Iowa Public Television

 

Reporters Roundtable

posted on November 21, 2012

Looking back at the future.  Elections earlier this month providing previews of upcoming actions.  We're asking political journalists what they see on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Elections have consequences.  That's not necessarily negative.  It's simply saying election outcomes are determining future actions.  During the past couple of weeks on Iowa Press we've been quizzing politicians and political activists about what they're seeing ahead.  And today we're seeking the same insight from veteran political journalists who are seeing the election consequences now taking shape.  Joining us from Washington, D.C., New York Times Political Writer and former Des Moines Register Reporter Jeff Zeleny.  Hello Jeff, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Zeleny: Hi Dean, thanks for having me.

Borg: And I might say that often I'm watching you a half hour before Iowa Press on Friday nights on Gwen Ifill's Washington Week show as a panelist.

Zeleny: Thank you.

Borg: And here in the studio, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  Well, Jeff, we'll come back to you in Washington, D.C. because I'd like to start out with a national perspective.  Are there consequences -- Iowa has played over the past decade or so increasingly pre-eminent predominance early at least in the political races, presidential political races and maybe some say getting undue attention -- are there consequences in the past election from what you're seeing now from what happened for Iowa?

Zeleny: Dean, I think it's hard -- sure, it's hard to think of a state that played a bigger, more central role from start to finish in this campaign than Iowa.  But if you talk to some republicans and some supporters of Mitt Romney they believe that Iowa was sort of difficult, was a difficult battleground beginning in the primary when he had to tack a little bit to the right and then in the general election it put him in a bit of a tough position.  But I think the consequences for Iowa are republicans and democrats every four years sort of re-examine their calendar, what state should start first.  So I think without question there will be states that are complaining about Iowa's role and that it has too much of a role as well as New Hampshire.  But one of the things that always happens is the process is already underway, candidates, potential candidates are already visiting.  So once a decision is made about which primaries and caucuses should open up this process the train is already moving sort of forward.  So I'm not sure that Iowa will lose its role but I think other states definitely sort of want to encroach on some of this attention.

Obradovich: Well, you know Dean, when republicans get together they have to have the argument every four years about whether you're going to nominate someone who is a true conservative, someone who is going to carry especially the social issues agenda forward, be a champion against abortion, be a champion for traditional marriage and the republicans are going to have to have that argument in their primary no matter what happens.  So I think that whether Iowa starts first or not the candidates are going to have to sort that out.  And when it comes down to it and what one of our guests said last week was, what better place really to start that conversation?

Borg: If something doesn't change, Kay, in the next four years or during the next four years within the Iowa Republican Party, will thee be candidates who might look at the current climate and say, hey, I'm going to bypass Iowa?

Henderson: Well, it's been done before.  Remember John McCain?  He essentially bypassed Iowa.  He wound up being the nominee in 2008.  It didn't seem to hurt him in terms of the party in general.  Speaking of the train that Jeff mentioned, we've already had people making stops here.  Even before the voting happened in 2012 you had a list of governors who were here in October, people like Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell, folks already making in-roads here.  So I think the chess board is already set because both parties have made calendar decisions and have made decisions which will penalize states if they follow through, if they try to leap forward in the calendar as Florida did last time around.

Lynch: And I think candidates know, people who are considering running at this point know that they're going to get attention if they come to Iowa and it's a good place to start rather than sort of shop around and say, should I go here, should I go there, is that the best place to sort of lay the groundwork for my campaign.  I think everybody knows that if you come to Iowa you're going to get the attention, you’re going to create the buzz about your possible candidacy and when you actually get into the race, like Kay said, there's no better place to run.

Henderson: And I remember interviewing Rick Santorum, who nobody in Iowa knew, when he came here for the first time.  He had indicated before his plane landed that he was going to Iowa to sort of test the waters and he told me in the lobby of a Hampton Inn as the people next door were eating a hot waffle that he had Googled himself and found out that there were millions of page views of the stories that had said that he was testing the waters in Iowa.  So that in itself drives people to come here and drives the conversation about the caucuses.

Lynch: And one of the other things --

Zeleny: And I think on the democratic side --

Borg: Go ahead, Jeff.

Zeleny: I think on the democratic side as well, if I can just jump in, that the democratic national committee structure is still the same one that was very good for President Obama.  So I don't look for any rule changes on the democratic side as well.  And 2016 will be a wide open race on both sides.  So I think there's every bit of a reason to think that both sides will, again, begin in Iowa. But I look for some rogue candidates too, you know potentially try their luck in not competing there.  It's been a mixed bag over the years of how well some of them have done.  Ask President Rudy Giuliani how smart it was to not pay much attention to Iowa four years ago.

Borg: But Jeff, was Iowa's role -- even after the caucuses leading up to the general election -- was Iowa's role overplayed as it really turned out?

Zeleny: I don't think it was overplayed because those six electoral votes were critical to both sides and especially to President Obama.  He had a symbolic, a fondness for Iowa, there's no question about that.  But it was also a key part of his electoral strategy and it was very clear that for the Romney campaign that if they were going to thread the needle everywhere those six electoral votes were going to be absolutely essential.  So I don't see anything changing on the general election side.  I think Iowa has established itself as a firm battleground in the general election which is all the more reason to begin the early part of the campaign there with the Iowa caucuses because it allows the candidates to sort of begin building a network of support.  So I think it is probably the end game in the importance of the general election that probably does more to hold onto Iowa's beginning role as well.

Borg: Kathie, one thing that we look at, though, in the caucuses is it possible that we've seen the last of the Iowa straw poll up at Ames?

