Talking turkey. Iowans preparing for the holidays with a big side dish of politics. We're getting insight from Iowa political journalists on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: We can accurately say we're heading into the busiest time of the year. Usually that means the holidays and it still does. But just as it was four years ago, Iowans are also getting a lot of mail and phone calls from presidential candidates these days zeroing in on the state's January 3rd presidential preference caucuses and congressional candidates are getting acquainted with voters in their newly configured districts. Add legislative campaigning and you know what we mean by saying this is the busiest time of the year. We're asking Iowa political journalists to add perspective now. Iowa Public Radio Statehouse Reporter Jeneane Beck ... Associated Press Senior Political Writer Mike Glover ... Gazette Political Writer James Lynch from Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Borg: Jim Lynch, it seems like the Iowa Senate made probably in the past few days the most news and it all concerned elections. One was within the Senate itself, Senate republicans.
Lynch: Senate republicans today elected a new caucus leader, Jerry Behn from Boone and earlier in the week there was a special election in senate district 18 over in Linn County which a democrat won.
Borg: We'll talk about that in just a moment. But Jerry Behn elected to head the minority republicans in the Senate and they stayed minority because of that election you referred to in district 18.
Borg: But why Behn?
Lynch: Well, I think Behn obviously he has some seniority in the Senate, he has been there for a while. He's certainly conservative but maybe a little less conservative than the new elected republicans and wasn't their first choice but he was obviously the first choice of the majority of the 24 republicans in the Senate and I think he'll continue pretty much what the Senate republicans have been doing but will be the same philosophy that we've seen in recent years.
Borg: And he is replacing Paul McKinley.
Glover: He's replacing Paul McKinley and I found that, I don't know about you, but I found that a fast ending election. In my experience at the Iowa legislature, legislative leaders are judged by their performance in elections. Paul McKinley didn't have a bad election last time, he picked up six seats and almost got the Senate. But I think what was going on was there was an enthusiasm, an energy discussion going on and a lot of people thought that Paul McKinley was a little bit too laid back, maybe a little bit too willing to work with democrats in the Senate to try to accomplish things and they looked to a couple of younger -- Bill Dix from Shell Rock was the one who challenged Jerry Behn and they were looking for a couple of younger leaders to kind of bring some energy and enthusiasm more to the legislature because they're not sure a lot is going to happen this next session but to the 2012 election. After this election made clear his top priority is winning the Senate back in 2012.
Henderson: Some Iowans may have met Jerry Behn in 2009 when he briefly campaigned for governor. He dropped out on December 22nd of 2009 and endorsed Terry Branstad who is our current Governor. They are neighbors, they live about six miles apart in Boone County and they strike me as very similar rhetorically, very focused on economic issues. Jerry Behn in the six minutes after he walked out of the room where this decision was made and talked with reporters mentioned the phrase pro-growth, is it a word or a phrase, I'm not quite sure, about five times in a matter of six minutes. So, he will be making those folks that you talked about, Bill Dix and some of the younger members of the Senate republicans, they are unhappy, this is a fractured caucus because he is not going to press forward on the social issues about which they feel very passionate.
Borg: Jeneane, we heard Mike say that they wanted maybe younger, less laid back as Paul McKinley appeared to be, leadership. Does that mean -- because the Senate is already contentious with Senator Gronstal leading the democrats and republicans, does that mean that this younger leadership is going to be even more contentious in the Senate?
Beck: Well, Jerry Behn won't represent them the way they had possibly hoped. I think they wanted a leader that was going to be more antagonistic, maybe throw more bombs, as we like to say, rhetorically during debate and that is not what Jerry Behn is known for. He is going to be a little bit more pragmatic than that I think and so that is going to irritate them. However, he did make a point of saying, look, I support them in their push to push abortion restrictions and I support them in their push to have a vote on same-sex marriage. He may support them but how much work he is going to do on those issues is another story and we don't know yet.
Glover: It could be a stylistic issue more than anything else because at the end of the day Iowa republicans in the Senate went into this coming session with 24 votes which is not enough to get you there. In the Iowa Senate 26 is a lot better than 24 so there may be some stylistic differences, he may press democrats a little harder, he may do that kind of stuff, be a little bit sharper. I assume when the session starts he'll sharpen up his rhetoric just a little bit. But at the end of the day not much is going to change.
Beck: The true test for his longevity would be what happens on election night on 2012. It will be did he recruit candidates that were worthy and able to collect enough votes to help republicans take the majority? Will he be able to raise money to help those people? Will he be able to marshal resources? We don't know that about him right now.
