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Sue Dvorsky and Matt Strawn Discuss the 2012 Caucus and Primary Calendar

posted on October 7, 2011

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Getting organized.  That is the challenge facing Iowa's two major political parties.  With 2012's general election only 13 months away political strategies are moving quickly into place and we're getting details from the chairs of Iowa's two major political parties, democrat Sue Dvorsky and republican Matt Strawn on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: If you like politics you've got to love Iowa these days.  Take your choice, you'll find campaigns underway with county, state and national implications with issues to match.  Nationally there's a game going on that is somewhat a combination of chess and chicken.  States envying Iowa's attention and influence with the first-in-the-nation presidential preference caucuses are now jockeying for earlier slots in the primary calendar pushing Iowa and New Hampshire still earlier, maybe into the holidays.  Iowa's incumbent congressmen campaigning for re-election are getting acquainted with new districts while still representing constituents in the former districts.  Population shifts forcing redistricting and eliminating one of Iowa's current five congressional districts.  The same goes for the Iowa House and Senate districts.  Republicans currently holding a 20 vote majority in the House but currently down two votes in the Senate where democrats are holding control, but here's another Iowa drama again, a special election in northern Linn County next month jeopardizing democrat's control of the Iowa Senate.  Well, there's far more but I think it's clear that Iowa's two major political party chairs are managing full agendas these days.  Democrat Sue Dvorsky and republican Matt Strawn, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Dvorsky: Thanks, Dean.

Borg: We're going to talk about all of those things.  And across the Iowa Press table Senior Political Writer for the Associated Press Mike Glover and Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson.

Glover: Chairman Strawn, let's start with you.  The biggest question out there is the Iowa republican caucuses.  What can we expect?  We've had Florida say they're going to go on January 31st.  We've had Nevada say they're going to go on January 14th.  Where is Iowa in all this?

Strawn: It's great to be here and it's great to start on a topic, probably the only one that we'll agree on during the program is making sure that Iowa retains its first-in-the-nation status that we've had for decades but also that we make sure that we're playing a role in putting sanity in this process.  I think one thing I hear from Iowans as I talk to them and I talk to republican leaders nationally is that we want to make sure that this is a process that still begins in January.  I don't think anyone wants to see the process go into the Christmas and the holiday season.  So, when Nevada set a January 14th date what that set in motion for your viewers who may not know New Hampshire law, their Secretary of State is directed by statute not to set a primary date 7 days before a like contest and if he views that Nevada's caucus is a like contest that raises the prospect of New Hampshire having a date no later than Saturday, January 7th.  So, we may very well be in a situation like we were four years ago where there was less than that eight day window between Iowa and New Hampshire.  But I know talking to republican leaders I had a statewide call with my executive committee Thursday night and we're almost uniform in making sure that we did everything necessary to keep the Iowa caucuses in January but we're still continuing to talk with our counterparts in New Hampshire.  I had an opportunity to speak with Secretary Gardner yesterday and we're going to keep those lines of communication open to hopefully make sure we can reach resolution that doesn't push this into December.

Glover: So, what is a likely date?

Strawn: Well, I'm not going to have a date yet today, Mike.  But we're still working through those conversations with our counterparts in New Hampshire.  But we're going to do everything we can to avoid pushing the caucuses into later this year.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, democrats and republicans, you don't have a caucus contest this year but democrats and republicans traditionally go on the same day.  Will that happen again this time?

Dvorsky: It absolutely will.  We don't have a nominating contest but what we've got is the necessity to organize democrats across the state to get ready for what is coming in 2012.  Matt has done a great job with this and this has been a really difficult and tough slag.  But there was a great gathering last night where some old hands got together and talked about the history of this and how critical it is and I think that often people who don't understand this process as well as we may all understand it take the tone that it is a bit of a game and it is a bit of a political back and forth.  But honestly this is the process that starts the election of the President of the greatest and most important country in the world.  It is not for amateurs, it is not bean bag.  And so our good friends and partners in New Hampshire and we here in Iowa understand the enormity of this thing.  This is not just a privilege we have, it is a responsibility.  And so I commend Chairman Strawn, I commend Chairman Priebus and I know that they are working closely with our good friends in New Hampshire and I know that that firewall of going into the previous calendar year, I am confident that that will not be breached.

