Iowa Public Television


Political strategists Jerry Crawford and Mike Mahaffey

posted on December 11, 2009

Ramping up. It's an off-year election, but next November's election is on in Iowa … U.S. Senator, governor, five congressional seats. We're getting insight from insiders Democrat Jerry Crawford and Republican Mike Mahaffey on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: On this Thanksgiving weekend, candidates and their staffers and those of us who cover them are pausing briefly to assess the next eleven months. That assessment includes some hard numbers, hard work, and also a lot of planning and outright guessing, if you want to be honest about it. Included in that, though, is a conversation with political insiders like today's guests, Republican Mike Mahaffey of Montezuma and Democrat Jerry Crawford of Des Moines. Mr. Mahaffey is a former state party republican chairman, and Mr. Crawford did the same for his party, as well as chairing at least five presidential caucus campaigns in Iowa. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press. Looking forward to your insights.

Thank you, Dean.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Mr. Crawford, I'd like to start with you. Let's take stock of next year. It strikes me there's some contradictions looming for the next year. You would think history would teach you that the first midterm election of a new democratic president would be a pretty good year for republicans, but the economy seems to be what's on everyone's minds, what seems to work for democrats. How does that all play out? What's next year look like?

Crawford: Well, I think it depends entirely on what happens with the economy between now and then. Dean said we were going to speculate about 2010 over this holiday --

Glover: You can guess. It's allowed.

Crawford: -- over this holiday weekend. And I think if we knew what the unemployment rate would be in labor -- on Labor Day of 2010, then I think that we'd have a very keen insight into the direction the election might go. If it's lower than it is today, I think the fact that the country will be focused on jobs and the economy will be a very good thing for the democratic party. If it's higher than it is today, the election will be a challenge for incumbents regardless of party all over the country.

Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, the same question to you. History would teach us that next year ought to be a pretty good year for republicans but the economy is dominating and that usually works for democrats. How's it going to work next year?

Mahaffey: Before I answer that, shouldn't there be a David Yepsen bobblehead doll somewhere? Just out of memory or something. I think Jerry's point is well taken. If the unemployment rate right now, Mike, was like between 7 and 8 percent, which some people in the Obama administration had predicted by the end of this year, instead of 10.2 percent, things may be different. In addition to the 10.2 percent unemployment, we have many people in Iowa and across the nation that are underemployed. We have many that have given up looking for work. And I think that that is one of the greatest anxieties that people, particularly the middle class, have. If that continues, then I think that it could be a very good year for republicans.

Henderson: Let us talk about the Iowa ballot in 2010 and how it may be shaping up. The U.S. Senate race among democrats, you have two Iowa democrats from eastern Iowa, former state legislators who have been campaigning for a few months. And then the last few weeks, Roxanne Conlin, a Des Moines attorney who you know well, has announced that she intends to run. How do you assess that race on the democratic side? Well, I think that if representative -- former Representative Fegan were here or former Representative Krause were here, they would concede that she's probably capable of going from zero to 60 in that primary election. But I'll tell you what, Fegan and Krause are honorable guys who were attempting a very good honorable thing to take on Senator Grassley. They're very capable in their own right, and I think the party will give them a fair listen. But Roxanne is an overwhelming favorite at this point.

Henderson: Let's assess the general election matchup then, should she win the primary. I have a neighbor who said, 'I still have a button in my basement that says 'I paid more taxes than Roxanne.' This is a democrat, dyed-in-the wool democrat. Does she have problems that she will not be able to overcome in the general election?

Crawford: No, the Iowa poll suggests that not many people remember her. And so I think that she's going to have a chance to do what she's already started, which is to reintroduce herself to the people of Iowa. And I suspect we'll get a look at her tax returns this time.

Borg: Is the Democratic Party -- primary going to be healthy for the senate race?

Crawford: Oh, I think absolutely. It creates activity. It creates focus. I think it's a good thing.

Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, can either of those democrats, regardless of who emerges from the primary, challenge Charles Grassley, arguably the most successful republican or democratic politician in the state's history?

Mahaffey: Not according to the latest Iowa poll, but it is still early. The good news for Roxanne Conlin is -- I don't think she has anywhere to go but up, I mean at 30 percent. Here's the thing about Chuck Grassley, I think he realizes that this will be his most difficult challenge since 1980. The people around him recognize that. He starts with a very solid base in rural Iowa, in small-town Iowa. He is doing very well at the present time among independents, which is interesting because of the fact that he is a long-term incumbent. And Jerry is right, I think incumbents could have some problems this year, but so far so good. And I don't think he will take anything for granted.

