T-minus 13. That's the time, 13 months remaining before 2012's general election. We're discussing candidates, issues and strategies with two Iowa political activists, democrat Jerry Crawford and republican Mike Mahaffey on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: New dynamics are affecting Iowa politics and coming elections. The General Assembly's 150 senators and representatives are now coming from newly drawn districts, same for Iowa's representatives to Congress. In fact, there are only four newly drawn congressional districts this time, one less than the current delegation and in Linn County now in about six weeks a special election will be determining whether or not Iowa's Senate democrats hold their one seat majority splitting control of Iowa's legislature with the House majority republicans there and republican presidential candidates seem to be adjusting now strategies for using the Iowa caucuses for nabbing the GOP's nomination. That's the discussion menu we're planning for our conversation with political activists Jerry Crawford and Mike Mahaffey today. Mr. Crawford has experience chairing Polk County democrats and advising presidential candidates and Montezuma republican Mike Mahaffey is known for chairing his party's state central committee and running for Congress. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.
Both: Good to be with you.
Borg: Always a lively discussion when you're here. And across the Iowa Press table Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, let's start with you. Dean mentioned it, the election is 13 months away but we're a lot closer to that special election up in the Cedar Rapids area. It will decide who controls the Senate. Handicap that election for me.
Crawford: You know, I have to be honest, when the week started I didn't feel very good about it. But as we sit here today I feel terrific about it. Things have really -- it's been a great week for the democrats in that special election. First of all, I didn't think they could get Liz Mathis to run, they did and she is going to be an extraordinarily strong candidate. She is a household name having been a very popular news anchor in that community, having grown up on a farm near there, now working for a non-profit agency. We have a terrific candidate and we have an organization and an effort that the Iowa Democratic Party under Sue Dvorsky will put on that will be very strong. The republicans didn't get who they wanted as their candidate. The Governor and the legislative leaders all wanted the same candidate, she is gone. Cindy Golding is kind of a curious choice in a numbers of ways not the least of which is she has lost a prior legislative race in this area and secondly she was an Ed Fallon for Governor contributor which just strikes me as a bit odd if you want to gather favor in the rural part of that district.
Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, your take on that race?
Mahaffey: I think it will be a very interesting race. I think the democrats did choose well in choosing Liz Mathis.
Glover: How did the republicans do?
Mahaffey: I think they did fine. Look, the bottom line is this, that state senate race is probably going to be decided -- there's going to be a lot of money put into there by traditional marriage groups and pro-gay marriage groups but I think the economy probably is still the overriding issue that concerns people and I think that favors the republicans.
Glover: Let's go there, Mr. Mahaffey, if we could. What kind of an effort are republicans going to put into that race? How much have you spent on it? How much organizational effort?
Mahaffey: It will be huge on both sides. I mean, this is really, between now and November 8th I would not want to be a resident of that state senate district.
Borg: Why is that?
Mahaffey: Well, because they're just going to be inundated to be quite honest with you. They're going to have to turn the phones off. There's going to be a tremendous amount of money, probably $250,000 at least on each side, but, again, I think the bottom line is that it will be the economy that is going to determine that and I think that favors the republicans.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, same question to you. What kind of effort will democrats put into this race? What can Liz Mathis expect in terms of support from the party, from the state organization?
Crawford: Well, first of all, special elections are won by two things. They are won by candidate selection and they are won by organization. Candidate selection, advantage democrats. Organization, this will be, as Mike says, this is going to be ground zero from an organizational side, effort from both sides and Liz Mathis will have absolutely everything she needs from the top to the bottom, congressional help, state party help, local help, activist help. We will not be out-organized in this race.
Henderson: Well, let's talk about what this race means in terms of voter attitudes. There are a lot of people who are saying this is a referendum on President Obama. There are a lot of people who are saying this is a referendum on the economy. As you mentioned there will be groups that will try to make this a referendum on gay marriage. Mr. Crawford, what will this be a referendum on?
Crawford: I think it will be a referendum on Liz Mathis and Cindy Golding and which of them seems more authentic and capable of going to Des Moines and working to make sure that Iowans have good jobs to support their families. I don't think it is going to get caught up in all those other things. First of all, I'm sure the candidates will do their best to keep that from happening.
Henderson: Well, for the benefit of ...
Mahaffey: If I were a democrat I would certainly keep that from happening and it would be a referendum on President Obama because I think if that's the case the democrats lose.