Glover: Chairman Strawn, you have a lot of people who are very interested in when this caucus date is going to be.  What kind of time pressure do you face to say, okay candidates, this is when it's going to be?  When do you need to tell them that?

Strawn: Well, sooner rather than later.  Secretary of State Gardner has said that New Hampshire won't set their date for at least another couple of weeks.  I've indicated both publicly and privately that Iowa may need to go sooner than that because it is not just letting our candidates know but we need to organize up to 1700 precincts around the state and that is reserving community buildings, that is reserving elementary schools, gymnasiums and there's a lot of lifting that goes on organizationally with the caucuses in addition to letting, of course, our candidates know exactly what the date will be.  So, I'm hoping sooner rather than later we can have a date and some resolution on this.

Glover: So, within a week or so you think you'll have a date?

Strawn: I would hope to very shortly.  But it's imperative, as Sue talked about, for the process, for the voters, for the candidates if we can keep this in January and start the process in January of 2012.  I think it not only serves the long-term best interests of the presidential nomination process but it also, during this current cycle, I think it benefits the voters and the candidates to do so ...

Glover: The speculation we hear is January 3rd is a likely date.

Strawn: I'm not prepared to talk about a date today and I don't believe Chairman Dvorsky is either but we're going to continue to monitor the situation and do what is necessary to prevent us caucus or wrapping Christmas gifts.

Henderson: Mrs. Dvorsky, last time around democrats and republicans in Iowa waited around for New Hampshire's Secretary of State who has been in that office since I believe 1976 to set the date.  Would you advise republicans to set the date now and not wait for him?

Dvorsky: I would advise Matt to continue on the path that he is on which is a path of continuing to try to work this thing out in the collegial and partnership manner.  We didn't announce until October 28th last time.  So, there is still some time.  We are not up against the worst of it but I absolutely concur with Matt on this, it's 1700 precincts, it is a heavy lift for the county activists to get this thing set up.  So, we are caucusing in every precinct as well as they are, a different process no doubt but hoping that we can -- we still have a little time.

Henderson: You mentioned, Mr. Strawn, the seven day requirement, a New Hampshire law that they hold their primary before a similar event.  Isn't there an Iowa law in this regard as well?

Strawn: Well, there is but using recent history as a guidepost in 2008 there was only a five day window between Iowa and New Hampshire.  Iowa went on January 3rd and New Hampshire went on January 8th and I think both the democrat and republican caucuses had record turnout here in Iowa and the New Hampshire primary did not want for attention either.  So, using historical precedents, a shorter window is something that has been done but it also hasn't really dampened turnout or enthusiasm.

Glover: Tell me a little bit more about what you had in this discussion with your central committee members.

Strawn: Well, I was looking for clear guidance on what their preference was relative to a date and almost uniformly republicans around the state want to make sure that we are going in January because they understand trying to push this into the holiday season doesn't serve either the best interests of Iowa long-term nor does it serve the best interests of the voters and the candidates.

Borg: Kay, you have another question?

Henderson: Dean mentioned both chess and chicken.  There is also a fruit basket upset which is an old game.  As the RNC in this case seems to be a toothless tiger, Mr. Strawn, what sort of sanctions should the states who have jumped ahead, leapfrogged ahead suffer?

Strawn: Well, first and foremost relative to Florida they will lose half of their delegates at the convention in Tampa next August.  The other thing I have called on, Florida actually set up a special committee, a super committee, if you will, to actually set the date for their primary and that had the speaker of the Florida House, the majority leader.  Every one of those republicans on that special committee in Florida should be denied credentialed seating, any speaking involvement in Tampa.  That is the bare minimum.  Now party rules that anything that happens from this point on has to happen prospectively at a future nomination process that would happen in 2016.  I would recommend and we've had a conversation with some early states one option would be if a state violates the primary calendar they would forfeit auto delegates potentially to be spread out and reallocated among those early states that were forced to move up.

