Flying the colors. Iowa's republican and democratic parties leading the charge as candidates battle for voter support. We're questioning the party chairs, democrat Sue Dvorsky and republican A.J. Spiker on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa's major political parties are experiencing double vision right now. Just a week past the republican and democratic state conventions they are preparing their delegations to the national conventions, keeping one eye on Iowa's swing state role in the national presidential campaigns while simultaneously supporting campaigns that will be deciding who controls Iowa's General Assembly. Sue Dvorsky heads Iowa's Democratic Party. A.J. Spiker chairs the state's Republican Party. Mr. Spiker, Ms. Dvorsky, welcome to Iowa Press.
Dvorsky: Thank you, Dean.
Spiker: Thank you, Dean.
Borg: Nice to have you here. And across the Iowa Press table the Gazette's James Lynch and Des Moines Register Political Writer Kathie Obradovich.
Obradovich: Let's start with you, A.J. Spiker, since you are the newest of the two republican -- newest of the party chairs. You've been in the position about three months? Is that right?
Obradovich: And you came out of the Ron Paul campaign. Now, of course, you've got Mitt Romney who is headed to be the nominee of the Republican Party. Have you endorsed him?
Spiker: I have stated that I'll be supporting the republican nominee and Mitt Romney will be the republican nominee so he has my full support going into the election.
Obradovich: That's a little bit of a back-ended endorsement, though. You haven't come out and said that Mitt Romney is the best guy to be President of the United States.
Spiker: I think Mitt Romney has fully got the support of the Republican Party and has my support in becoming the President of the United States. The Romney campaign hasn't asked me for a full endorsement but he has my full support as the nominee.
Obradovich: Is it kind of an awkward position for you? I mean, James and I were both at the state convention and when you gave your speech at the convention you didn't mention Mitt Romney. Is that something that because you have a lot of still Ron Paul supporters in the delegation and in the party hierarchy, is that an awkward position for you at this point?
Spiker: Not really. I think everybody knows that Mitt Romney come August will be the republican nominee and he has the electorate -- the delegate count now that he is the nominee. So he has my support and as far as speaking at the convention, the speech I gave was really a speech about unity and unifying behind principles in the Republican Party and those are something that I think all candidates really represent.
Lynch: Sue, the most recent polls in Iowa show that this state is virtually tied as far as the presidential race, which seems to be bad news for an incumbent and especially this incumbent. Given the wild enthusiasm Iowans had for Barack Obama four years ago and the somewhat tepid enthusiasm for Mitt Romney among republicans, is that is bad news? Why is Iowa even contested?
Dvorsky: Well, first of all, I think we are really now full accessing our position as a swing state. This is how it's going to be. We've got a third republicans, virtually a third democrats and actually the biggest group of registered Iowans are registered no party, independents. So we're a swing state. That's how it's going to be. I really believe that these campaigns are going to be working together and the incredible organization that we are putting out, this is going to be the biggest field effort in the history of the Iowa Democratic Party and all of those pieces are going to work together. I am not concerned about that at all.
Obradovich: Mr. Spiker, do you feel like the party is indeed unified around Mitt Romney?
Spiker: I do. I think the party is unified behind Mitt Romney and very importantly in removing Barack Obama from the White House and beginning recovery.
Obradovich: Do you think that the Iowa delegation will vote unanimously for Mitt Romney at the national convention on the first ballot?
Spiker: I think that's very likely. I don't see Congressman Paul receiving the five states necessary to be placed into nomination. So if only Mitt Romney is nominated then delegates only have the opportunity to vote for Mitt Romney.
Borg: I'm going to go back to a statement you made, Mr. Spiker, just a moment ago. You said your speech was not so much to be rallying behind Mitt Romney at the state convention but your speech was designed to be unifying in principles. I don't know if you got the job done or not because it was a pretty raucous convention. In fact, some called it an embarrassment. So my question to you is, is that healthy discord or is it an obstacle that we're seeing to actually winning elections?
