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Sue Dvorsky and Matt Strawn Discuss Campaign 2012 and the Iowa Caucuses

posted on June 17, 2011

Organizing victory.  Iowa's political party leaders shouldering big responsibilities for winning both state and national elections.  A conversation with Democratic Party state chairwoman Sue Dvorsky and state republican chairman Matt Strawn on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: For most of us plenty of time remains before the November 2012 elections.  But for those organizing those elections this is action time.  This is the time for recruiting candidates for state and local elections and for planning methods for persuading voters, not to mention fundraising for fueling the campaigns.  And there's a game changer this time -- redistricting is changing the boundaries of where the candidates will be campaigning.  At the federal level, redistricting is changing congressional district boundaries and eliminating one of Iowa's current seats in the U.S. House of Representatives from five down to four.  But all five congressmen want to return.  So, two incumbents are facing each other in the new third U.S. district.  At the state level, new districts too for the Iowa Senate and the House of Representatives.  In the current legislature House republicans have a commanding 60-40 margin but Senate democrats are leveraging a two vote majority.  State elections and the first-in-the-nation presidential preference caucuses also challenging our guests.  Matt Strawn chairs Iowa's Republican Party.  Sue Dvorsky leads the state's Democratic Party.  Welcome to Iowa Press.

Dvorsky: Thanks, Dean.

Strawn: It's always a pleasure to be here.

Borg: Did I fully chronicle all that is on your plates?

Strawn: That's it?

Dvorsky: Is that all?

Borg: Well, we're going to be talking about all of those things here and the people asking the questions, Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, let's start with you.  There's a budget fight at the statehouse and it seems like there's not a lot of negotiation going on right now.  Both parties seem to have decided it's time to take their case to the people.  What role do the political parties play in that debate?

Strawn: Well, I can tell you right now one thing that Iowans aren't looking for is they aren't looking for the assignment of blame, they're looking for solutions and one of the things they voted for overwhelmingly last November in electing Terry Branstad is somebody that was going to return clarity, transparency to Iowa's budgeting process and the Iowa House republicans and Governor Branstad have put forth a proposal that actually spends less than the state takes in while getting away from those gimmicks that define the Culver administration.

Glover: But what role does the party play in helping those republicans sell that budget proposal?

Strawn: Well, I think we do two things.  One, we continue to educate Iowans that republicans are doing exactly what they said they were going to do when they were campaigning for office because it is honoring those promises that will make sure that we continue to have the trust of the Iowa voters going forward.  And second, it is making sure that Iowans understand that we can't return back to the days of the gimmicks that were used in the Culver administration with underfunding things like Medicaid where you know you're going to have to backfill.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, same question to you.  Democrats who run the Senate have staked their claim to a budget position.  What role does the party play in helping sell that position to voters?

Dvorsky: Well, one of the things I think that is important for us to do is to keep a truth squad out there, a fact check because one thing Matt knows and the Governor knows that in fact by law the legislature can't spend more than 99% of the general fund, he should know that because that law was put in, in '92 when he was Governor.  So, it is important to keep up our side of that message.  The Governor is out there campaigning all over the state on the taxpayer dime, still campaigning and, in fact, he has won his basic arguments, the three things he said he had to have -- had to be under $6 billion, had to be two years, had to have property tax relief.  We are in agreement in principle and property tax relief, they have gone under $6 billion, they have gone to, they have made a compromise on two years and here we still are.  So, I'm glad to know that the Governor is about clarity and I hope he gets back there.

Glover: I'd like to get you to assess something.  It strikes me that people are winning and losing politically in this fight.  What I hear is both sides are losing because they can't come to an agreement.  Who is winning this?