Beck: It actually depends on the kind of candidates he recruits. We just talked about how Paul McKinley won six seats, helped them win six additional seats but the candidates that he brought in were more conservative than he is, he's more of a business conservative person than socially and so depending on the kind of candidates Jerry Behn recruits, even if he wins control there is a possibility that if they are a very, very conservative group of republicans that they may look to different leadership.
Borg: But Jim, recruit candidates? It seems to me we're less than a year now away from that election. Candidates are already recruited, aren't they? Yes, raising money is between now and then.
Lynch: Many of these candidates have come forward and put their name out there that they're going to run in 2012. They are forming their campaigns, laying the groundwork, doing all those sorts of things, going to central committee meetings and pancake suppers and whatever to get their names out there and to let everyone know that they're going to be on the ballot. We're going to see a number of primaries too because there are more people wanting to be in the legislature than there are seats in the House and Senate.
Glover: This is a reapportionment election that we're heading into. Usually you have half the Senate up at any one given time. This next election you'll see 33 Senate seats up on the ballot because of reapportionment and every Senator will be running in a district is at least a little bit new so that means that traditionally if you look back over history the first election after reapportionment almost every time power changes at the statehouse.
Borg: And what is likely then? Power you mean in the Senate that Jerry Behn could lead a takeover of the Senate by the republicans?
Glover: I'm saying reapportionment traditionally benefits the minority party because everybody is running in new districts. Republicans are in a slight minority in the Iowa Senate so yeah, I think it will help them a little bit because you've got a lot, you've got some veteran democrats, I'm thinking of Senate President Jack Kibbie, that aren't running again because they got stuck with a lousy district with a republican incumbent. So, I think there's a big opportunity here for republicans to make some gains.
Borg: I'm going back to you, Jim, because the other election took place right in your backyard and in northern Linn County and that is where democrat Liz Mathis with a lot of outside help from unions around the state, outside help from around the nation I think outpolled Cindy Golding, the republican candidate there. Now, what is likely to change, if anything, because Liz Mathis was elected to the Senate?
Lynch: Probably very little because democrats still have 26 votes so they still have the majority. I don't think Liz Mathis is going to rock the boat, come in there and vote with republicans so I don't think that 26 Senate majority is in any peril. Her philosophy is quite middle of the road, she talked about jobs and education and creating a better business climate so much that republicans said she was stealing their issue, which Swati Dandekar who she replaced talked the same way, like a moderate republican. So, I don't think anything changes there.
Borg: Except experience. Mike?
Glover: I think there will be one thing of some significance. Jim, you're right, in talking to everybody after that election they all said it's the economy, stupid, focus on the economy, focus on jobs, focus on people's pocketbooks. There are a lot of people who went up there trying to drive some wedge issues, there are a lot of people who went up there thinking, I'm thinking Bob Vander Plaats, went up there trying to make same-sex marriage a big issue, if you elect Cindy Golding you'll get a debate on same-sex marriage. A lot of people went up there and said if you elect Cindy Golding it's much more likely that abortion restrictions are going to be enacted or it's much more likely the collective bargaining laws are going to be eased or somehow modified. Those ideas didn't seem to sell very well. First of all, neither candidate talked about them a lot. Some of their supporters did but the candidates didn't. I think the candidates sensed that it was a pocketbook issue. So, people who pushed those kind of issues I think lost Tuesday night.
Henderson: I think if you look at the larger issue of what happened not only in Senate district 18 but nationwide this past Tuesday was that voters don't like overreach and you saw that in other state elections, in Ohio, in Mississippi where an abortion restriction failed. They didn't like overreach and I think this district in its moderate lean, don't you think James it is a moderate leaning district ...
Lynch: It's a swing district.
Henderson: ... sort of is maybe the poster child for what people have to be afraid of if they want to make the election about Barack Obama in every race up and down the ticket because it doesn't work. A lot of people tried to make this race about Mike Gronstal being the governor, if you will, of Iowa and making fun of Mike Gronstal. It wasn't about Mike Gronstal because people in that district didn't care about Mike Gronstal.
Borg: Well, and the electorate though, Jim if I'm -- registration between republicans and democrats in district 18 pretty much even-steven as I remember it.
Lynch: Republicans had a slight edge but it has been a district that has gone from republican to democratic in the last couple of elections.
Borg: So, does that underscore what Kay was saying ...
Lynch: I think so.
Borg: ...a microcosm of the electorate across the state?
Lynch: I think so. One telling thing was in polling that was done in this district just the weekend before the election. Although there was a plurality who said that same-sex marriage should not be legal, almost two-thirds of the people said same-sex unions should be recognized either as marriage or civil unions. So, I think that's right, that this social issue, people may feel strongly about it but it's probably not what they are basing their vote on.