Crawford: Here's -- excuse me. Here's the thing about Senator Grassley. First of all, he's a good guy and he served our state. Let's just be fair about it to Senator Grassley. That said, he's been in public office fifty years. People are upset with their government. They want someone to go to Washington and shake things up. And if you say who's more likely to do that, somebody who has been in public office for fifty years or Roxanne Conlin with her spirit, just an indefatigable spirit, I'd say they're going to pick Roxanne Conlin.

Henderson: Mr. Mahaffey, talking about shake things up, there are republicans who would like to shake things up, and they aren't terribly happy that Chuck Grassley hasn't been doing it.

Mahaffey: There are some but, look, if somebody decided they wanted to take Chuck Grassley on in the primary, Chuck Grassley will win that primary going away. At the end of the day, he is still -- he is still in the strongest position of probably any incumbent in the state of Iowa and maybe any incumbent across the nation, and he never forgets where he comes from. He visits every county each year, and that's not going to change.

Borg: Would you change anything about him now that we know what that democratic race is going to -- who the opponents are going to be?

Mahaffey: I don't think you're going to change too much about Chuck Grassley after all of these years. I think that the interesting thing is that so far he is solidly ahead among independents. Let's face it, in Iowa, that's where the race is going to be run. There are more independents -- registered independents than there are republicans. We've got to win independent votes in order to win.

Borg: Is incumbency and time in office his biggest detriment?

Mahaffey: It could be. That obviously is going to be used against him. Jerry had just -- just gave a pretty good thirty-second sound bite on that. But so far it doesn't seem to be resonating with the people of the state of Iowa.

Glover: Mr. Crawford, let's turn to another race that's not too far down the ballot, and that's the governor's election. You're a good friend of the democratic governor, and Chet Culver is facing reelection. Give us your take on that race.

Crawford: I think it's a very interesting race. I'm not going to be disingenuous and tell him I wouldn't rather be 20 points ahead at this point. Obviously we would be. But he's in the same position that governors are in all over the country whether they're democrats or republicans. Jan Brewer of Arizona, job approval of 34. Charlie Crist, who just a year and a half ago was enormously popular in Florida, job approval of around 40 now. Tim Pawlenty in Minnesota, it goes state by state. It doesn't have anything to do with democrats or republicans. Until Governor Culver has an opponent and the issues can be joined, he will probably not resume a lead in the polls. But once he has an actual opponent and he can talk about his record versus their record, I have some serious --

Borg: Well, why has he dropped in approval ratings?

Crawford: For the same reason that governors have dropped all over the country, the economy. People are very frustrated with their state's budgetary circumstance, with the nation's budgetary circumstance, and the person sitting there in the chair is the person they hold responsible.

Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, let's look at the republican primary. You have a former four-term governor, Terry Branstad, running and Bob Vander Plaats, Chris Rants, some others running on the republican side. Should we assume that Terry Branstad is the presumptive republican nominee?

Mahaffey: As Yogi Berra would say, it's déjà vu' all over again. I think Terry Branstad will be the republican nominee, but I think he's going to have to work for it. He's not going to get it by default, and that's probably good for him.

Glover: Why?

Mahaffey: It's good for him because of the fact that he hasn't -- the last election he ran in was 1994, I believe.

Glover: Right.

Mahaffey: And that's been a few years. Even a good politician like Terry Branstad gets rusty, so I think the fact that he's going to have to work for it and will work for it will help him in the general election.

Glover: There's been a lot of conversation about some of his early appearances in this race, and not-so-favorable reviews. He's not gotten good reviews from some of his earlier appearances. What's your take on him?

Mahaffey: Look, let's be very honest about this. Terry Branstad is never going to be --

Glover: Well, let's try.

Mahaffey: He's never going to be a Winston Churchill or a Lincoln when it comes to oratory. He's never been a particularly good speech maker. When he gives a speech, he kind of plods along. One-on-one with people across the state of Iowa, he's quite good. He's very good at retail politics. He knows people all across the state. He has extraordinary name recognition. That's his strength and will continue to be his strength.

Glover: Can you beat Terry Branstad?

Crawford: Absolutely. I think Mike remembers 1994 better than Governor Branstad remembers 1994, and here's what I mean. He's been critical of Chet Culver about the budget despite the fact that the republican state auditor, Richard Johnson, who was there when Branstad was there, said that Branstad was guilty of keeping two sets of books to hide the deficit. Governor Branstad in this campaign says Governor Culver shouldn't have used bonds to put people to work in our state, but the same Governor Branstad used bonds five different times, including for the ICN network, and on it goes. So I welcome the opportunity to join --

Mahaffey: Here's the problem right now. People right now remember fondly Terry Branstad as governor, and they believe that he is capable of being the governor. One of the biggest problems Chet Culver has right now -- and I've heard this from democrats as well as republicans and independents -- there is a -- there's a doubt -- there's a nagging doubt that people think he is up to the job at the present time. If he doesn't do something with that, he's not going to be reelected.