Dvorsky: You know, one of the things -- Iowans will win this when this thing gets settled.  Honestly, I think that we have got conversations going on with both of our bases.  But the conversation that is important is the conversation for independent voters because we have a voter registration edge over the republicans but, in fact, the biggest group of voters in Iowa are registered no party, they are registered independent.  So, we're going to find out who wins an argument.  I think that the House republicans have spent four or five months in incredibly divisive social issue debate when they should have been doing this budget and I think that is an argument we win with independents.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, same question to you.  Who wins and who loses this debate?  Or do both sides lose because they can't reach a deal?

Strawn: Well, we need to move the partisan politics out of it because Iowans are looking for solutions and that is what they voted for when they voted for Terry Branstad, when they elected an overwhelming House republican majority whose first act was actually reducing the size of government.  So, talking about these divisive social issues, the very first act of the new republican majority was reducing the size of government because republicans understand if we're going to incentivize private sector job creation in Iowa it comes with removing revenue from the state and leaving it in the pockets of those job creators across the state that need more certainty from their state government.  So, I think they want to see solutions and I'm glad that Governor Branstad and Speaker Paulsen and the House leadership have put their cards on the table with a true, honest budget that doesn't allow any of those gimmicks of the Culver era and I would hope that Senate democrats like Mike Gronstal, I think they will do so at their own peril if they continue down this path of short-changing things like Medicaid that they know will have to be backfilled at a later date.  So, we need to have an honest budget to close this deal and I'm glad that Governor Branstad and House republicans have done that.

Henderson: Mr. Strawn, not far down the path your party will host a straw poll in Ames in August whereby republican presidential candidates will see a first test, so to speak, in the first caucus state.  There are critics of that straw poll.  They say you are fleecing the candidates by renting out the space, requiring an entry fee and also that this, in essence, gives Iowa two opportunities to have a first test in the campaign.  How do you handle that criticism?

Strawn: Well, I think a lot of those critics come from outside our border, people that are jealous that their state doesn't have the first-in-the-nation status that Iowa does and I think some of those critics also don't want to see Iowa republicans successful with our fundraising efforts.  But it is a great time to be an Iowa republican.   May marked the 27th consecutive month that Iowa republicans have gained on Iowa democrats in voter registration.  Since Barack Obama was inaugurated President more than 65,000 Iowans have left the ranks of registered Iowa democrats, that is over ten percent of their membership and I think we're going to see that enthusiasm continue at the straw poll and I think it's a great organizing tool not just for those presidential candidates to get a test of their organization but the fact that Iowa is one of eight states that will determine the presidency in November because it is a true swing state having a successful straw poll will help us organize for that.

Henderson: But you said it's a successful fundraiser for the party.  You're essentially raising funds from candidates who in the general election may be facing off against a President who has a billion dollar war chest.  Is that wise for your party to be siphoning off that money for the republican party of Iowa when it could go for those candidates farther on down the road?

Strawn: Well, actually every candidate makes a resource decision in every campaign.  It is extremely costly and expensive to advertise in the Boston media market to reach New Hampshire voters.  So, each individual candidate has to decide are they going to pay for expensive ads in Boston or are they going to pay for a $30- straw poll ticket in Ames?  I would suggest Mike Huckabee is a perfect example of how you get a tremendous return on your investment without investing a significant amount of resources.  If you as a candidate have a message that is connected with Iowa voters, they will vote for you in the straw poll and I have the perfect example.  I was in Clayton County last night up in Garnavillo, about as far as you can get from Ames, and people up there were talking about how excited they were to come to the straw poll and they haven't even decided which candidate they're going to support yet.  So, this notion that campaigns have to buy those tickets when individual Iowa republicans are excited to spend their own $30 to hear from the candidates I think really goes against that national narrative that hasn't proven accurate.

Henderson: Ms. Dvorsky, the Iowa Democratic Party doesn't face this criticism because you don't have a straw poll in advance of the caucuses.  Why did you make that decision?

