little piece of straight talk on the flood, something no politician is willing to say and that is government is not going to make everybody whole, government can't, the federal government can't, the state government can't, municipal governments can't. There's been a lot of tragedy, governments are trying to help. But at the end of the day those vacant houses you saw, those people are still going to be in sad shape. Nobody is going to come along with a set of keys to them and say, here's your new house and here's your new job. Some of these people are still going to be hurting.
Borg: Plus, David, I'm glad you brought that up again because plus this past week too a 200 employee business in Cedar Rapids said we aren't going to reopen and they're not alone. There are going to be others doing the same thing if they haven't already so the economy is going down.
Henderson: The remarkable response to that from the director of the Department of Economic Development was that we need to take state tax credits which are currently available to large employers who are either expanding or coming in from out of state and building a facility here we need to give those tax credits to these existing employers in this flood zone. And they may do that carte blanche on their own without any legislative action. I think one of the fascinating parts about the flood disaster is that many things are being done at the state level without legislative oversight and the executive branch is just doing it on their own.
Glover: One of the really interesting things I think over the next about three months that we're going to see, Chet Culver since June has been all flood, all the time with the bomber jacket in front of every television camera doing flood relief, flood relief, flood relief. I think Chet Culver over the next hundred days or so has to come up with another reason for people to vote for him for governor. Okay, you react to the flood, disaster, government needs to act, fine. I think he needs going into this next legislative session to come up with an oh by the way, here's why I should be governor.
Yepsen: An interesting tracking of his job approval rate -- his job approval numbers are going back up, 58%, 60%, that's pretty good, it's not great. Grassley is around 70%, he sort of sets the gold standard in Iowa. But Culver's poll numbers go down when the legislature is in session and they've gone up when they're gone so that's why you're not going to see the governor bite on this bait the republicans are throwing out trying to get him to call a special session. The last thing any governor wants is to have the legislature in town beating him up.
Borg: At least this close to the election.
Glover: It doesn't matter whether it's republican or democratic legislature or republican or democratic governor, it's all that way.
Borg: But, Jeneane, comments from you on organized labor sort of pouting about Governor Culver's veto of labor legislation that they wanted to badly, got it through the legislature but didn't pass through the governor's desk. That's not likely -- Culver isn't up this fall, he's up a year from now -- will that veto at all affect this fall's elections?
Beck: Well, right now they are changing some of their funding, they are channeling it to the legislative races, taking some of it away from maybe the governor that they would have given it to him in the past but he's not up this year. So, they're being very vocal about it so that he knows they're unhappy with him, they're slapping him on the hand every chance they can get I think publicly to let him know but really he doesn't care because two years from now when he's up they'll bring that money back to him.
Glover: He made the right calculation when he vetoed that bill. He made the calculation that labor had nowhere to go but with him, a democratic governor.
Yepsen: As Dave is saying, he's our SOB.
Glover: He's our SOB and we'll be with him and I'll tell you what they may be unhappy, they may not be giving to him right now but when republicans put a Chris Rants, a Chuck Larson, a Bob VanderPlaats on the ballot and it's a choice between Chet Culver and one of those guys I'll tell you organized labor their energy and their money will be with Culver.
Yepsen: Iowa voters have spoken time and again on questions of right to work. They like the right to work law, they like the labor negotiations law. If the house of labor wants to change those laws they better go out and start selling the people of Iowa on that, Dean, not beat up the governor and that's where labor leaders have failed. They thought they could do a back door slamma-jamma no public debate thing and you can't do that in Iowa.
Borg: Mike, you mentioned Christopher Rants. That reminds me that he is, from what I read, in a very tight race. He's former speaker of the house when the republicans had control there in a tight race in his district?
Glover: A lot of republicans who didn't anticipate being in a tough race this year are in a tough race this year because of I think some of the energy that Obama has brought to the Democratic Party in this state. The democrats in the state have added about 100,000 voters to the polls. When George Bush carried the state by 12,000 votes in 2004 there were 7,000 more republicans than democrats. Right now there are 102,000 more democrats than republicans. That has filtered all the way down the ballot. There is a very hot race in eastern Iowa around Grinnell, the Danny Carroll seat. I talked to some organizers there -- in the last election they had 549 early votes. On the first day of early voting this time they had 850 early votes.
Yepsen: I want to interject one thing we haven't talked about here and that is in all these polling numbers pollsters are having difficulty with two things, race and racism and whether or not there is going to be a fall off on Barack Obama from whites you can't vote for him and younger voters, people who have cell phones that pollsters might be missing. So, as we analyze these polls in this whole race let's just keep that in the back of our mind as sort of two wild cards, it's a very interesting story, Dean but we could see Barack Obama fall off some simply because there are people who in the quiet of that voting booth just have trouble voting for a black man.