Henderson: Well, this district is the city of Marion and then a bunch of small towns and rural areas in sort of the northern and western parts of Linn County. As someone who lives sort of near there what does that district say about voter attitudes? Is it different from if it was a truly urban district?
Mahaffey: It's a mixture and my dear friend the late Mary Lundby represented, you know, she was from Marion, a lot of independents, Kay. I think 38%, 39% of the registered voters are independents. So, you're going to have to appeal to those people. It's a mixture of urban and rural, there's a slight registration edge between republicans and democrats to republicans but a very competitive district.
Henderson: How would you compare or contrast this with what happened in Wisconsin, Mr. Crawford?
Crawford: Well, I don't think you have the same level of vitriol at all. I certainly know nothing about Liz Mathis that indicates that she would engage in that kind of public display of hostility and I don't have any reason to think Cindy Golding would either. So, I think that's a bad comparison.
Henderson: But how do you resist the temptation on the part of people outside of that district to make it a race that is about the outside of the district rather than what is inside the district?
Mahaffey: Well, I don't know that you resist it entirely but I think what people are focused on at the present time, first and foremost, is the economy. And because of that, again, I think that does favor the republican candidate.
Borg: I go back to the old slogan, all politics is local. Jerry Crawford, you seem to be saying that all politics is local and in this case candidate selection was important, people are going to be voting for high profile name recognition. Mr. Mahaffey, you seem to be saying, no, it's going to be -- the economy will determine that. That's what I wrote down that you're saying. So, you're saying in this case it's not going to be local.
Mahaffey: Well, it will be local to some extent and I give the democrats credit. Liz Mathis is a very good candidate. But sometimes there's things that overtake even local elections. People are very concerned right now. There is a lot of anxiety across this nation particularly among what I would call middle class voters and there are a lot of those voters in this state senate district. And I just think that the trend at the present time is not particularly favorable to the democrats and because of that, if that's where the focus is and that's where people base their vote on then I think the republicans have a good chance to pick up that senate seat.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, this whole election that we're talking about right now came about because Governor Branstad picked Swati Dandekar to go on the Iowa Utilities Board, in effect Governor Branstad put the state senate in play. Is he interfering too much in legislative business?
Crawford: You know, what amuses me, Mike, is that whenever my side does that we are quite taken with ourselves for our cleverness and whenever the other side does it we're supposed to think that it's a dastardly deed. Look, it was political but it was well played. It's not as if he picked somebody that isn't qualified to be in the Iowa Utilities Board, it's not as if he didn't pick someone who frankly had some relationships in the state senate in her own caucus that she didn't enjoy and the reverse was also true. So, perfectly within his right to do what he did. I am surprised they didn't have it a little more dialed in and a little more nailed down before the Swati Dandekar announcement was made with a candidate that they knew they could get people energetic about. I mean ...
Glover: That was the second question I had. We spoke with Sue Dvorsky at Harkin's Steak Fry and she said she was shocked that it wasn't announcement one day of resignation, announcement next day of election date, announcement next day of this is our candidate.
Crawford: Also known in some circles as the Vilsack model, back to my point about both sides are capable of doing exactly this, yeah. That's right and they didn't even get the candidate they thought they were going to get. I mean, look, I don't know anything bad about Cindy Golding at all but the fact that she is an organic farmer doesn't energize the Iowa Farm Bureau necessarily and they are a big part of this district.
Mahaffey: But she has a good relationship with Iowa Farm Bureau. I think she is a fine candidate. Look, there were three candidates, there were three people that wanted to be the candidate and so the republicans had a choice to make. I think it was more incumbent upon the democrats to do what they did and not have it go to, I mean, to pick their candidate. And they particularly wanted to have Liz Mathis because of her TV personality, the fact that she's been around a long time. It shows you that they really knew that they had to get somebody like this to really even have a chance in this district under the present circumstances.
Glover: And I'd like, Mr. Mahaffey, to direct this question to you because it is a republican question. It's something I hear a lot about this governor. It is said that this governor, Terry Branstad, is a different Terry Branstad than the previous Terry Branstad when he was governor. He's more confrontational, he is more divisive, he is forcing issues on the legislature. The former governor was kind of a deal cutter, he made deals everywhere. A lot of people suggest that that means that he is going to be a one-term governor and he is grooming Kim Reynolds to be Iowa's first woman governor. What do you hear about that?
Mahaffey: I think that he is grooming Kim Reynolds to run for governor so that she could be the first woman elected governor in the state of Iowa. I am not so sure that he is a one-term governor. I have known Terry Branstad for over 40 years. We were in college republicans at the University of Iowa together. If there's anything that he enjoys more than the give and take of politics and being governor I really don't know, well, he loves his wife and his family I know, but if there's anything he enjoys more than what he's doing now I don't know what that is.