Henderson: If we were having this conversation about the presidential race in 2006, Hillary Clinton was seen as far and away the presumptive favorite to win the democratic nomination in 2008. It turned out voters didn't want to look backward. They wanted to do look forward. How does Branstad address that when he is citing his resume and his record as governor for sixteen years?

Mahaffey: Well, he's going to have to expand upon that. I think that's a very good point, Kay, because he's going to have to talk about the future. The other thing republicans have to do is we have to -- we have to reach out to groups that we haven't reached out to for a time. We're third in registration. We've got to win independents. We've got to reach out to the inner cities. We need to reach out to the Hispanic voters. And I think that Governor Branstad realizes that. One of the things he is, he's a very good politician. He understands politics and that will help him in the months to come.

Borg: Can he transcend the division within the Republican Party?

Mahaffey: Not entirely. I don't know anyone can transcend the division within the Republican Party entirely. But one of the things I think he has to do is he has to run in the primary as if he is positioning himself to be the general election candidate. That may mean that he loses some votes, but in the mean time by doing that, he makes himself a better and stronger candidate in the general election.

Glover: Mr. Crawford, I'd like you to examine the health of the Republican Party. There is a division within the Republican Party, the religious social conservative right and moderates, few though they might be. Give me your take on the health of the Republican Party right now, from an insider's perspective.

Crawford: Well, I think that they're having the debate over their soul. And I think Mike is right; if Terry Branstad could park himself in the center and wait for the general election, he would be stronger. But if he does that, he's going to lose the primary, probably to Bob Vander Plaats. But something in the back of my mind keeps saying that Chris Rants is still a factor in this race. He's a very hard working guy. He's a very smart guy. But Branstad isn't, Mike, staying in the center. He spent a whole day doing interviews recently about how he's against gay marriage, but failed to mention the fact that he was the governor who put Mark Cady who, by the way, I think is a terrific Supreme Court justice, on the Supreme Court and wrote the opinion allowing gay marriage in Iowa. So I think that Bob Vander Plaats and Chris Rants and the rest will be bringing that up.

Mahaffey: So the democrats are going to run an ad against Mark Cady?

Crawford: No, of course not.

Mahaffey: Because they're not even going to bring up the issue of gay marriage.

Crawford: No democrat -- no democrat is being critical of Mark Cady. It's the governor who appointed him, Governor Branstad.

Mahaffey: If I can just mention something about the health of the Republican Party. We had an extended illness. We are now able to set up and take nourishment, and the doctor has told us that we're going to make a full recovery, maybe not in 2010 but eventually we will.

Glover: And is chet Culver your best friend?

Mahaffey: Is Chet Culver my best friend?

Glover: Is he the Republican Party's best friend?

Mahaffey: I understand he's a very nice man. At this point, obviously, the fact that he is governor is of help to the Republican Party.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: You folks brought up gay marriage. Let's talk about it now. Is gay marriage a winning issue for republicans?

Mahaffey: I think what republicans should say about gay marriage, which I think is where the majority of republicans are, the majority of people in Iowa, is that the people should be allowed to decide that issue. They should be allowed to vote on a constitutional amendment. And when the democratic legislatures, Mike Gronstal and the others, do not even dare to argue that or debate that on the floor of the senate or the house, there's a certain political arrogance to that, that could be a problem. Now, having said that, do I think that it is the main issue of the campaign in 2010? No. The main issues of the 2010 election are economic issues, pure and simple.

Henderson: Mr. Crawford, you brought up gay marriage in the context of Terry Branstad. Is it a losing issue for democrats?

Crawford: No, I don't think it's a losing issue for democrats, and it's also not a losing issue in the future. People are changing their mind quickly about this issue. I was with Julian Bond recently who said if you don't like gay marriage, don't get gay married. Pretty simple concept. And if you ask voters 40 and under, that's what they say. I think it would be a huge mistake for the Republican Party to pitch their tent on that ground. I don't think they're inclined to do that.

Glover: Let's look around the state. You have five congressional seats that are up this year. Mr. Crawford, are any of those seats competitive?