Spiker: I guess I would disagree that it was raucous or whatever you said exactly because we had a very healthy debate about the platform as far as who would be delegates to Tampa. Everybody had an opportunity to vote. Everybody's vote was counted. We had a great turnout. 70% of the delegates turned out. Democrats only had 50% turnout. So I think we had a fabulous convention and I think the liberal media would like to spin what occurred into a raucous but if you look at other conventions, there were other conventions in other states where we had, you know, people who might have been assaulted or the vote was shut down in the middle of the vote. Everybody's voice was heard in Iowa and I think that was a healthy thing.
Borg: Well, it wasn't people getting roughed up, I admit that. But some of your republicans at that convention, maybe they didn't use the word raucous, but they were complaining about it getting possible out of control.
Spiker: I don't think at any point it got out of control. Our chair maintained order the entire time. And I heard nothing but positive things from Iowa delegates.
Lynch: Turning back to the presidential race itself, we keep hearing over and over that this election is all about the economy. Iowa's economy is doing pretty good, better than a lot of states. Who does that benefit? Does that benefit the President? Or is that attributable to a republican governor turning this economy around? Let's start with you, Mrs. Dvorsky.
Dvorsky: Well, I think it benefits the President. I think it's a very hard argument for Terry Branstad to make as a surrogate for the President to stick to Governor Romney's line that the economy is in shambles and the only solution is Mitt Romney when Terry Branstad is trying to turn and pivot and make the case. We have record surpluses, all rainy day funds are full, we really are doing remarkably well here. The farm economy is doing well and all the businesses that go with it. So I think one of the problems that Governor Branstad had and that Governor Romney has here in Iowa is trying to make dueling cases that really aren’t supported, you can't really have it both ways.
Borg: What I hear you saying is the private sector is doing just fine.
Dvorsky: What you hear me saying, Dean -- good one -- what you hear me saying is that in Iowa we really have weathered this recession well. Now, I don't want to get into an argument about whether or not the twelve years of democratic policies of democratic governors with democratic legislatures set that up for us to be able to weather a historic national recession. But nonetheless, we are moving forward. If a family is unemployed then for that family there is no solution, there is no rhetoric that works for them. But in fact we are doing really well here in Iowa. And I'm going to go back to a thing that you talked about, A.J., with the conventions because I don't think this is a function of the liberal media. We're Iowa, we're the first in the nation. We are on track to be the last in the nation. The entire country is watching this. So what happens in other states, happens in other states. But here I think it's just simply inarguable that shouting, cussing, just a very high level of public display, of discord, I don't think that is how Iowa conventions go. In my entire experience of attending a lot of conventions they never have gone that way and I think it is really a little disingenuous to claim that it's some sort of creation of the liberal media. The media was in there reporting on what was happening. So that's --
Spiker: I don't think I saw any cussing or heard any cussing at the convention. There were people that were very excited. I think that's a good thing. As far as the function of the liberal media spinning it I do think there was some spin involved because at the democratic convention there's photos, there was somebody that fell asleep and they had a 50% turnout and yet we have a 70% turnout, we're bringing a lot of new, young, energetic people into the party and somehow that's not a good thing. I guess I disagree.
Borg: But I think what Mrs. Dvorsky may be saying is that some of that energy is a little bit dischanneled and may be harming the image of Iowa, the republican party and its future in the caucuses.
Spiker: I think you'll see that energy focused 100% on making sure Barack Obama is a one-term president.
Obradovich: Well, let's talk about the future of the caucuses because generally speaking we expect that the incumbent president will use his or her experience through the primary results to make changes in the party as it regards future primary races. Does a Mitt Romney presidency help or hurt Iowa in its bid to stay first in the nation?
Spiker: I think it helps. Mitt Romney has a lot of top staff that are connected to Iowa, that understand Iowa's importance in the process and I know Mitt Romney is committed to keeping Iowa first in the nation.
Obradovich: But he has never, he has never won the caucuses. He had concerns about running hard in Iowa because of what happened to him in 2008. Why would we think that he would want to continue a process that was really kind of a tightrope for him?
Spiker: I think it's a process that he benefited from. Iowa is different from New Hampshire and different from other states and Mitt Romney did very well here and I think if you look at the score on caucus night, Mitt Romney was one of the three winners of Iowa. Iowa republicans supported Mitt Romney and I thought it was a very good thing.