Glover: Mr. Crawford?
Crawford: Well, I was chuckling when the inference was made that Terry would, that Governor Branstad would be a one-term governor. I think he loves doing what he's doing and I would be surprised if he didn't seek a second term.
Henderson: What democrat is positioning him or herself to challenge Terry Branstad?
Crawford: You know, I think a lot of people are thinking about it. I have talked with some people that are thinking about it. I think it's up to them in their own time to make their interests known. But I think all of us should be focused on what we can do to make the state stronger and there's plenty of time for the political life of the governorship later.
Henderson: There might be an election forthcoming in the Iowa Senate. The interesting thing about that meeting that democrats in Linn County had this week was that Senator Bill Dix was in the room, he is a person who would like to be senate republican leader. The current person who holds that title was not in the room, Paul McKinley. Is there something happening in the senate republican caucus, Mr. Mahaffey?
Mahaffey: Not that I'm aware of. I mean, Paul McKinley was under a lot of pressure before the last election but picked up six senate seats. I think that helped him solidify his position. Look, Bill Dix I think is more of the political operative, if you will, among the two of those. But Paul McKinley is still getting around. At this point I don't anticipate that there's some kind of challenge there but I'm not sure Paul McKinley will be the leader of the republican senators for that much longer period of time but I think that will be his choice.
Crawford: Mike needs to get out more. I've talked with highly placed republicans just this week who have indicated to me it is a done deal. Senator Dix is going to challenge Senator McKinley for the senate leadership position. The issue isn't whether he gained six seats last time, the issue is how he could have failed to gain the majority on such an opportunity and I think Dix will be the next senate leader regardless of majority or minority.
Borg: Mr. Mahaffey, talking about leadership, let's go to the other side of the aisle but I'd ask you about what is this candidate selection and the managing of getting a candidate fielded after the surprise appointment of Swati Dundekar, what do you say about Mike Gronstal's leadership coming in and maybe even pulling a coup?
Mahaffey: Well, it says that the democrats really knew that they were faced with a difficult proposition and they needed to get somebody who could start in a shortened election time between now and November 8th who had some name recognition. Liz Mathis has that name recognition. The fact of the matter is this is ground zero, this is very important. It's not only important in terms of this race, it is also important in terms of the race that Senator Mike Gronstal is going to have in 2012 in his state senate district which will be another hugely expensive race.
Crawford: It is an example, Dean, of why there is no elected official in the state of Iowa that I have greater respect for than Mike Gronstal. He is great for our state, he is great for Council Bluffs and he is great for my party.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, let's start with you. There are a couple of congressional elections and only a couple that are interesting in this coming election cycle. One of them is here in central Iowa where you have an incumbent republican, Tom Latham, an incumbent democrat, Leonard Boswell matched together in the same district with roughly even voter registration. Handicap that race for me.
Crawford: Boy, it's a tough race from either side. You know, I think obviously Tom Latham knows he can't take Leonard Boswell for granted because there is a very large graveyard of people who made that mistake. Leonard always does better than people expect him to do, he always runs very strongly outside of Polk County as well as doing a good job inside Polk County and Latham conversely, partly through his relationship with the speaker, is going to have nearly unlimited financial resources and he is an attractive candidate. So, I think this is going to be a real fifteen round heavyweight fight.
Glover: Mr. Mahaffey? Take a look at that same race. Both of them are well connected with the leadership of their party ...
Mahaffey: I think they'll both have plenty of money. I think Congressman Latham will probably have more money. The thing that favors Congressman Latham is just the timing of this. If you had President Obama at 55% to 56%, 57% approval rating and the economy was in better shape I think that would be -- it's still going to be a close race but I think you have to favor, under the present circumstances you're going to have to favor Tom Latham. They're both going to have plenty of money, they're both experienced politicians. With all things being equal I think it favors Latham because of the timing.
Glover: Let's go west. Congressman Steve King faces a challenge from democrat Christie Vilsack, a former first lady. The registration in that district is overwhelmingly republican. Does she have a shot?
Mahaffey: I don't see where her sense of place in that district is. She now lives in Ames which is probably more favorable territory for her. But I think the vast majority of that district is going to be difficult for her. One of the things about that district, that district is one of the most profoundly pro-life congressional districts in America. Catholic-Lutheran, Christian reformed, reformed, the people up there pro-life is in their DNA and I think that creates a problem for Mrs. Vilsack.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, I think that Christie Vilsack could probably get elected to the Ames City Council pretty easily. Can she get elected to that congressional district? Make the case for Christie Vilsack in a heavily rural overwhelmingly republican district.