Crawford: Not yet. Not from what I've been able to determine. I think that Loebsack, Braley, and Boswell are all in good shape, and I don't yet see anything that tells me that we're likely to take out Latham or King.

Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, I won't ask you if the democrats can take out Steve King because I'm fairly familiar with the fifth district of Iowa.

Mahaffey: There's the old saying about hell freezing over.

Glover: Let's not go to any of those old sayings. But are any of the current incumbent congressmen, including the three democrats that he mentioned, are any of them in trouble? Can you realistically argue that they're not --

Mahaffey: Only one at this point is potentially in trouble, and that's I think Congressman Boswell, who's always potentially in trouble. I think the other four are fine. Here's what has to happen in the third congressional district. First of all, the republican national congressional committee has to decide that they are going to play in this race. They haven't done that for a few years. If they don't get in this race, if they don't say this is one of the races we're going to target you, it becomes very difficult for the republican candidate, because we're talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions, in-kind contributions.

Glover: And what's your future?

Mahaffey: And secondly, what has to happen is you have to have a candidate that is going to be able articulate -- is going to be able to articulate --

Glover: I think we've gone right past the question that I've asked, which was, thirdly, what's your future, Mr. Mahaffey?

Mahaffey: My future has yet to be determined.

Glover: Well, what are your options? What are you considering?

Mahaffey: Well, I did consider running for governor. I'm not going to run for governor. I have considered running for congress, and I'm not saying I'm going to do that. I'm not trying to be coy, but I haven't made that final decision.

Glover: So you're not going to be coy. You're just not going to tell us.

Mahaffey: That's right, because I don't know myself. I'll tell you what, when Patty Mahaffey knows, then I'll let you know, Mike. But she doesn't know yet.

Henderson: What sort of a factor is the announcement that Jim Gibbons, the former Iowa State wrestling coach who's known across the state for a different reason than politics? Does that factor into your decision, and how?

Mahaffey: It doesn't. There are other factors that I think go into anybody's decision. In all fairness, there are some good candidates in that race. Brad Zaun is thinking about running. Jim Gibbons I think could be a very interesting candidate. The key is that whomever gets the nomination is going to have to convince republicans in this district and republicans in Washington, DC, that they've got a chance to beat Leonard Boswell.

Crawford: A couple quick points. I think that Congressman Boswell and I would agree that the guy sitting right here beside me would be the toughest opponent the republicans could field, so we'll have to wait and see what he decides. But I'll say this, Brad Zaun has proven himself to be an indefatigably good campaigner and not somebody that I would underestimate. But if Jeff Lamberti can't raise enough money to take on Leonard Boswell, then I don't think Brad Zaun or Jim Gibbons can either.

Glover: Let's get back to what will color the midterm elections next year, and that is President Obama. The midterm election, the first term of the new president, traditionally is kind of a referendum on that new president's performance. Mr. Crawford, what's your take on how President Obama has handled his first year in office and what does he do to get things on track, to keep things on track, to help democrats next year?

Crawford: Some good, some bad. I'm sure he has some things he would like to do over. Around the world America has friends today, where it didn't when George Bush left office. I think friends make America a safer country, not a more dangerous country. And at a time when the country wants I think desperately to bring our sons and daughters home from overseas, both for their own safety and for our own economic security, I think that that's a hugely important thing that Barack Obama has accomplished. But I'm sure he would like to get the discussion off of health care as soon as humanly possible and on to jobs and the economy.

Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, your take on it.

Mahaffey: What did Garth Brooks say about friends in low places? Maybe we have some friends in some low places. Jerry makes some good points. I think the fact of the matter is that health care has consumed too much of the president's time. I think that if there's one word that would describe the Obama administration and the problem that he's having right now after ten months, it's overreaching. I think they tried to do too much at one time, and I think the American people are extremely concerned about the extraordinary deficits that we, as far as the eye can see, that we are mounting and that we are putting on our children.

Glover: I guess my question would be, in next year's election is Barack Obama your friend. Is he someone you can run against effectively?

Mahaffey: You know, let me say this very honestly. I think people still personally like the president, and I think that many people still want him to succeed. The problem they're having is with some of his policies. I'm not sure they want his policies to succeed. So I'm not sure it makes sense to run against President Obama, but I certainly think you could run against some of the democratic agenda and I certainly think you can run against Harry Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Borg: Jerry?

Crawford: Let's be fair to Barack Obama. When George Bush took office, we had surpluses in this country. When Barack Obama took place -- took office after eight years of George Bush, we had unbelievable deficits. And I would say that Barack Obama inherited a presidency more challenged with serious issues than any person of the history of the presidency of this country, and you have to give him time.