Glover: And what it comes down to I think, Jim, is when you look at a legislative race, legislative races, particularly legislative special elections are always decided by organization, who got out there to knock on doors, who does the political basics and the quality of the candidate.
Borg: This may have been a wake-up call for republicans too because the absentee ballots for the winner, Mathis ...
Glover: They don't get it on absentee ballots.
Borg: Who doesn't?
Glover: The republicans don't and haven't gotten it for years. Liz Mathis did a two to one over Cindy Golding on absentee ballots and that was just about the margin of victory she had and republicans get beat every election cycle on early voting, they say they'll fix it and they never do.
Beck: I was just going to say you talk about candidate recruitment and doing the hard work, Cindy Golding did do the hard work, she was up against somebody who had name recognition in that district of 98% or 99% and a former television anchor in Liz Mathis. So, I frankly think there is something to listening to the candidate as well that is from that district and Cindy Golding said, I don't want these special interest groups trying to run this campaign for me, it's not going to work. She knew what was going to work in that district and she just faced a real uphill battle in the fact that Liz Mathis is every well known and also did the legwork. She didn't sit back and say, I'm going to rest on the fact that I am well known, she was door knocking like the rest of them.
Borg: Kay, this strength in the hand of Senator Gronstal in the Senate, yes the numbers remain the same, 26 seats for the democrats, but Swati Dandekar is replaced and a freshman comes in now, Liz Mathis.
Henderson: Well, looking at this you can't help but think that this is a feather in his cap. Heading into this a democrat resigns to work for a republican Governor and republicans think, oh my goodness, we're going to have a 25-25 split in the Iowa Senate and Gronstal went out and recruited a candidate that virtually everyone in that district knew. It was a miraculous comeback because before that name was floated, before Liz Mathis' name was floated everybody was saying, oh my gosh, republicans have made a wonderful move here to try to catapult the Senate into a 25-25 split.
Borg: And Senator Gronstal wasn't humbled in that victory either.
Glover: Another thing that Senator Gronstal gains, and I think Jim would agree with this, Swati Dandekar was not a good soldier amongst the democratic caucus. She had her own set of issues that she pushed, she was a thorn in the side of democrats often behind the scenes, very rarely out in public but she made their lives miserable behind the scenes. Liz Mathis, after she just got elected with the help of all these people, is going to be your basic good soldier. So, from that perspective I think Mike Gronstal's life is going to be a little easier.
Henderson: He comes out of this retaining his reputation as a very, very good on-the-ground technician for how to run a local race.
Beck: I also think republicans sometimes overplay their hand when they try to make a race about Senator Gronstal. He joked the other day that he is confident that people in Cedar Rapids or Linn County or Marion rather in this case don't know who he is. I don't think that that's true but I don't think that they care necessarily that he's the leader when they go to vote for their local representative or senator. I just don’t think making the race all about him is going to work.
Lynch: His name isn't on the ballot. It's a big deal within the Senate and within the people in the political world but the people in Marion or Hiawatha or Fairfax, they don’t' see his name on the ballot, they're not voting for or against Mike Gronstal.
Henderson: If you think being Senate majority leader is a big deal and everybody knows who you are let's point to Governor Evanston and Governor Jenkins.
Borg: Conversely, the other side, we might say the losing side there, Bob Vander Plaats, did the role of conservative pressure groups influence over the legislature, was that weakened?
Lynch: I think it is just because of this last -- they pushed hard for their candidate and their cause and they certainly didn't gain anything here. I think they are weakened because I think people look at it and say, if you want to look at this as a vote on same-sex marriage and abortion restrictions and those sorts of things, all those things failed. The candidate who supposedly was supporting all those things didn't win. And I think Cindy Golding talked about that being very frustrating with these groups coming in and running this campaign and on issues that she wasn't eager to talk about. She didn't want to talk about those. She didn't see those as the issues that voters cared about.
Glover: And I think the result of that election will make a lot of people at the statehouse a little bit more comfortable if an issue like same-sex marriage, if an issue like abortion restrictions happens to pop of somewhere or another I think there will be a lot of people up there who instinctively don't want to interfere with same-sex marriage, who aren't real excited about putting new restrictions on abortion. They're going to be a little more comfortable in saying, no.
Beck: I was just going to say that you talk about the power of Gronstal. Maintaining him as the majority leader means you're protecting those moderate republicans in the Senate who I won't name, that don't want to be named, but that don't want to take a vote on same-sex marriage or abortion issues, that come from districts that care about business issues, tax issues, regulatory issues and they don't want to be forced to take that vote. He's not protecting just his own members but he is protecting those moderate republicans too.