Dvorsky: Because we don't fundraise off of people's ability to vote whether it is in a vote that is an actual part of the electoral process, that's just not how we fundraise.  What we do for organizing purposes, and of course Matt is right that that's an organizational tool, we organize sort of the old fashioned way, we go out there and knock it.  So, the voter registration piece, we still have a 35,000 voter registration edge, that is not what's going on with the straw poll.  The republican core of caucus goers is going to, you know, they will determine what that is but at the end of the day Matt is right about one thing, this will start here and it will also end here and when those, whoever that eventual nominee is, is going to have to come back here and they're going to have to answer ...

Borg: Isn't that the very question, though, Mr. Strawn, playing off Kay's question here -- you said that this is a time to, for voters to be able to meet candidates and so on.  Mitt Romney isn't even going to be in the straw poll and yet this is a major winnowing of candidates function.  How relevant can the straw poll be if one of the major candidates isn't even participating?

Strawn: Well, that ultimate decision is going to be made by the voters.  It isn't for the chairman of the party, who has to remain neutral in the process, to assess the wisdom of different candidate decisions.  One thing we do know given a very fluid field here in Iowa there are a lot of campaigns that need to test their organization to see how their message is resonating with Iowans and I have great confidence that the straw poll is going to be a tremendous success, not just from the benefit of the republican party of Iowa but for those candidates and for those Iowans that are looking for new leadership.  I mean, at the end of the day when you have an incumbent president it is going to be a referendum on the failed leadership of Barack Obama.  And part of that process of getting Iowa's six electoral votes for the republican nominee starts with a successful straw poll that helps our party organize here in Iowa.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, I'd like to ask you a question that Governor Branstad has weighed in on.  Governor Branstad insists that Iowa is a full spectrum state, that the republican primary is open to all candidates of all different philosophies, all different varieties.  In fact, entrance polls show that 60% of caucus goers in the last round of precinct caucuses were self-indentified evangelicals.  How can you make the case that Iowa is a full spectrum state when 60% of precinct caucus goers are evangelicals?

Strawn: Sure, well that is one specific poll that was done in the 2008 caucus, Mike.  I think what you need to look at is history and what has happened over the last four years.  I think you take each individual caucus as its own unique entity with its own unique issue set.  We had about 118,000 Iowans that participated in the republican caucus in January of 2008.  We had upwards of 250,000, 260,000 Iowans that participated in the republican primary last June.  We have seen our voter registration swell because we have cut by two-thirds into the registration gap that I inherited when I took over to the Democratic Party.  All of that energy and enthusiasm is on the republican side, most of which all our data points indicate was driven by what they saw coming out of the federal government with stimulus spending that didn't stimulate anything other than the debt, with healthcare that is intrusive into the decision making process that Americans have to make.  Those are why more people are identifying as republicans.  There is an opportunity for them to turn out in the caucuses, Mike.

Glover: And you would be congratulated on swelling up republican voter registration but you still have to look at caucus goers and those caucus goers tend to be dominated by the evangelical Christian wing of your party.

Strawn: Well, there's no -- you take the caucuses and there is a tremendous opportunity as the democrats found out in 2008 to swell your ranks when all the energy and focus and intention is on your caucus and I think that you will see that with Iowa republicans going into the caucus season in February that the candidates that are here talking to Iowans about these challenges facing America related to spending, the economy, Obama care, really creates the prospect for a greatly enhanced caucus turnout.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, I have slapped Chairman Strawn around a little bit about the base of his party but one thing that that base brings to his party is a whole lot of enthusiasm and energy if the republican party caucus goers are dominated by evangelicals, an enthusiastic, energetic voter who will get out and who will get their neighbors out.  How do you combat that?

