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Iowa Statehouse Reporters on the Politics of Money

posted on December 22, 2009

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The politics of money.  Nearly everyone seems short on money, including state government. That's producing a lot of actions and reactions, and we're asking Iowa political journalists for perspective.

Borg: The politics of money. Nearly everyone seems short of money, including state government. And that's producing a lot of political actions and reactions, and we're asking Iowa political journalists for perspective 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. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations … connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about ... for good, for Iowa, forever. Details at 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, December 25th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: Merry Christmas and happy holidays from all of us here at Iowa Public Television. We're within a few days now of closing 2009 but, unfortunately, the difficulties of the past year don't disappear, especially the state's financial problems. Politicians know that all too well, and it's a good bet that they're dreading the challenges ahead and stretching declining tax revenues to cover what can be preserved from an avalanche of budget cuts. And it's an election year. Senator Grassley, Governor Culver, congressmen, state legislators all now having to put their names on ballots being handed to frustrated voters next November. Well, we're convening Iowa political reporters for their perspectives, Senior Associated Press Political Writer Mike Glover, Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson, from the Cedar Rapids area, Gazette Political Writer James Lynch and Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich. Mike, I'm going to ask you, first of all, the politics of money. I've just ticked off the fact that we're coming into an election year. It seems that increasingly, in state and federal government particularly, government is increasingly partisan and contentious. With that sort a backdrop, what is the politics of Iowa's financial crisis?

Glover: Well, I think there's clear political folic. One, democrats in general run on having government do things for citizens. That's kind of the theme of the Democratic Party. Governor Culver ran as a candidate for governor with the idea that we're going to take state government and make it do something to influence the lives of people. Instead, what the economy has forced him to do is to cut everywhere, to cut back, to reduce, to make government do less. That's a republican approach. So I think Governor Culver is going to have that sort of basic problem of how do I match up what I'm doing as governor with what voters kind of expected of me. Having said all that, it's a year until the election. Iowa has not defeated a sitting governor since 1962, and I don't think this governor is a governor that can be counted out right away.

Borg: Kathie Obradovich, is he vulnerable in the politics of this?

Obradovich: Well, I think that this economy has reset the ball game in a certain extent because I don't believe that we would be looking at a competitive race for governor right now or competitive races for U.S. Senate, candidates coming out of the woodwork to run for congress in a year like this if we did not have the current economic conditions we have. Voters are very dissatisfied with their incumbents. They're dissatisfied with the way things are going in the state, so any incumbent, including Chet Culver, has to look at their chances of being reelected in this climate.

Henderson: Speaking of voters, I think if you would poll voters, they would sort of adopt the Nike theme, 'Just Do It.' Get the cutting over with. Do it. We're doing it in our own budgets. Do it at the state level. Do it at the county level. Do it at the city level. They just want action from elected leaders. If you're an elected leader, you're in a bad position because people want action. They don't want inaction.

Lynch: I think Kay is right, the people want to see the budget addressed. But I think because of the economy, it makes it much more important that the governor and the legislature do what they can to create jobs. Budget cutting is something that government needs to do. The voters need jobs.

Borg: The governor has taken sole responsibility, and this -- I'm going to focus first of all now on Governor Culver specifically. He's taken the responsibility for making the 10-percent across-the-board and budget cuts ahead of that all by himself, despite legislators saying call us into session, let us help. He has taken sole responsibility. There's a risk there.

Glover: They don't really want to be part of this solution because it is painful. And I think we can look at what the governor has been forced to do in terms of budget cuts, and it has inflicted real pain throughout state government and people will really feel the impact of this. Having said all that, I think you can overestimate the damage that it's done to him politically. He still is a very formidable candidate, will be able to raise significant amounts of money, will be able to assemble a significant campaign organization. I think right now the republicans have a significant challenge in getting this guy even if they can fight through what looks to me to be a competitive primary.

Henderson: And it may have even provided him with a campaign opening because republicans will not be able to paint him as a profligate spender. He will be able to compare his record with that of, oh, let's say a Governor Terry Branstad who spent sixteen years in office and has a record with which he can compare in terms of spending.

Glover: You're already hearing that whole issue get framed in the republican primary. You're hearing republicans say Terry Branstad, oh yeah, he was governor. He raised the sales tax not once, twice, and he raised the gasoline tax, and the state budget doubled during the time he was in office.