Henderson: Well, and then they get the big prize, they get to host the convention in Tampa.

Strawn: And that is something when Chairman Steele made the decision to select Tampa, which we of course did at the RNC as well, going forward I would strongly recommend and advise having a clause in that agreement that the state that hosts the convention also make sure that they are compliant with the rules of the primary and caucus calendar.

Borg: Speaking of -- you had a comment, Ms. Dvorsky?

Dvorsky: Well, I was just going to point out that that's one of the things that is important for us all to remember.  Iowa and New Hampshire have been put in this spot and that is why I think that Matt is doing the right thing by continuing to work with our friends and partners in New Hampshire.  We've been put in this spot.  There are no good solutions left anymore.  There are priorities, keeping it in 2012.  But there is no good solution.  What he's looking for from his exec board is trying to get where's your priorities, what is the worst, what is the thing you want to avoid most.  So, I think that it is important for us to remember this isn't any move that we made.

Borg: You have been taking the global long range view in our conversation here.  Isn't this also, Mrs. Dvorsky, threatening Iowa's influence in this caucus and in future caucuses?  If this continues to happen in succeeding years doesn't Iowa lose the prestige and the influence of having first-in-the-nation caucuses?

Dvorsky: Well, honestly I would suggest and I may actually have to throw this to Matt because I think actually this compression actually highlights, certainly in this time, it really highlights the need here in Iowa for these candidates to do well because if you compress that schedule.  Now, you know, in '16 we always, this is a calendar and a conversation and a battle that we fight all the time.  Somebody has to go first.  I would submit that the professionalism and the seriousness with which we take this is a good reason for why we do go first and I think that one of the things that will work well for Matt or whoever follows him or me or whoever follows me to go to the DNC and the RNC and say, this works.  I think that that is something that we do every four years and have to struggle with.

Borg: I don't quite see, Mr. Strawn, how this can enhance Iowa's influence because if you're truncating the nomination process with each state it gives -- candidates can't spend as much time in Iowa, they have got to worry about New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and everybody else in a very short period of time not spending as much time in Iowa.

Strawn: Well, actually I would argue the inverse, Dean.  I think it's almost ironic in trying to exert more influence over the process.  Florida, they may well have their decisions greatly narrowed by the time it gets to Florida because if you don't do well in Iowa you're not going to be part of the conversation going forward.  And right now Iowa when you look at the polling and the republican caucus it is wide open and all the attention is going to be who is gaining momentum at the end of the Iowa caucuses and who is going to be able to use the caucuses as a springboard.   But right now you don't necessarily have that in the New Hampshire primary where there is great uncertainty as to exactly who the first, second or third people are.  So, I think there is going to be tremendous attention and focus on Iowa and if you don't do well in the Iowa caucuses I don't want to say it's a death now but it's going to make it very difficult to recover given the compressed schedule.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, I'd like you to take one step back and look at reality.  The reality is I haven't seen a lot of candidates running around Iowa.  Candidates, as Dean has suggested, are paying attention to Iowa but they are paying attention to a lot of other states very early on in the process.  You talked about sanctions against states that violate this.  That has never happened in the past.  There have been sanctions in the past that in the real world we all live in Florida is a very important state in the general election.  Nobody wants to anger Florida heading into a general election so they may sanction during the primary season but they go away after that.  What makes you think it will be different this time?

Strawn: Well, let me adjust the first part of your question.  Actually we talked about the candidate activity in Iowa.  Let's make sure we compare apples to apples.  The same thing is happening in Iowa that is happening in South Carolina, that is happening in New Hampshire and the other early states is that there is a general lower level of candidate activity than we all saw in the historic 2008 caucus season.

Glover: Why is that?

Strawn: Well, I think it's the demands of fundraising, it's demand of a schedule that was create to allow for four early states and quite frankly it has been an unsettled field.  Right now different candidates have different strategies on how often they are going to be in the early states.  So, I think if you're comparing Iowa to the other states we're doing just fine with the amount of candidate attention and visits that we're getting.  In fact, I would argue if you look at the empirical data we're seeing more candidate activity than any of the other early states.  But specific to your point on sanctions, we need to make sure the RNC, and I have had this conversation with Chairman Priebus, that the rules are what they are, put some teeth into them and enforce them.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, what is your assessment of what you've seen among the republican field?  Some of us think that the level of activity that we've seen in this caucus campaign has been lesser than in past years.  What is your take on it?