Dvorsky: Well, we'll see if that actually is the case.  I think what we've got is several niche candidates but when you look at each one of them, end of the day caucus goers of either party are a specific subset of even registration.  So, say Matt gets a record number of caucus goers, say he gets 200,000, Ann Selzer did a piece this weekend and said that that's a possibility, that's fine.  But at the end of the day, the rest of the republican registrants and the independents are going to have to come back and they're going to ask tough questions whoever that nominee is.  So, that's great, let's talk about budget, let's talk about the fact that, you know, we're in the fifteenth straight month of, consecutive straight month of private sector job growth in this country.  Let's talk about the fact that when we got in there, when President Obama got in there with all that enthusiasm, there were 700,000 jobs a month bleeding out of the system, so let's talk about the climb back and all the pieces of that.  Let’s talk about the fact that at some point you're going to have a nominee so Mitt Romney is going to have to come back here and talk about how he ended up with Massachusetts 47th out of 50 states in job creation.  Tim Pawlenty is going to have to come back here and not just answer republican caucus goers but answer all republicans and a big 'ol bunch of independents about how he ended up with 90% of Minnesotans with a tax increase and a $6 billion deficit.

Strawn: It's a debate we'd love to have.  When you've got, Gallup this week says that the President's re-elect number is at 39%.  We haven't seen numbers that low in Iowa since Chet Culver's last cycle and the reason is those independent voters have left the President in droves because he's not doing anything to put certainty in the private job market. 

Glover: That's going to change, that's going to change because right now you have -- do you like what Barack Obama is doing means how are things going for you.  When it comes in about a year you're going to have Barack Obama versus Mitt Romney, Barack Obama versus Tim Pawlenty, Barack Obama versus Michele Bachmann, a very different question, don't you agree?

Strawn: No, you know that from the conversation we had during the recent gubernatorial election that those were where Chet Culver's numbers were in a primary before the republicans decided who their nominee was, he was mired in the 30s with his re-elect number and it will fundamentally be a referendum on Barack Obama.  Since he was inaugurated joblessness in America is about 25%.  Since he was inaugurated President we have added $4 trillion to the federal debt.  Since he was inaugurated gas prices have doubled on what we're paying per gallon.  And at the end of the day with an incumbent president it is a referendum and as somebody who actually creates jobs for a living I understand that what we crave is certainty.  And when I have job creators in Iowa who can't tell me what the cost of implementing Obama care will be and that is why they're not hiring, that's why they're not buying equipment, that is the uncertainty that is not creating jobs.

Borg: I'm going to interrupt you because we have a raft of questions and too little time.  Kay.

Henderson: Speaking of certainty, the two parties heretofore have worked together to preserve Iowa's status as the first-in-the-nation caucus.  Will that continue or is this prospect of a right wing, as some folks allege, or evangelical bent to the results of the Iowa caucus in 2012 hurt your chances, Ms. Dvorsky?

Dvorsky: No, it doesn't hurt our chances.  A point of agreement between Matt and I, our organizations and many other organizations in the state of Iowa is the importance of first-in-the-nation.  And so we are working -- any opportunity we have to work together on that, now, what happens at the RNC, what happens in the eventual conversation that involves sixteen I can't control that, I don't know if Matt feels he can.  I can still go to the DNC, we will still go to the DNC and we will make our case that the opportunity for candidates to meet real working people, nurses and teachers and working people and farmers and, you know, all kinds of people, that opportunity is still, there are very few places in the country where it works as well as this.  So, we're going to still make that case and I still think we have a good case.

Strawn: And I would suggest Iowa nominating a very radical left wing liberal in Barack Obama in 2008 in the caucuses hasn't done anything to impair Iowa's first-in-the-nation status.

Borg: Okay, I'm going to interrupt there because we've had enough campaigning.  I want to get to some facts here.  Redistricting, are you having any difficulty or how is candidate recruitment going under redistricting?

Strawn: Oh, it's going phenomenally well, especially at the legislative level.  One thing that we saw in 2010, one of the reasons for the republican success is we had great candidates, we had great candidates who come from a varied walk of life.

Borg: Has it helped, has redistricting helped you?

Strawn: Oh, I don't think redistricting helps it as much as the current issue environment that there's still people that are dissatisfied with what they see, especially with a Senate that is controlled by Iowa democrats.  We have people beating down our door that can't wait to run for the Iowa Senate as republicans.