Obradovich: Ms. Dvorsky, one of the things that democrats and republicans do agree on generally is that Iowa should stay first in the nation. Do you agree that a Romney presidency would be fine for Iowa and its first in the nation caucuses?
Dvorsky: Well, of course I don't think a Romney presidency would be fine for Iowa under any conditions but I do think that the fact that the republican party of Iowa in this caucus to convention structure has essentially declared three winners I think is very bad for the conversation. Now, what will protect the conversation, our relationship on the DNC side the President understands that the Iowa Democratic Party is 100% behind him. We are coordinated with an effort that will cover unprecedented the 99 counties, our relationship to the DNC is strong and good but I have to respectfully disagree.
Obradovich: What changes would you recommend? The republicans are going through their process of reviewing the caucuses. What changes do you think should be made?
Dvorsky: Well, I know that they are working hard on the reporting kinds of things. What has always protected the caucuses -- the DNC and the IDP lead this effort because we actually on that night begin a delegate selection process whereas the RPI really doesn't.
Borg: You're talking about republican -- when you use these acronyms --
Dvorsky: I'm sorry, the Republican Party of Iowa and the Iowa Democratic Party. The republican process isn't actually on caucus night picking delegates. So I think that there's going to -- I would imagine that however this comes out there's going to be some amount of conversation between the republican party of Iowa and the RNC as there will be after every cycle. We had a huge change commission on our side, you know after 2008, with lots and lots of stakeholders but I think that the important point is there are lots of stakeholders. This -- the role of our two parties, the role of the two chairs, I truly believe one of our primary responsibilities is this and I am concerned about how this looks because we aren't just any other state and people have watched us.
Obradovich: Just to be clear, any particular changes that you think the republicans should make that would be helpful or useful in the conversation?
Dvorsky: Well, I understand, as a fundraiser I get this, I understand why the straw poll is a great fundraising event. I believe it is a dangerous political event because it is the first time that they get a bite at the apple, then the second time is the caucuses with really kind of a beauty contest. I think that's dangerous.
Lynch: A.J., Monday your party will be meeting, the caucus review committee will be meeting in Sioux City to talk about some changes to the caucus process. What is going to be the most significant change the party will make for the caucuses coming up in four years?
Spiker: I think one of the most significant things that will probably be occurring is there will be restrictions, I expect, places on the ability of the chair, chairman of the party to declare a victor if it is within a certain percentage. I think that was probably the main issue we had in this caucus cycle and restricting that will make it so that Iowans have confidence. And if it is a close race then we're not in a situation where we have results changing because I think everybody knows that wasn't helpful.
Lynch: So you wouldn't release the results on caucus night?
Spiker: Pardon me?
Lynch: You wouldn't release the results on caucus night?
Spiker: No, no we would release the results on caucus night but if they are very close we may not actually say there's a winner, we may not actually declare a winner. And that is not unusual because secretary of states in a lot of states let the numbers speak for themselves and putting the numbers out and letting them speak for themselves and letting you folks in the media give your voice on what that means is probably the proper role for the party.
Borg: Just a comment on what Mrs. Dvorsky just said, she feels that first and second bite of the apple, the Ames straw poll and then what she called a beauty contest, the actual caucuses that were in January this year, are we going to see you come down to one more meaningful tabulation?
Spiker: I think that's something the state party is always discussing. But as far as the straw poll itself it's a very good thing for the campaigns. This gives campaigns the ability to have a benchmark that come August we want to be organized for the Iowa caucus. It gives them the ability to put in place precinct leaders, county leaders and get geared up. And I think people, including the democrats, make too much of the financial part. But from the candidate perspective it's a great gearing up for the big game.
Obradovich: But the financial part of it is what draws a lot of criticism from the national media, that people have to pay to play, they have to pay for tickets in order to vote in that straw poll and it also draws concerns from other early states that Iowa is kind of poking New Hampshire, South Carolina in the eye by having, as we call it, two bites of the apple. Those are things that when you start having conversations with the RNC tend to come up. And this caucus review committee is not even addressing it. Why not even discuss the straw poll?