Borg: His own party people.

Glover: His own party people. But that's not going to end in June with the republican primary. That's going to be back for Culver to come back at him and say, okay, you talk about being conservative. I'm the guy who cut state spending. You're the guy who raised taxes.

Obradovich: The across-the-board cut too is going to be ancient history by next November. In the meantime Governor Culver is going to get bipartisan support for this government reorganization and efficiency plan that he's proposed. We've already heard republican leaders say some of these are their ideas. So of course they're going to support some of those ideas. And he's going to be able to come out of this next legislative session saying we made smart cuts in the budget that are going to actually benefit the state going forward as opposed to the 10-percent across-the-board cut which republicans can -- you know, their basic argument to that is it should have been done sooner. That argument doesn't carry forward.

Borg: Jim, what -- go ahead.

Lynch: I was going to say I think we'll hear republicans make the case that Culver was against these cuts before he was for them. They were -- they're arguing they were our ideas and democrats rejected them. Now they're for them. And I'm sure we'll hear that numerous times throughout the next session and the campaign.

Borg: Okay, Jim, in the Iowa legislature for the controlling democrats, what are the politics there of money?

Lynch: Well, I think they have similar problems to the governor that democrats, as Mike said, they like to see government do things. They take an expansive view. The additional problem they have is that in the house there are 51 democrats who want to have their own project that they want to see done and in the senate 32 democrats who have projects, and the leaders are going to have to keep tamping down those expectations and say, no, we can't do that this year, the money isn't there. You know, slow down.

Borg: But they're running on a record, Kay, that is democrats -- republicans have said all along we told you not to do this, we told you not to spend, and now you've got yourself into a hole.

Henderson: That is the republican argument. Democrats will argue -- and you've already heard them make this argument, that we have been responsible stewards of the state money. And if they do produce a budget that spends dramatically less than the current year's budget, then they'll be able to go to voters, as Kathie mentioned. A year is a long time. By the time this campaign is waged, we're going to be almost a year from the time we're sitting here and democrats will be able to point to their recent record.

Borg: What you seem to be saying, though, is, yes, a year is a long time but it depends a lot on what happens between now and next November.

Henderson: Sure.

Glover: A lot depends on that but I think we need to step back and a take a larger look at things. Yeah, the state has got a big budget problem. I don't know that the democrats who are running the legislature and the democratic Governor Culver would do things a lot different in this upcoming budget crisis than republicans would. Look at the bigger picture. It is the first midterm election of a new democratic president. History would teach us that that's a pretty good election for republicans because the party in power tends to give up some seats in the first midterm election. However, the economy seems to be driving the election. It seems to be driving voters in this cycle. That tends to help democrats. We don't know the answer to that question, and I think those are the sorts of things that will be driving voters come next November. Is the economy as we see some signs beginning to turn around a little bit? If the economy seems to be turning around, getting a little brighter, that might be a good sign for democrats.

Obradovich: If they certainly improve the mood of voters, and that has got to benefit incumbents even in the year when, as you say, it's likely to be a good year for republicans.

Henderson: You mentioned a key word, Kathie, 'incumbents.' I think the polling data that we're seeing, particularly on the national level, is that incumbents of both parties are seen by voters in a negative light. And so I think what happens in the next few months in terms of action at the statehouse will help determine whether that tide turns or if just being someone who has honorable representative or honorable senator or honorable governor before their name is a detriment rather than an advantage, because historically in this state and everywhere else, being an incumbent is a good thing. This may shape up to be a year in 2010 when being an incumbent is a bad thing.

Obradovich: And a lot of times when voters say in polls throw the bums out, they still like their bum.

Henderson: Yeah, not our bum.

Borg: Well, for republicans as a whole, Jim, what do they have to do to capitalize? Generally they are out of power. They're out of power at the federal level. Concentrating on the state level, they lost the legislature. They're way in the minority in the legislature. They've lost the governor's office. What do they have to do to capitalize?

Lynch: They need to seize the moment, and that is the discontent among the voters with incumbents, the discontent with government spending. They need to reach out to those tea party conservatives and get them to support republican candidates. And you know, if you look at this a year ago, I don't think anybody would say we think the Republican Party would be reinvigorated as it is today. They seem to think they have a shot in the November elections. It's a long time until November, but they seem to think that there's a chance that they can win the governorship, that they might pick up a congressional seat, that they might pick up the Iowa house.