Mahaffey: How do you think more unbelievable than the deficits in the Bush administration are the deficits in the Obama administration?

Glover: How do you respond to Mr. Mahaffey's suggestion that people think Obama is trying to do too much? Did he have any choice?

Crawford: You know, you're damned if you do and you're damned if you don't. History tells us that presidents get more accomplished their first year in office than any other time in their term, and so the last thing you want to do is underachieve or underattempt major change in your first year in office.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: Let's turn back to statehouse races. 125 legislative races will be decided next November. How will gay marriage play a role in that? And it's apparent that legislators may even have a gambling debate. As a former gambling regulator, Mr. Mahaffey, do you think that will play a role in how the election plays out?

Mahaffey: Both to some extent but the overriding issues will be economic issues, and that will be true at the local level, at the state level, and at the national level. I just don't see -- I mean the economy is not going to change that much between now and next November, and that's what people are talking about. That's what people are talking about in Montezuma and Mitchellville and Manning and Maquoketa and all across the state.

Glover: Doesn't that help democrats? I mean historically when voters are focused on the economy, that's good for democrats.

Mahaffey: Not when unemployment is 10.2 percent and not when the deficit is 50 cent of every dollar that we're spending this year. I don't think it is. And the key there, Michael, I think right now is that independents are abandoning the democrats in droves. And if that continues, it could be a good republican year.

Borg: Back to what you just said -- excuse me, Kay. I'll get back to you in just a second. What role will organized labor play in this next campaign?

Mahaffey: Oh, it will play a huge role. It always does. And it will play a very significant role.

Borg: Build the economy into that answer.

Mahaffey: Well, I think what it will play is that they will -- labor will say what we need to have is the card check bill so that we can get more union members. And the answer to that would be, look, that isn't necessarily going to create jobs in America. But the unions are very much on the side of the Obama agenda. There's no question about that.

Henderson: Mr. Crawford, are they on the side of the Culver agenda?

Crawford: Well, you know, you get help in strange places, and I think that we're only a Branstad nomination away from great enthusiasm. Things are better anyway. The communication has been very good between labor and the governor's office. The enthusiasm has been grown. I think his leadership in working with the unions to try and avoid layoffs in state workforces has been very effective.

Mahaffey: Was that the enthusiasm has 'grown' or 'groaned'?

Henderson: Do you think there will be a statewide issue, the economy, the state's finances, or do you think these 125 legislative races will be decided on local issues?

Crawford: I think it will be more of a statewide issue and I think it will be more of a national reaction to issues and I think they'll be economically based.

Mahaffey: I think the key to that also, Kay, though is the fact that you -- you've got to have the right candidates in different positions. One of the things the democrats have done in recent years, where they've needed a pro-life democrat, they've had a pro-life democrat. Where they've needed a business democrat, they've had a business democrat. Smart. We need to do more of that too.

Glover: Probably the most attention next year will get paid to the governor's election. Typically we think that's the top election in the state.

Mahaffey: Right.

Glover: Give me the recipe for beating Chet Culver next year.

Mahaffey: The recipe for beating Chet Culver is to go out and work very hard and let the people in Iowa know that there are better days ahead and that there is a conservative competence that is on the horizon and that government can be run better, more efficiently, more effectively. And that can be done with the republicans --

Glover: Mr. Crawford, the top election on your side is Senator Charles Grassley. Give me the recipe for beating Charles Grassley.

Crawford: That we have a candidate who can go to Washington and shake things up. And in the governor's race, all Chet Culver has to do is tell the story. In year one he raised the minimum wage, he raised teacher pay, he raised the cigarette tax. In year two he very capably managed the flood. In year three he did what families in our state have to do faced with a budget challenge; he reduced spending across the board rather than raising taxes. And his opponent is going to come in as a person who raised taxes facing that same challenge. I think he'll have a very strong story.

Glover: And do you think he's telling us very effectively right now?

Crawford: I think he has to get better at it, and I think he will as the year goes forward.

Borg: You've had the last word. We're out of time. Thanks so much for sharing your insights with us today. We'll have you back soon and see how all this pans out. On our next edition of Iowa Press, we're returning to the Iowa statehouse politics and getting a look at preparations for January's beginning of a new legislative session. We'll be talking with the speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives, Dubuque Democrat Pat Murphy. Big budget challenges ahead next session. We'll get perspective from speaker Murphy next week. That conversation at our usual times: 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. A reminder too that the Internet provides direct contact with our Iowa Press staff. The e-mail address is at the bottom of our screen right now. It's We'd like to hear from you. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.

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