Spiker: I'll let you talk to Bill Schickel about that and his caucus review committee.
Obradovich: Okay. But you made some recommendations, you had a whole list on your first day or first week as chairman about things that this group should suggest and the straw poll wasn't one of them.
Spiker: No, I think the straw poll is a very good thing for the reasons I just said. It gives the campaigns the ability to put in place the infrastructure come caucus night.
Dvorsky: Except if that were true, A.J., then you'd have four winners because you'd have Michele Bachmann. The very -- the fact of the matter is that this straw poll especially did not show that because she was, she was the clear winner of that event and essentially collapsed. And that is why I think we go back to organization. I just think that we really, the organization is critical in this state. I think Iowa is just -- I can't answer for New York or California or -- but here on the ground -- in fact, I think Rick Santorum is the good example of it.
Lynch: Before we move away from this caucus review what are you hearing from your colleagues on the RNC and DNC and from other states? Do you feel like the changes you're making, A.J., will give them confidence that Iowa republicans know how to run a caucus and count votes? And Sue, is there any fallout in terms of democratic caucuses and going first in the nation?
Borg: Mr. Spiker.
Spiker: I talk to Reince Priebus almost weekly and as far as colleagues on the RNC when we have discussed things about the caucus it has all come back to the announcement being the biggest issue. And we're going to address that. The RNC is very confident in Iowa and the ability of Iowa republicans to run a great caucus. We did run a very great caucus. There were some issues with the announcement and we're dealing with those.
Borg: Mrs. Dvorsky.
Dvorsky: Well, I think we really need to look more broadly. The process is caucus to convention and frankly moving from the caucuses through the county conventions, through the district conventions and through the state convention we have been working very closely with the DNC to let them know that we are doing fine and that this national discussion and look at Iowa is not on our side. We had 25,000 democrats come out in a non-contested primary. So we have been progressing along and keeping the DNC in touch with what we're doing here because frankly there is concern, there is national concern about this picture.
Borg: And you say our side of the house is clean, we're okay, we're being dragged along in this. That's what I hear you saying.
Dvorsky: I am saying that.
Borg: Mr. Spiker, how is the Ron Paul influence in the Iowa Republican Party likely to change the Iowa Republican Party?
Spiker: I think you're going to see it continue to help grow the party. Bringing new people into the party is very healthy and getting them involved -- we saw this with the evangelical movement in the 1980s. I think bringing the Ron Paul people into the party and making them part of the party apparatus is a very positive thing. I think the democrats are very worried about that because we will be united in defeating him in the fall.
Lynch: There have been concerns expressed about fundraising for the party. There were rumors that you were going to have to sell your party headquarters. Are you overcoming those obstacles?
Spiker: Well, I don't know where all the rumors begin but we're not selling our building. That is a false statement. We're in the middle of updating some of our facilities to make room for the House and Senate --
Lynch: Your fundraising has slowed down.
Spiker: Fundraising has slowed down. I think that's normal in a transition of leadership and we're working very hard to build our fundraising.
Obradovich: Ms. Dvorsky, in 2010 democrats pretty much had their lunch eaten by republicans here in Iowa. And certain parts of your normal base said that they were kind of on the sidelines, some of the unions didn't get involved as they did in part because they were unhappy with some of the things that Chet Culver has done. How has your party brought itself back together? And can you really say that you're unified now going into 2012?
Dvorsky: I can say that, that we are unified going into 2012 partly because of the work that we did in 2011 to have those conversations, talk about our way forward in a very narrow path that we had with a one seat majority in the Senate and I think that we were massively helped by the rhetoric, the divisive agenda that came out of the republican party, the House republicans, Senate republicans, the Governor. And I think that that has -- the contrast could not be more stark and our --
Obradovich: What do you mean by divisive?
Dvorsky: Well, when the first bill, House study bill one, of course, the famous House study bill one in January of 2011 took aim at every single kind of issue the democrats care about across the board. Collecting bargaining they went after and the DNR and preschool and elderly services. They really took aim at Regents funding, at kind of every member of our coalition. And that laid out the plan. I will say, to their credit, there is nobody sneaking around what they would do. So that has really helped unify our team and everybody is linked up and we're ready to go.