Glover: They're among the few who think that. I think the republicans -- the republicans, before they can actually become competitive again, have to heal themselves. Jim, there's a big division within the Republican Party, and it's between those tea party social conservatives and moderates and that sort of stuff. And what they're doing at this moment is squeezing people out, saying you're not conservative enough for us, you're not hard lined enough for us. To grow, parties need to expand. They need to find a way to energize that base, to mobilize that base, but to grow the party.

Obradovich: I agree that they have internal disagreements that they have to heal, but I do think that nobody would have thought the Republican Party would come as far as they have. You know, they are fielding competitive candidates in a lot of these races. Five candidates now running against Leonard Boswell. And I think that kind of energy comes from the fact that people are dissatisfied, you know, and the economy gives them an opportunity. They're looking at that opportunity and trying to seize on it. When we see Terry Branstad running again, in a year, if he wasn't pretty sure he had a shot at winning. And I do think that that kind of thing is -- it's symbolic of the fact that the party is trying to come back and they are making strides.

Glover: And the old cynic that I am, I'll wait and see.

Borg: Kay, will that division within the Republican Party at all be felt in the governor's race?

Henderson: Surely. You are seeing it play itself out in the campaign trail every day. While these candidates have sort of gone dormant or hibernated, it seems, for the month of December, you're having a real debate between a person named Bob Vander Plaats, who sees himself and many conservatives see him as their standard bearer, the person who will pursue an agenda to get rid of gay marriage in Iowa, against Terry Branstad, who says things like I worked with democrats in the legislature, because democrats were in control and you have to work across party lines to get things done. That is the real debate happening in the Republican Party. And so it will be interesting because, if you look back at past republican primaries, it's often the moderate candidate who wins because there are more than one conservative candidate standing who divide the conservative base of the party. We'll see something really interesting happen in the first few months of 2010. Are some of those republican candidates going to drop out and make this a two-person race, Bob Vander Plaats and Terry Branstad?

Borg: So what I seem to hear there, that the nomination -- the republican nomination isn't a given for Terry Branstad.

Glover: I don't think it's a given for Terry Branstad. I think he starts out with better name recognition than his opponents. Certainly a longer history. But I think there are a lot of questions to be answered, Dean, about the health of the Republican Party as it's currently constituted. And I think this primary will go a long way toward answering those questions, but I don't think we can make the assumption now that Terry Branstad is the nominee.

Lynch: I think if Terry Branstad is the nominee, republicans are going to be all in on that race. They're going to put all their eggs -- all their money on that race in trying to reclaim the governorship.

Borg: To the detriment of what?

Lynch: To legislative candidates, congressional candidates, any other republican who's running for office.

Borg: I see. Is that going to translate, Kathie, into the U.S. Senate race too with Chuck Grassley, the incumbent there, being challenged by -- well, there's going to be a democratic primary.

Obradovich: Yes, there is a democratic primary and, you know, I think that having strong candidates on the top of the ticket, competitive races on the top of the ticket does trickle down. I mean I think that it's better to have a competitive race that is attracting attention at the top of the ticket than a cake walk that voters are bored by. If Chuck Grassley does have a competitive challenge, that is going to -- whatever work he does to get reelected is going to help people down the ticket.

Glover: And Jim is right, I think. If Terry Branstad is the republican nominee for governor, a lot of republican eggs will go into that basket. But I don't think that will hurt Chuck Grassley because by its nature, senate races are not financed in the state where they're run. He'll have plenty of money, plenty of organization and all that kind of stuff, regardless of how much republican effort is put on the governor's race.

Borg: Roxanne Conlin -- we talked about Terry Branstad seeming to have the edge, but not a given in the republican nomination for governor. Roxanne Conlin has name recognition going into that. It's a story I tell often. I remember the first time that Bill Clinton came out to campaign for his wife, Hillary Clinton, for the Iowa caucus campaign the summer before the caucuses. We all went gaga: oh, it's the Clinton juggernaut; it's the Clinton juggernaut; who can stand up to the Clinton juggernaut? I was with Barack Obama at the time, and I asked him that very question. And he said elections are not about looking backwards; elections are about looking forward. I think that's a problem Terry Branstad will have. I think it's a problem Roxanne Conlin will have. They're figures from the past, and I think they've got to find some way to make themselves relevant now. But put that in the context of Chuck Grassley is a long-time incumbent. You've got two people there who have been around a long time.