Borg: What wont' happen other than same-sex marriage vote, what won't happen as a result of 26-24?
Glover: One of the things that won't happen is a debate on same-sex marriage. One of the things that won't happen is a significant debate on new abortion restrictions. One thing that won't happen is proposals by rep0ublicans to cut deeply into business taxes and cut deeply into personal incomes taxes. If you recall the House in the last session passed a 20% reduction in individual income tax rates and I think there is a lot of pressure on a lot of democrats, moderate democrats in the Senate to deal with those kinds of issues, particularly the tax credit issues. That is a very attractive issue in an election year. Gronstal will be the firewall.
Lynch: There's one other issue that won't get debated and that is this Swati Dandekar's proposal to let MidAmerican Energy force rate payers to pay for a nuclear power plant that hasn't been built and may never be built. That is an issue that is going to go away and that was one of the most contentious issues in the Senate democratic caucus.
Beck: Also union issues, I think there will be some collective bargaining issues that might have had a better chance that are less likely to go anywhere with the maintained democratic control.
Glover: The bottom line is we're still where we were in the last session which is you have a House that is controlled 60-40 by republicans, a Senate that is controlled 26-24 by democrats and Mike Gronstal is, you're right Dean, is not a bit apologetic, I'm going to continue to block this stuff, I've blocked it up until now and I'm going to continue to block it.
Borg: One thing that I thought might come up because it looked like it had a fairly head start and a lot of steam is the gas tax increase and Governor Branstad this past week said, no, that's not going to be on my agenda.
Henderson: He said it is off the table for at least a year and this after the hand picked group of people that he asked to write him a report about how bad the roads were and how much we needed a gas tax, said let's raise the gas tax between eight and ten cents per gallon and on the same day that they formally presented him that report he says, let's not do it. I mean, this is a guy who reads the tea leaves of public opinion better than most of our politicians in Iowa and he knows it is not popular and he knows that the Tea Party people would raise a huge, huge stink if he were to put that on the table. And so ...
Borg: Within his own party, the Republican Party ...
Henderson: I mean, this is a party that says no new taxes. Raising the gas tax is a tax and they don't like it.
Glover: And it's a tax, not only is it a new tax, you're right, it's a tax that people feel very directly because every time they fill up that tank you see that extra gas tax and I think that one of the things that it did was Branstad's position effectively ended the debate on it this year. Democrats say, put a little spin on it, Gronstal says, well it's certainly less likely but the point being if you've got a sitting republican governor who says no, and he didn't use the veto for it but it is always lingering there are you going to put your members through the political pain of voting for a middle class tax increase knowing that you could make them vote for it only to have a republican governor veto it? No.
Borg: But then speaking of pain, he inflicted a little pain on the DOT by saying we're going to cut, I don't know how many million dollars ...
Henderson: $50 million, find $50 million in savings so we can spend that on road and bridge construction.
Borg: So, not only aren't you getting more money in the gas tax, I want to take $50 million away and ...
Glover: Instead of giving you a gas tax with $20-$30 million I'm going to cut you $50 million so have a nice day.
Henderson: The other bizarre thing about this if you think about it is some of the folks that were on that commission, Jim Kersten, a Fort Dodge economic development person who used to work for Branstad and Allan Thoms who used to be the Governor's chief of staff during Branstad 3.0 and 4.0. I mean, why did those folks put their necks on the line for this guy? I mean, the next time he puts together a blue ribbon commission to come up with a recommendation to give him some cover to make some controversial recommendation if I'm any of those people I'm saying, no way Jose because there's no guarantee you're going to back me up and I put my neck out.
Beck: Well, and you could see the retirement of somebody like Representative Tjepkes, he told me he was looking at retiring and Branstad asked him to stay on to work on this issue because there are plenty of pro-business groups who came to Branstad and said, this has to happen. The roads are in bad shape, it is bad for our economic development, this is a necessary fix and he said, you're right, let's do something about it, let's put this commission together and then he, like you said, read the tea leaves and thought, I can't get this done ...
Glover: The last time Terry Branstad supported the gas tax increase it was precisely for economic development. He supported a gas tax for highway construction programs that could be directly linked to new businesses and economic development.