Obradovich: Mr. Spiker, is that the plan, the kinds of issues that Mrs. Dvorsky just outlined that were in that first bill of the legislative session last year?
Spiker: Our plan is to get Iowans back to work and to get food back on people's tables. I was up in northern Iowa a few weeks ago and someone was struggling to pay $6 for gas. So the main agenda for the Republican Party and its candidates is to get America and the state of Iowa back on the right track.
Obradovich: Somebody was paying $6 for gas?
Borg: I'd like to get us into the congressional -- go ahead --
Obradovich: I'm sorry, did you say somebody was paying $6 for gas?
Spiker: Yeah, they were struggling to get $6 out of their wallet to pay for gas.
Obradovich: Oh, I see. If they're paying $6 a gallon for gas they should be going to a different station.
Borg: I want to concentrate on the fourth district for a moment, the congressional district. There is some concern being expressed that Christie Vilsack as a candidate there is exhibiting some inexperience in candidacy in that she is deferring on questions that people think she should be answering. What would be your advice to Christie Vilsack in running against republican incumbent Steve King?
Dvorsky: You know, Christie doesn't need my advice. She's doing fine, Dean. I think you look at the campaign she has run for the last year and a half, it is focused on the fourth district. That is a big difference between her and Congressman King. She is dealing in a district that took in multiple counties that Steve King has never represented that are democratic areas. She has laid out eight policy papers that she developed over the months of really listening to constituents in the fourth district about education, about interconnectivity, about job and economic development in rural Iowa. So Christie Vilsack is doing just fine. She is up there talking to --
Borg: You sort of cringed though when she is asked direct questions as she was here on Iowa Press a couple of weeks ago and didn't want to answer.
Dvorsky: And, you know, you said, she's a first time candidate. That is true. But we've got a long campaign ahead of us. And I'll tell you, you know, she's a fast learner and she is out there talking about affordable, quality health care all the time.
Obradovich: Mr. Spiker, Steve King is running in a different district than he's used to, it's not quite as republican and he's going to have to work harder to appeal to independents. Does he have to tone down his rhetoric a little bit in order to appeal to moderates and independents in that district?
Spiker: I think the best way for Steve King to get elected is to keep being Steve King. It's a very winnable district. I live in Ames. Tom Latham lived in Ames. And Story County can go to Steve King. It's a very winnable congressional district and I think Steve King being Steve King is what needs to occur.
Obradovich: But certain issues like the immigration directive that the President has done on recently, polls said that independents, 65% of them agreed with the President on that. Steve King says he's going to sue the President. Is that the right course for him?
Spiker: I think the right course is for us to follow the law and that is what Steve King wants and that is what Steve King is going to be suing the President for.
Lynch: Let's turn to the third district where Leonard Boswell and Tom Latham, two incumbents, are matched up. Leonard Boswell has a reputation as a slow starter in the campaign. This time he is facing a much more formidable candidate, an incumbent who has access to a lot of resources. Does Leonard have the horses to win this going down the stretch?
Borg: Mrs. Dvorsky.
Dvorsky: You know, betting against Leonard Boswell in one of these things is really a fool's bet. Leonard is always on the front line. They always write his political obituary. He always comes back like Mark Twain and says the rumors of this are greatly exaggerated. Leonard Boswell doesn't have to introduce himself to that district. He doesn't need the kind of, the money that Tom Latham needs to throw at that. He has represented them in the House, in the Senate. We have got the anchor stores of, if you will, of that mall. Polk County on the one end, Council Bluffs on the other end where we've had offices open and running for better than a year.
Borg: Mr. Spiker, just fifteen seconds to respond there.
Spiker: Well, I think it's clear cut Tom Latham is going to do a great job representing the third congressional district and he is fighting very hard to win it.
Borg: Thanks so much for being our guests today. Thanks for your comments. Next week on Iowa Press insight into issues resonating among older voters. We'll be questioning AARP national vice president Nancy LeaMond and Iowa AARP's Kent Sovern. Usual times, 7:30 Friday night, a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.