Glover: The Tom Bradley effect, Tom Bradley was the mayor of LA running for the governor of California. All throughout the race he was ahead, going into the final weekend he was ahead and lost profoundly. The pollsters went back in and said what did we do wrong. In analyzing their data and going back and re-interviewing they discovered just that, people couldn't vote for a black man but wouldn't admit it to a pollster.
Borg: Jeneane, you had a comment.
Beck: I was just going to say one of the phenomenons that we will not know how that plays out until election night is democrats think because Obama has energized and brought new people to polls that they are suddenly at play in suburban districts where they haven't been. There is a suburban district that was held by Dan Clute and Gene Maddox before him in Windsor Heights, Clive, Urbandale, West Des Moines. They said we believe this largely republican district is in play for them. Republicans will say no, no, come on, that's a solid district for us, it's not going to happen. That's when we'll find out how the Obama effect played out. Did he make in roads in suburbia? Or will white republican suburbians be like, I don't think so? We don't know yet.
Glover: I'll take somewhat of an issue with that and I happen to live in that district and the democrat is likely to win that district and it has nothing to do with Barack Obama. It has a lot to do with the democrat being a local elected official and outworking his republican opponent.
Yepsen: It's on the margins that the democrats are blowing this thing open and they will pick up seats in the legislature. That's the term landslide, what it means when the land slides familiar objects are swept away.
Borg: Let's go to the congressional districts. Are there some districts where you are particularly directing your attention?
Henderson: I think in Iowa it's the fourth congressional district. It has Ames, it stretches around to Decorah and it's an interesting district in that it now has a democratic voter registration edge, it has an attractive candidate in Becky Greenwald who has a well financed campaign, it also has those pockets of younger voters who are energized by the Obama candidacy who could perhaps help a candidate like Becky Greenwald over the top.
Borg: Are the demographics in that district that play other than the second district or the first district?
Henderson: The demographic we haven't mentioned in regards to the presidential campaign is also at play in congressional races. You have older voters who tend to vote republican in this district. And they're looking at their 401K or retirement plans and seeing a big hit in those and so some older voters who might be inclined to vote for republicans in most years are now seriously thinking about voting for democrats because they're looking at their investment portfolio, their pensions, etc. and having some concerns.
Yepsen: Iowa voters rarely get rid of a member of congress. They've done that, Neal Smith in 1994, Jim Leach in 2006. The difference here is Tom Latham is not asleep at the switch, Jim Leach and Neal Smith were and Tom Latham is a hard working, very attractive candidate, he's got more money than Becky Greenwald, he's known to people in the district as we've talked before, the local incumbency, the candidate is known. So, I agree with Kay, that's one we need to watch, it could happen if the democratic sweep is big enough but don't count Tom Latham out.
Glover: That will depend on the wave. If the democratic wave is about here Tom Latham survives, if the democratic wave is up here Tom Latham is in trouble but it will take a big wave to get it.
Borg: But I remember you saying time after time that the time to get a congressman is after the first term then they are really vulnerable. Braley in the first district and Loebsack in the second.
Glover: For Loebsack the story is quite simply the voter registration in that district is overwhelmingly democratic and he's a good match for the district. It includes his hometown of Mount Vernon, it includes Iowa City, it's a very democratic district and a district that suits his profile pretty well. So, Mariannette Miller-Meeks has a really tough hill to climb to get to him. Bruce Braley has proven to be a very effective member of congress, more importantly a hard working campaigner. He started campaigning for his second term on the first day of his first term. That is a recipe for winning another term.
Beck: And I think republicans somewhat seated that district at the very beginning because they put up a legislative candidate, he's not well known within his own party, he hasn't been in the legislature long enough to build that much name recognition so I don't feel like they challenged him right off the bat.
Borg: That is a devastated area in that first district particularly, some into the second district, Cedar Rapids, first district also where people are waiting for federal aid and it's not coming so there is some dissatisfaction there.
Yepsen: Is Loebsack in trouble because of that?
Borg: I have not seen that yet because people are still hopeful that the aid is coming.
Yepsen: I don't think we're going to see a lot of change in the delegation until 2012. We're going to lose a member of congress in the reapportionment after the 2010 census, that will happen in 2011, we'll have four members of congress in 2012, a lot of people who want to go to congress are waiting to run.
Glover: And we'll see what they do in reapportionment, we'll see who gets paired with who, that will make a very interesting congressional election.
Borg: Thanks for your insights and for adjusting your schedules at the last minute. On our next edition of Iowa Press we're calling on two political observers for insight talking with Iowa State University's Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics Director Diane Bystrom and the President of Iowa Wesleyan University's Public Interest Institute Don Racheter. We're at our usual Iowa Press airtimes next week, 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.