Crawford: Well, you can call it overwhelmingly republican but it is not the overwhelmingly republican district that Steve King has been used to and been able to take for granted.
Borg: Why? Because it is redistricted?
Crawford: Yes, exactly and this is a district, the new congressional district is a district that Tom Vilsack carried both times when he ran for governor. Tom Harkin has carried this new congressional district. That's not exactly a right wing, pro-life kind of candidate. The thing that makes Christie Vilsack unique at exactly the right time is that she's not a partisan. What she is, is one of the best listeners I've ever known and she is one of the best storytellers I've ever known and when she goes to one community she is able to relate in a very conversational style what she learned at another community.
Borg: But go back to redistricting. What has been brought into that district now that changes the composition there?
Crawford: The district goes more east in the northern part of the state and it goes less south in the western part of the state and it is a better district for democrats, definitely better than it was before redistricting.
Mahaffey: But I guess the other thing is I think you'd almost have to have a perfect storm for Mrs. Vilsack to win in that district and it's not going to be a perfect storm for the democrats in the year 2012. The registration isn't as much as it used to be but it's still something like 40,000.
Borg: 40,000 advantage for the republicans?
Mahaffey: Right. If 2012 ends up being a very good democratic year, which I do not believe it will be, she would have a chance. Absent that I just don't see that happening.
Henderson: Let’s talk about ...
Borg: Jerry had a comment.
Crawford: I just wanted to say, I don't think that this is going to be a democratic or a republican congressional year. I think it's going to be an anti-incumbent congressional year. Recent polling nationwide shows that only 33% of voters think their own member of Congress should be re-elected. This is a tough time for somebody like Steve King who has Iowa's highest unfavorability rating of any member of our congressional delegation to take on a new district that is better for the democrats against an opponent of the caliber of Christie Vilsack.
Mahaffey: Are you going to take that to the bank, Jerry?
Crawford: We'll wait and see.
Henderson: Gentlemen, there is an issue that affects both of those districts about which we have been talking about. Latham and Boswell will be talking about this, Vilsack and King will be talking about that is the Missouri River corridor and the flooding that has gone on there. We had two votes in the U.S. House this week and it is a muddled message that these candidates are going to take to the 2012 election. In the Latham/Boswell race Latham voted for the bill that provided flood relief and also kept the government running, Boswell voted against it. Mr. Mahaffey, how will that vote play in that district?
Mahaffey: Well, I think that that vote will be helpful to Tom Latham. They both have ties to the agricultural community. Tom Latham's family has been involved in the seed business for many, many years. Tom Latham has been in Washington, D.C. long enough, he is what I would call a traditional conservative, he understands that the government does have a role to play in matters such as this and I think that that vote will be of help to him in this congressional race.
Henderson: Will it hurt Boswell?
Crawford: I don't think that vote is going to be a focus in this race at all. I think that nationally the issue is going to become which side has the better narrative to create jobs and get our country and our economy back on track.
Henderson: Steve King also voted against that bill and republicans sent out a news release from Washington, D.C. criticizing Boswell for voting no but not saying a thing about King.
Mahaffey: Well, that was a republican news release. If there had been a democratic news release it would have read the opposite.
Borg: Let's switch a little bit here to presidential politics. What about the caucus' relevance this time, Mr. Mahaffey?
Mahaffey: I think the caucuses are still very important. I received a telephone call from a national political correspondent this week about the fact that the story is that Romney has decided he is going to play more here in Iowa. I think the relevancy of the caucuses is still fairly strong. If Romney decides that he is going to spend more time here I think it becomes even more interesting.
Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, I'd like to turn to that fully now. Handicap the republican field for me.
Mahaffey: At this point in time in Iowa I would say if the caucuses were held tomorrow Rick Perry probably would win. I think Ron Paul -- Ron Paul has the most fervent and intense supporters of anybody in the state of Iowa. Now, I don't think he is going to win the caucuses but he keeps hanging in there in a fairly strong position and I think he is in a position where at this point he could finish among the top three.
Glover: We're told that among the republican field Rick Perry and Mitt Romney are the leading contenders, one of them is likely to be the nominee with Michele Bachmann as kind of a wild card out there. Is that an accurate assessment on your part?