Borg: Ms. Dvorsky, how is the candidate recruitment going?

Dvorsky: Same thing on the House side for us and I think that when we look at it congressionally we are very excited because one of the differences, I think, and certainly this goes cycle to cycle, but we have our four congressional, or soon will I imagine, have our four congressional candidates and our president.  So, we've got our five federals so we're out there right now starting that field organization, starting that process now and that helps in the legislative races.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, let's look at a couple of the races that are set up because of that redistricting.  Probably the highest profile race was caused by redistricting is the third district where two incumbent congressmen, republican Tom Latham and democrat Leonard Boswell, are faced against each other.  Handicap that for me.

Strawn: I can't wait.  I know Erin and I as Ankeny residents can't wait to have Tom Latham as our congressman and I'm confident that he will be.  He has been a great leader for Iowa on the U.S. Congress since he was first elected in 1994 and the one thing that Iowa has to have going from five members to four members in the U.S. House, every one of those members has to be a leader and Leonard Boswell simply isn't a leader in the United States Congress.

Glover: Leonard Boswell argued on this program that he has represented something like 80% of that district at some point in his career.  How do you deal with that?

Strawn: You talk about his record.  In Tom Latham you have somebody that has been a leader since day one in the United States Congress in a time when every one of our four representatives has to be a leader, Leonard Boswell isn't.  He isn't a major factor in the democrat ranks in the House, he doesn't have senior leadership positions, he doesn't have a record of legislative accomplishment and he has voted, quite frankly, out of step with the views of most of the people in that district.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, we've heard the Latham commercial now.  Give us the Boswell commercial.

Dvorsky: Well, you already gave us part of the tag line, Mike.  He has represented those people before, these are Leonard's people, he knows them, he understands them.  That district, in fact, we're really excited about that district.  A lot of people are going to be watching that, that thing is a pretty even 50/50 split on paper.  But I don't think, I think the Tom, Congressman Latham moving down there -- Congressman Latham and Congressman King could not be more representative of the two edges, if you will, of that republican spectrum and I don't think that Steve King led republicans down in that corner are an easy just switch over to Tom Latham.  Will they vote for him?  I don't know.  But will they work for him like they did for King?  I don't think so and I think that same thing is going to have an impact up in the fourth.

Glover: And where does that race rank on the national spectrum.  It's two incumbents running against each other in a House that is fairly narrowly divided.  How does it rank nationally?

Dvorsky: Well, it's going to rank dog gone high because we are talking about a 50/50 House seat against two incumbents who are both supported by their leadership, by the way, and in a very, very evenly split purple state that is going to be one of the swing states that is going to e the state because we start here, if we end here the attention on us is going to be enormous and I think in that race particularly -- I don't even want to hazard a guess.

Strawn: I'll tell you this, though, this explains the vulnerability of Leonard Boswell because we just heard an argument as to how he can get elected based on demographics because they can't defend his record.  He's got a record of supporting Obama care, he's got a record of voting for a stimulus that has created a ballooning federal debt, so they can argue demographics all you want but it's going to be his record of failure leading Iowa that will ultimately be his undoing in November 2012.

Dvorsky: He doesn’t have a record of voting for Paul Ryan's ending Medicare as we know it in one of the two grayest districts, congressional districts in this state and one of the grayest districts in the country so we'll see how that goes.

Borg: Kay.

Henderson: Congressman King faces perhaps his toughest battle since he first won election to Congress.  Can he hold that district, Mr. Strawn?

Strawn: Absolutely.  It's a district that voted in 2008, which is probably the best year Iowa democrats will ever have in this state, even John McCain won that district against Barack Obama in the Obama wave.  Tom Latham carried every county that comprised the current fourth district there.  I don’t know what Christie Vilsack is paying her consultants but she should ask for a refund because that is an unwinnable district for her.

Henderson: Ms. Dvorsky?