Dvorsky: Well, I do think that it is not a state secret that the front runner, the punitive front runner and then he sort of slips in and out, Governor Romney's absence from this conversation I think is becoming more problematic I think for the process. 

Borg: From the conversation, the campaigning intensely in Iowa?  Is that what you're saying?

Dvorsky: Yes.  I think, you know, whatever is going on with the calendar he's got -- it's amazing to me that he is not coming.

Glover: Well, if you look at history in the last election cycle the eventual republican nominee, John McCain took a pass on Iowa.

Dvorsky: He did.

Glover: And Mitt Romney, the punitive favorite this time, is apparently doing the same thing.  Isn't that setting a precedent?

Dvorsky: In the last election cycle Barack Obama blew this state out.  Now, there are different risks of the battleground states.  Last night Yepsen said there were going to be six at the end, I've heard up to ten or eleven.  But on every single one of those lists Iowa is on it.  This isn't just about -- I think for Mitt Romney and I think for the eventual, whoever the eventual republican nominee is, this isn't just about first-in-the-nation in the caucuses, this is about last in the nation on that night and on that weekend.  I just find it astonishing that candidates who are purporting to be front runners aren't here.  I think it's going to be problematic for whoever that candidate is at the end to come back.  One of the mistakes that Senator McCain made, it was his vote against the farm bill was his vote against the farm bill but I think there were a lot of people who thought that at least had he been here, had he known more, had a personal relationship with people and understood parts of that, that would have stood him in good stead.

Henderson: Final quick question about this caucus date discussion.  When it boils down to it for the caucus state for the next go around in 2016 doesn't it matter who is in the White House?  If the President likes the caucuses Iowa will be first, if the President doesn't Iowa will no longer be first?  Isn't that the reality, Mr. Strawn.

Strawn: Well, of course the President has I guess a major influence in the position there but I'm hoping for us it is a moot point because we'll have a republican incumbent that is running in 2016.

Dvorsky: Barack Obama's win is going to mean that the caucus discussion in 2016 is not nearly as fraught with disaster.  They have worked for him before, they'll work for him again.

Strawn: Here's the one point -- there are very few things that Barack Obama and George W. Bush have in common but the one thing they do have in common is their path to the White House started by winning the Iowa caucuses.  So, any suggestion that Iowa is not a state that picks presidents or isn't relevant is just nonsense in the revisionist history.

Borg: Let's move to the special election over in northern Linn County, Cindy Golding and Liz Mathis.  Your candidate, Mr. Strawn, is Cindy Golding.  Why is she the best to represent that district in the Iowa Senate?

Strawn: Well, Cindy is a fantastic fit for the people of that district because she is creating jobs there and she understands right now that the, not only the state, the entire state and the country we need people in positions of power with relevance in the Iowa Senate that understand what it takes for small businesses to create jobs and so that is regulatory burdens, it is a certainty in a tax structure and Cindy has that background that quite frankly we need.  What we don't need in the Iowa Senate is one more democrat vote for one party rule that will stand in the way of some of Governor Branstad's proposals to start lessening the property tax burden on our small businesses.

Borg: How is she going to overcome name recognition?

Strawn: Hard work.  I'm sure the parties can agree on this -- this is a race that is going to be won on the ground and it is going to be won by the people of that district identifying with our candidate on this and it is knocking doors, it is getting our people out that understand what a 25th vote means in the Iowa Senate.

Borg: Mrs. Dvorsky, is that how it's going to be won or is it going to be won on name recognition or is it going to be won with shoe leather?

Dvorsky: Special elections are always their own animal.  They always have the set of factors about that district. 

Borg: Why can Liz Mathis better represent that district?