Mahaffey: Probably in Iowa -- Michele Bachmann has to do well here. She is not doing particularly well in national polls are the present time. She still has a chance to do better here in Iowa. The thing about Rick Perry is he is the flavor of the month but the problem with being a flavor of the month every time we've had a flavor of the month in the party after that month is up somebody is looking for a new flavor. There is a lot of interest in the Republican Party across this state and across this nation in getting somebody who can defeat Barack Obama and that is the bottom line for most republicans.
Glover: Mr. Crawford, let's go to you. First of all, assess the field. And then two, can Barack Obama carry this state and win re-election? Make the case for that.
Crawford: The first question about the republican field is one of my favorites currently. This field is a disaster. They have no one in this field that can take a fight to Barack Obama even though he has been struggling. If you look at Rick Perry he gets worse every time he stands on a stage with his fellow candidates. He is a gaffe machine and it is indicative of the fact that he got in late and has put this campaign together on the fly and he has to live with what he wrote in his own book calling Social Security unconstitutional and a ponzi scheme. You've got Mitt Romney recently referred to as a shiny plastic humanoid of a candidate.
Mahaffey: Is that a democratic reference?
Crawford: No, actually. That guy's idea of a conviction is when somebody gets arrested for drunk driving. He stands for nothing. His own supporters from Iowa from four years ago aren't even for him.
Glover: Mr. Mahaffey.
Mahaffey: Let me give you one startling statistic. Since 1948 the number of months in America where the unemployment rate has been 9% or higher, over half of those months since 1948 have taken place during Barack Obama's administration. Whomever the republican candidate is, is going to be able to take a fight to President Obama.
Glover: Are you going to have to deal with that at some point during the campaign?
Crawford: Look, I'm not going to sit here and say that Barack Obama hasn't struggled although I do think he is back up on his toes and off his heels as we sit here today. But setting that aside, in Iowa his unfavorability rating has been too high but he still beats all this republican field by double digits and I would suggest that Iowans know the republican field better than anyone else in the country. They find them wanting. Bruce Rastetter should keep his jet fueled up and turned on and make regular trips to see Chris Christie and Mitch Daniels.
Henderson: Gentlemen, let's talk about the calendar. When are the caucuses to be held? Will they be held in the first week in January, Mr. Mahaffey?
Mahaffey: They will be held whenever it means that we stay first in the nation. I think we're probably looking at January now. Hopefully we're not looking at before the first of the year.
Henderson: Mr. Crawford, that turned out well for both parties last time to have it the first week of January, people had time off between the holidays, they got really engaged, there was huge turnout. What is wrong with having it in the first week of January?
Crawford: Well, I chaired the Clinton campaign so I'm not sure how well it turned out for me. But setting that aside, this is a very simple question. Bill Gardner, the Secretary of State in New Hampshire, will ultimately set around Thanksgiving time the date of the New Hampshire primary and Iowa will be sometime in the eight preceding days. It's just that simple.
Henderson: I don't think Mr. Crawford is going to endorse one of the republican candidates. Mr. Mahaffey, do you intend to do so?
Mahaffey: I have not at this time and I don't know whether I will or not. Let me say one other thing about President Obama though. The best thing he has going for him right now is that the last name of his opponent in 2012 will not be generic because if it were at this point he'd be losing.
Crawford: That is a very fair point and it is the answer to Mike's question. Obama will win, he'll win Iowa and the reason is it's not a yes or no referendum, he gets to run against a real live person and if it is one of this bunch, please.
Glover: What role do you expect to play in that campaign?
Crawford: I'll do anything they ask me to.
Glover: Mr. Mahaffey, what role do you expect to play in the republican campaign?
Mahaffey: I will support the republican candidate. The stakes are very high this time and I will do whatever is necessary to get him or her elected.
Glover: We only have about 30 seconds left. You are known as a moderate republican.
Mahaffey: I am moderate.
Glover: Are there any left?
Crawford: There are three.
Glover: You and two of your friends. Have moderate republicans just gone away?
Mahaffey: They haven't. Some of them have become independents. More of them need to get out to the caucuses. More traditional republicans could make a difference. And let me say this, I'm not so sure that the field is set. I think there is going to be at least one other person enter this race before the end of the year.
Borg: We're out of time. Thank you, Mike and Jerry. Always a lively discussion and I'm glad today we kept it non-partisan. We'll be back next weekend with Iowa's first district congressman democrat Bruce Braley here at the Iowa Press table. You'll see Congressman Braley at the usual Iowa Press airtimes, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.