Dvorsky: Well, goodness, um, he just said Tom Latham won those counties, Tom Latham is not there and I think that as Congressman King brings his message further east I think every county line he crosses toward the rising sun, it's harder for him to make that case and I will tell you that I don’t believe that Congressman King plays as well in Cerro Gordo and Story County as perhaps Congressman Latham did.  And I will also tell you that you shouldn't -- Christie, she's good, she can pay her consultants whatever because I'll tell you, yeah, is that the toughest race for us?  It absolutely is.  Are we going four for four?  We are because if there's a candidate out there that can do this it's her.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, she mentioned something about money heading into that race.  That's going to be an issue this next time around.  We've got some competitive races.  There's a recession going on.  How is your fundraising?

Strawn: The republican party of Iowa is in as strong a financial position as it has ever been.

Glover: Why?

Strawn: Why?  Because we have leadership not just at the party but within our elected officials that people are seeing that there's a clear difference between a conservative governing philosophy that Iowa and the country needs and they have seen what one party democrat rule did to Iowa leading into the 2010 elections and they want to make a change in the White House and they understand that Iowa will be a battleground for choosing the next President.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, can you compete financially?

Dvorsky: We've been out raising them every quarter.  Part of that I think, I'm working really hard, and we, our side sees what is at stake.  As Dean said, we've got a two seat majority over there, we're not going to lose it, we're not going to go down the path of Wisconsin and Ohio, we're not going to let that happen.  So, we're good.

Henderson: You mentioned the Paul Ryan budget, are you banking on that being an issue a year from now?

Dvorsky: Oh, gosh yes.  And I am because it is, I think that Congressman Ryan set up, he said that was about budget deficit reduction but it wasn't because it didn't have -- there are all kinds of pieces that were left out of it and I think that that Medicare conversation, those questions are going to have to be answered.  Congressman King is going to have to debate this time and he's going to be ...

Henderson: Mr. Strawn, less than half a minute.  Can republicans defend that budget?

Strawn: Absolutely and this is what is unfortunate, at a time when the country has great challenges we've got tired politicians like Tom Harkin and Leonard Boswell trying out tired attack lines with Medicare scaring seniors.  Any senior is not going to have their coverage imperiled by what was passed by the U.S. House and you know that.  What we do need for future generations is we need to address the long-term looming entitlement crisis and it all goes back to how we create jobs again in America is by providing more certainty and you do that by addressing these long-term issues and if democrats want to continue kicking the can down the road and not showing leadership, you betcha, I'll take that fight every day of the week going into November.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, a few seconds to respond.

Dvorsky: Well, the healthcare act is the way that we start that conversation.  It slows the growth of the entitlement programs.  I'm a little closer to this than Mr. Strawn is so I know exactly who is going to get impacted by this, it's not my mom and I get it, it's me but that conversation is going to happen up there so we'll have that debate.

Borg: Thank you for the lively discussion.  We'll have you back again to finish.

Strawn: Look forward to it.

Borg: Thank you so much.  A reminder that we value your comments and your observations.  You can get them to us with the address that is at the lower edge of your screen right now, it is iowapress@iptv.org.  That is your direct link to our production staff.  We'd like to hear from you.  And a program note too, this coming week, it's on Tuesday, Iowa Public Television presenting a public affairs special titled Iowa's Marriage Battleground.  Host Paul Yeager and panelists will be focusing on how defining marriage is both a social and a major political issue, where we've been and where Iowa and American society may be headed on the marriage issue.  You'll see that program Tuesday night at 8:00p.m.  That is Iowa Press for this weekend.  I'm Dean Borg and thanks for joining us today.


Tags: 3rd Congressional District campaign 2012 caucuses Christie Vilsack Democrats government Iowa Iowa Democratic Party Chairs Leonard Boswell Matt Strawn politics presidential candidates redistricting Republican Party of Iowa Chair Republicans Sue Dvorsky Tom Latham