Dvorsky: She is a sterling candidate with name recognition but that's not the only reason.  Liz Mathis is a fabulous fit for that district and I would also point out that this special -- Cindy Golding doesn't actually live in the new lines -- you talked a little bit about the shifting -- the new lines of senate district 18.  So, I think that this -- there is going to be enormous shoe leather and all kinds of other resources put into this and Liz Mathis' election will put her in place to run again in 2012 to run in a general election and I think that that is a problem for Ms. Golding up there.  I also think that Liz Mathis is a person -- it isn't just the name recognition, she is -- she left a broadcast career to go to work for Four Oaks and work on children, family, child welfare issues directly and that is what she works on in the lobby of the statehouse and that is what people want to talk about up there.  I think we talk about the senate majority but I've been on the doors every weekend since this thing happened in Marion, these people, there's nobody living in a regular house in Marion who is thinking about the senate majority, they're thinking about jobs, school, their kids' welfare.

Glover: Mr. Strawn, I was talking to Cindy Golding this past week and she made the point that should she win this election it will not mean a republican takeover of the Iowa Senate, it will mean a tied Iowa Senate.  What happens if there is a tied Iowa Senate?  The last time there was a tied Iowa Senate was after a general election in 2004.  What happens if it is tied?

Strawn: That is a decision the senate leaders will have to make, the republican senators working together with Mike Gronstal and his team to understand what happens in that scenario.  But relative to Cindy I think it is going to be decided on local issues and it is an economy in Iowa that still needs more impetus in letting small businesses create jobs, it is having a senate that is actually allowing some things to come up for debate that have come from the republican House and have come from Governor Branstad's agenda.  I think that is the importance of the 25th vote, not just to the people of Iowa but to the people of that district and having that voice and having somebody that is a fighter.  If you look at the electorate right now people are scared, people are nervous, they are nervous about their own economic security and in Cindy Golding we have a fighter, we have somebody that has actually gone out there and created jobs in that district and that will understand that you need an aggressive advocate and that's something that district has had whether it was Swati Dandekar, whether it was Mary Lundby, it was somebody they knew that was going to be a fighter that would do the right thing regardless of partisan affiliation.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, the same question to you.  Your household has some interest in this and since your husband sits in the Iowa Senate what happens if it is a tied Iowa Senate?  Who picks committee chairs?  Who decides what gets debated?  What happens mechanically?

Dvorsky: Well, what happened last time was Stu Iverson got together with Mike Gronstal and they worked the thing out.  Now, I will say that there is no -- failure is not an option here so Bob and I don't sit around talking about what's going to happen when they go 25-25 because that isn't going to happen.  But this is not Stu Iverson's republican senate caucus.  We just all witnessed, those of us who enjoy this kind of inside baseball conversation, that the senate republican caucus is fractured, to put it mildly, so I don't know what happens.  They will have to figure out who they are going to negotiate with to set up that equal playing field.  I just don't think it's going to come to that.  I hope it doesn't because this will not be -- it was relatively easy last time.  I remember it as being that, they sat down, they made the deal, 25-25, they had co-chairs of the committees.  This is a different climate so I don't know, that will be up to Senator Gronstal and whoever the leader is.

Henderson: I do not live in Marion, Iowa but there is door knocking going on in my legislative district because there is a primary coming up and people are actively campaigning for 2012 for house seats.  There has been a reapportionment.  What is the prospect for party control remaining the same, Mr. Strawn, in the Iowa legislature?  Or will there be seismic changes?

Strawn: I'm very confident we'll be able to retain a majority in the Iowa House.  Speaker Paulsen, Leader Upmeyer have done a fantastic job leading that caucus and candidate recruitment actually is leaps and bounds compared to what it was even two years ago when we had a great crop that ushered in that majority so I'm confident that not only will they have the resources at their disposal but they have got good candidates that are reflective of the communities they're looking to serve and I think the issue environment, the things we're championing in the Iowa House are those that resonate with the public and they understand the need to incentivize private sector small businesses to create jobs and actually having a state government that spends less than it takes in and being prudent stewards of the tax dollar.  So, I think that all points to keeping the Iowa House majority and I'm confident we'll get our 25th vote in Marion here in about four and a half weeks but then we'll have the opportunity to add to that with the majority in the Senate as well.