Glover: And that's one of the things this campaign will flush out. I think if you take chuck Grassley -- and let's make the assumption that Roxanne Conlin wins the democratic primary, so it's Roxanne Conlin against Chuck Grassley. You'll have two historical figures running for the senate. Which one is the most?

Henderson: And the other odd thing is last week on this show, I posed a question to republican leaders referring to the potential of the geriatric, back-to-the-future ticket on the part of republicans, Chuck Grassley and terry Branstad being at the top of the ticket. There's also the geriatric factor of Roxanne Conlin, whose name was last on the ticket in the 1980s, so it's like a VH1 back-to-the-'80s special. If you look at those four top-of-the-ticket races, Chet Culver is the youngest by far of any of those people. And so in some respects he may benefit from the fact that the other major candidates in Iowa are far older than he is but, conversely, the Iowa electorate tends to be old and they tend to support people and reelect people --

Glover: And I think you need to look at the basics of the campaigns that are out there. I often describe Chet Culver as a democratic Terry Branstad because he focuses on grass-roots, door-to-door, down-to-earth campaigning every day. When he was secretary of state, I remember he would come in, in the morning, look around, not a lot to do here as Secretary of state. I'll go off to Fairfield. Spend the day at Fairfield, talk to the Lion's Club at lunch, go to the high school in the afternoon and have a reception after work, and then get up the next morning and do the same thing over and over again. He's constantly out there doing the kind of grass-roots, door-to-door campaigning that Iowans have grown to expect. He's going to be a formidable candidate.

Obradovich: Ultimately the I-jobs program gives him a ready-made campaign for the summer and the fall and into next year because he can go out to every little town and cut a ribbon or break ground on projects that were funded with that state I-jobs bonding money. And even though republicans, you know, they are criticizing every step of the way the fact that the state borrowed for that, it's still an opportunity for the governor to go out and do something, you know, good for a community.

Henderson: And by criticizing him, they're in some way criticizing their own Terry Branstad because he, over the course of sixteen years, okayed millions upon millions upon millions of borrowing plans. If you look at the campuses in Ames and Iowa City and Cedar Falls, you see lots of buildings that were built by bonding money.

Lynch: I expect you'll see Governor Culver use those ribbon cuttings as a big part of his campaign because he's not going to have the money to be announcing new programs and other new initiatives, so that's going to be his chance to go out and say see what I'm doing for Iowa.

Glover: And that's why I think there will be a fallout from this republican primary because, as I mentioned, what you're hearing from the more conservative republican candidates is, oh, Terry Branstad, he's the one who raised the sales tax not once but twice, he's the one who raised the gasoline tax. I think Chet Culver will keep those things in his back pocket and turn around and use them in the general election campaign regardless of who the republican nominee is.

Lynch: And Branstad's response to that is I learned from my mistakes. Culver hasn't learned yet. He wants to go back to bad budgeting practice of using the road use tax fund to fund troopers and things like that.

Glover: Which you did, Governor. [ laughter ]

Lynch: But he says he learned and he ended that practice. So, you know, we're going to have that debate.

Borg: Kay, let's go back to the U.S. Senate race. Is there an Achilles' heel for Chuck Grassley? There is an anti-incumbent sentiment, you say --

Henderson: There's an anti-incumbent sentiment.

Borg: But does he have Achilles' heel is what I'm getting at and I'll let you answer. Does he have an Achilles' heel at all in his health care debate?

Henderson: I think his Achilles' heel is more about his relationship with the conservatives in his own party who seem to think that he is not conservative enough. I was at an event in Adel, a town hall meeting that attracted hundreds. I know Kathie was there at that event as well. He got booed by that crowd of mostly members of the tea party movement and conservative republicans when he was trying to explain his vote for the Wall Street bailout. He got booed. So he has big problems with the conservatives within his own party, and the problem is those are the people that do the legwork. Those are the people that drive people to the polls. Those are the people that talk about how great Chuck Grassley is to their friends and you've got to support Chuck Grassley. In the end I think those people will come home, but right now he's got fence mending to do.

Glover: And the problem Chuck Grassley faces is a primary problem because that could divide the party, and he had managed to dodge that bullet. He's not going to get a primary. So I'm not sure how -- in a race between Chuck Grassley and, let's say, a Roxanne Conlin, I'm not sure -- those people may not be as excited as they want to be, but I'm not sure they can go against him.