Borg: It's a -- I find a lot of irony in this. Number one, when Terry Branstad was running a lot of people were saying that he was telling highway construction company owners you're going to get a gas tax, we're going to get you guys back to work. Number two, I think there's more support for a gas tax increase than people are willing to admit. People drive the roads, they see what condition they are in and they would be willing to pay more for gas tax if they saw some improvements on roads and bridges and saw their neighbors going to work on those projects. So, there's a lot of irony here but I think it is vintage Branstad to push this idea, push this idea and then say, whoa, wait I'm putting the brakes on this because we're going to ask the DOT to find the savings. The DOT has, they have shrunk things down in number of employees, garages around the state, they have gone through all the steps that people are asking them to go through.
Beck: I expected he would pair it with something, pair it with the fact that he wants commercial property tax reduction, pair it with an income tax reduction, something but yeah, to just take it off the table this early is surprising.
Borg: Mike, you've been covering the presidential candidates. Are they really here or are they off some place else debating in other cities?
Glover: They are not here in the same sense that they have been here in election cycles past. In election cycles -- there are a couple of reasons for that. One, it's a republican show this time, and republicans just do caucuses differently than democrats. Democrats put more emphasis on the grassroots work, the organizational work. Barack Obama's campaign four years ago was a classic example. Republicans just do caucuses with a little bit less of an emphasis -- if you look at a couple of the top candidates, I'm talking Mitt Romney, Texas Governor Rick Perry, they are not running campaigns that are based in Iowa, they are running national campaigns. Yeah, they're in Iowa, yeah there running some media in Iowa, they're putting a little effort in Iowa but they're not betting the farm on Iowa like candidates have in the past. If you look -- there's some history for that. They sometimes run an election based on the last election. The last republican caucus cycle John McCain basically took a pass on Iowa, got hammered here but won the party's nomination. Romney and Perry are assuming maybe I'll do okay here but if I don't win they can live to fight another day and they have the resources and name ID to do that. So, Iowa is not as make or break.
Beck: Not only did John McCain not play here and still do well enough to get, he got fourth, but he got well enough in my point to stay with the nomination. Romney played here like crazy and got second and it killed him and so I think that he is saying, I can't do that again. If I play -- he's got this real fine line he's trying to walk -- I'm just going to play just enough to keep myself viable but not enough to raise expectations because if I raise expectations and I don't meet them that is what it is all about.
Glover: I think troubling, that is a troubling development for those who like the role that Iowa plays in the presidential nominating system because it begins to set a precedent that Iowa doesn't have to play a make or break role and candidates can get by with doing what I call a drive by in Iowa which is just kind of show up and do this and do that. That could be a trend that accelerates the next cycle. The only thing that would stop that is next cycle will be a democratic show most likely and so democrats tend to play these caucuses harder.
Henderson: One interesting thing about how this is all developing is that it reminds me a lot of 1995 and '96. You had a front runner in Bob Dole that just couldn't seal the deal with a lot of people and Romney could wind up winning this thing in Iowa without having expended a lot of personal or financial resources here if it plays out like it did in 1996. You have the likelihood that Herman Cain, the people who support him are not going to abandon him if they haven’t abandoned him in the past two weeks because of what has happened to his campaign. You have somebody like Newt Gingrich who seems as if he is positioned to make a move because he is a lot of people's second choice. You have somebody like Michele Bachmann who has developed a solid core of support. And you have somebody like Ron Paul who has very enthusiastic committed people who are going to show up regardless if there is a blizzard or not on January 3rd. So, if you look at the way the table is setting itself it looks to me like Romney has held onto his people and he could win this thing in very much the same way that Bob Dole did in 1996.
Glover: He won it with 20 some percent of the vote and then you dice it up as much, if he wins with 20 some percent of the vote that is a pretty big boost for him.
Borg: Is there a viable threat by anonymous, the group called anonymous or the group called Occupy Iowa to disrupting the caucuses?
Lynch: I think there is. There is an opportunity there. It certainly would be good in terms of grabbing media attention if you can shut down the Iowa caucuses or affect the campaigns here, shut down the headquarters, the campaign headquarters, those sorts of things. It would grab a lot of attention and quite frankly the preoccupation with Occupy movement is starting to wane a little bit, they have been around for a few weeks and now are moving on to other news, Joe Paterno or whoever.
Glover: It's a tempting target because if have the live trucks in America are parked in Des Moines on caucus night that is a really good way to get some television attention.
Borg: And aren't the caucuses, we're out of time right now, just making the observation -- the caucuses seen as a perfect setting for somebody to infiltrate.
Glover: They're neighborhood meetings, easy to disrupt.
Borg: Thanks for your insights. We'd like to hear your comments and questions. Use the address at the bottom of the screen right now, firstname.lastname@example.org. And you'll be communicating directly with our Iowa Press staff. We'll be back next weekend, the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and 11:30 Sunday morning. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.