Henderson: Republicans currently hold a 20 seat majority in the Iowa House.  What is the prospect of democrats even eating into that?

Dvorsky: Well, I think that the recruitment I think is going great guns on both sides because people really are very interested in this.  I think a dynamic that is happening -- you've got primary voters up in that district for an open seat but we know that the republican caucuses are primarying their own numbers.  Pat Ward is being primaried.  If Pat Ward is not enough of a republican for them I'm not sure that that conversation is going to go as well as you think it is.  Henry Lehans is being primaried.  Donald Garner -- I just think that when you talk about the crop that came in, the group of people that came in last time I actually think that's going to be a problem for you because I think that the message is too strident, I think it's too divisive and I think it is too much on social issues.

Glover: Chairman Strawn, let's shift gears just a bit.  Probably the hottest congressional race we've got going in Iowa is in the third district where you have two incumbents, Tom Latham and Leonard Boswell paired together in the same newly drawn congressional district.  Handicap that race for me.  Those are both veteran incumbents, both proven campaigners.

Strawn: There's no question that is one of our key matchups not just in Iowa but nationally and I'm very Congressman Latham has his campaign operation right now and I'm very confident in what we've seen with his leadership in Washington that he is well positioned, it will be a hard fought race but he is well positioned to defeat Leonard Boswell.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, same question to you.  Handicap that race.  It is clearly the hottest congressional race we've got going in the state and as Chairman Strawn mentioned it is being watched nationally.

Dvorsky: Because it is two incumbents, both of whom are sort of darlings of their leadership and a 50/50 registration essentially.  It is very much a fair weather district but Leonard has represented those people, he knows those people, we've got the anchor stores there are Council Bluffs in Pottawattamie County and Polk County and I like our chances in both those places.

Henderson: Speaking of darlings of their respective parties, in the other district that has a very competitive race Steve King, the incumbent republican, will be likely facing democrat Christie Vilsack, the former First Lady of Iowa.  How do you handicap that race because that is not a registration edge that favors democrats?

Dvorsky: No, it is not and that is why that district required a candidate like Christie Vilsack with the kind of name recognition she's got, with the kind of ability to fundraise and with the message and the ability to deliver that message.  She is an energizer rabbit of a candidate, she always has been and so she is up there working those 39 counties like nobody's business.  That is the kind of candidate you'd have to have.

Henderson: Mr. Strawn, Congressman hasn't debated several of his opponents over the past few elections and he hasn't raised a lot of money in past elections.  Is he up to this challenge?

Strawn: Absolutely he's up to this challenge and he'll be successful not only due to demographic reasons of that district but it is overwhelmingly republican and even the independent voters in that district in a presidential year are right leaning independent voters and all the outside money that Christie Vilsack is raising she is going to need every penny of that to defend herself and her association with an Obama administration that quite frankly people in that part of the state more than any other place are dissatisfied with.

Glover: We're under 30 seconds.  One word to answer -- can Barack Obama win Iowa?  Chairman Strawn?

Strawn: Not right now.

Glover: Ms. Dvorsky, can Barack Obama win Iowa?

Dvorsky: In November of 2012, yes.

Borg: Why did you find it necessary to publicly disassociate the Democratic Party from the Citizens for Community Improvement?

Dvorsky: We did not disassociate ourselves from CCI, what we disassociated ourselves from was behavior that becomes physically assertive and steps into a space.  I am a big champion of democratic involvement and activism and loud hard questioning.  I've got a reputation for it myself.  But stepping into the space, that's dangerous behavior.  We would decry it on the other side so we had I think a moral obligation to decry it on ours.

Borg: Thanks so much for being with us today, we're out of time.

Dvorsky: Thank you, Dean.

Borg: We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press, 7:30 Friday night, 11:30 Sunday morning.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: campaign 2012 caucuses Democrats elections Iowa Linn County Matt Strawn politics primaries Republicans Senate District 18 Susan Dvorsky U.S. Congress