Henderson: But if you look at -- let's go back to the Jim Lightfoot for governor race. He lost in some part because republicans from the northwest quadrant of Iowa were not that energized about his candidacy and didn't vote for him. So if you lose on the margins, if you lose a little enthusiasm in people who decide, okay, I'm not going to vote on that top-of-the-ticket race, you lose in little gradations, and if democrats somehow get energized and are somehow energized about a common candidacy, that's the real problem for him.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: I don't think Grassley has gone so far to the center that he has changed his -- I'm not sure that the electorate even has gone -- has left him behind and moved to the right. What's so interesting is that Grassley and Branstad both for most of their careers have been accused of being too conservative. They're now having to adjust to this new reality where there's a segment of their party that doesn't believe they're conservative enough. Ultimately, though, they've got to stand on their record. And they both have had solid conservative records all of their careers, and they're going to be able to tell that to voters.

Borg: Jim Lynch, in the congressional races, anybody there vulnerable?

Lynch: Well, incumbents generally win, so it's -- you know, it's hard to take down an incumbent.

Borg: Well, you've got Bruce Braley in the first.

Lynch: Bruce Braley looks pretty solid.

Borg: You've got Loebsack in the second.

Lynch: Loebsack will have a challenger. There are three people in that race. I think depending on who the candidate is, he'll have a stiff challenge, but he's got the incumbency. Boswell has all sorts of opponents, and maybe part of that is people position themselves for 2012, thinking that this is Boswell's last go-around and they'll have name recognition and some organization for 2012.

Glover: The one we haven't mentioned is Steve King in western Iowa's fifth district. I think he's okay. I don't think a democrat is going to beat Steve King in a district that's overwhelmingly republican.

Borg: What about Tom Latham?

Glover: Tom Latham? I haven't seen a challenger emerge right now that looks to me to be the kind of challenger that's going to oust a sitting congressman.

Henderson: And the interesting thing about Latham is the way he's approached health care reform. He has been much more moderate in his criticism of health care reform than, let's say, Steve King. And he's doing that because he represents a district that has a nearly even split of republican and democratic voters.

Borg: Let's look back at 2009. You see politically winners and losers, and I don't mean just in the legislature. I mean overall. Kay?

Henderson: I'll go first. For winners, I will say Iowa's political class. The idea that the 2010 election started so early in 2009 is really interesting to me. You have people already employed full-time on campaigns. You have candidates coming out of the woodwork. I worked a lot harder in 2009 covering the gubernatorial race than I ever thought I would at this time in 2008. In terms of losers, I would say incumbents at this point are losers because voter angst is at a really high level.

Glover: Labor. Labor was a loser in 2009. The state's budget problems forced a democratic governor elected with a strong support of organized labor to go back to those unions and say you've got to take cuts. In the private sector, labor has taken the same kind of cuts as the economy has gone through the recession.

Borg: Winner?

Glover: A winner would be I think incumbents, because incumbents, I think, have managed to keep themselves alive. And at the end of the day, there will be a lot of talk about 2010 being an anti-incumbent year, and most of them will get elected.

Lynch: My winners and losers are pretty much the same. Culver won. He got I-jobs, which was the big project he wanted. He also got this huge budget problem to deal with. Social conservatives lost the Supreme Court's decision on same-sex marriage, but it's a winner as an issue for fund-raising and rallying the troops. And my whole list is they're on both sides of the ledger.

Borg: Kathie?

Obradovich: I'd put the middle class as a loser in this economy and, you know, I think it's going to take a long time to recover. And as far as winners are concerned, you know, I would concur with what's been said. And, you know, I think that generally speaking, voters who are paying attention are going to have a really exciting political season. So I would say voters are a winner.

Borg: We're going to have you all back in six weeks and see how these predictions come out. Thank you very much for all your perspectives today. On our next edition of Iowa Press, republican Congressman Steve King, just mentioned a minute ago, western Iowa's fifth district congressman, will be updating us on his priorities and particularly on the health care overhaul at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. Now, many of you are using the Internet for commenting to our Iowa Press staff. The address, on the lower area of your screen, is 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. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations … connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about ... for good, for Iowa, forever. Details at And by the Associated General Contractors of Iowa … the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge, and municipal utility infrastructure.

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