Obradovich: Yeah, I was just going to say, Dean, just because the calendar is going to probably stay the same and Iowa's role will stay the same doesn't mean that nothing should change in Iowa.  And one of the big targets of criticism over the years has been the republican straw poll that takes place in August.  Huge fundraiser for the party but also hugely expensive for candidates, a huge amount of national attention and it strains relationships with the other early states because they see Iowa as getting what they always say is two bites of the apple, in other words they're essentially getting a pre-caucus.  It only happens on the republican side.  But that is something that our guests out here, again last week, said maybe we should do away with that.  We have Governor Terry Branstad now saying that they should probably do away with that.  There are some consequences for the party.  They're going to have to find some other ways to raise money.  But I've been a pretty long-time critic of that straw poll as well.  I just think it gets too much attention for something that is essentially not, I don't think it's very democratic.

Henderson: And the past two nominees of the Republican Party have skipped the thing.  John McCain skipped it in 2007 and Mitt Romney, although he won the straw poll in 2007 did not participate in 2011.  The other thing is, you know, Rick Perry skipped it as well.  He hadn't actually launched his campaign until that weekend and he had positioned himself to vault ahead in the public opinion polls without even setting foot in Iowa.

Lynch: I think what's interesting is the Republican Party’s response to Terry Branstad's comment that the straw poll should be ended.  They pretty much said, we'll make that decision, not you, it will be up to the party to make that decision.

Borg: Why is that significant?

Lynch: I think it's significant of the tension within the party as the guests on this show talked about last week, that there are different camps within the party and they're not necessarily talking to one another.  And I think maybe the party is feeling the Governor is sort of stepping out beyond his role in declaring the straw poll dead.

Henderson: It's worth mentioning that Ron Paul finished second in this past year's straw poll, in this past cycle's straw poll and that the party apparatus is now controlled by people who supported Ron Paul.

Borg: Jeff, weigh in on what Kay has just said, if you will.

Zeleny: I think Kay is absolutely right and that's probably one of the more interesting sort of legacies of this, of the Ron Paul campaign is the fact that there now is an infrastructure in Iowa certainly but also the same as in Nevada, in Michigan, in New Hampshire, the Ron Paul forces in campaigns are really now controlling these state central committees.  We don't expect that Ron Paul is going to run, of course.  But Senator Rand Paul, his son, has already indicated that he is likely to seek the nomination in 2016.  But I think you guys are absolutely right on this straw poll.  What Governor Branstad did is give people permission to skip the straw poll, to give mainstream candidates sort of a nod that look, you do not have to attend the straw poll.  So I think the straw poll will probably still happen and Rand Paul, if he decides to run, will probably and some others will participate.  But Governor Branstad has essentially given a permission slip for others to skip the whole thing entirely.

Obradovich: There are some consequences for skipping the straw poll, Jeff.  You have, you know, what the caucuses are all about is organizing and organizing for the straw poll does help you do a dry run for the caucuses.  I thought that one of Rick Perry's problems even though he did some out after the straw poll and in fact was leading the polls immediately after but he didn't have that experience of talking to Iowans one-on-one.  He made a lot of gaffs in his sort of maiden run to Iowa.  I think that he could have, before the debates, have used the practice, in fact.  So even though there is, even if there is no straw poll or if it's not as important candidates do, I think, need to get out here for their own good, not just because Iowa is important.

Lynch: And I think it's also worth pointing out that the last two republican nominees who skipped the straw poll and the caucuses didn't win Iowa.  They didn't build the organization they needed to win in Iowa.  Romney and McCain didn't carry Iowa.

Borg: But Kathie, apparently Iowa is attractive to those who are considering, maybe have already made a decision we don't know about declaring themselves as candidates for the 2016 presidential nomination republican party.

Obradovich: Exactly.  Especially on the republican side.  We had Marco Rubio just out here last weekend as the guest for Governor Terry Branstad's big birthday fundraiser.  And as Kay mentioned a lot of the republican governors, of course, ostensibly campaigning for Mitt Romney.  But they made a point of getting out here and being surrogates for Romney in Iowa.  So people have already started making their own in-roads here.

Borg: Jeff, you were out at the Republican Governor's Association meeting.  What is the buzz out there that might be relevant to what we're discussing here?

Zeleny: The buzz that there is a very deep republican bench.  I mean, it is one of the sort of up sides for the party now.  They had a very strong mid-term election in 2010 and a lot of governors were elected.  Now republicans control 30 governor's offices across the country.  So what it means is there's going to be a lot of potential republican candidates for president, a lot of them from the ranks of governors.  You have Bobby Jindal from Louisiana as Kay mentioned, Governor Bob McDonnell from Virginia possible.  Obviously Chris Christie from New Jersey, Scott Walker from Wisconsin.  One thing that most of these candidates have to do is run for re-election, of course.  And to a person that each one of these governors, with the exception of Bob McDonnell who is limited to one term in Virginia, they said that they plan to seek re-election because they believe that Mitt Romney was a weaker candidate because he only served one term as Governor in Massachusetts.  So I think a lot of these governors, if they win re-election in 2014, will emerge as potential candidates.  But a couple of people who do not have to seek re-election, Senator Marco Rubio, of course, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush.  He is also in the early stages of considering this.  So a big, deep republican bench was a big upside in the minds of these republican officials I talked to last week.

Henderson: And Jeb Bush was one of the people who was in Iowa in October speaking to the Sioux City Chamber of Commerce.  So he has already put boots on the ground here.

Borg: Jim, consequences for -- we mentioned Governor Branstad earlier but he is making some indications that he may be running for re-election himself and we have Senator Harkin's seat coming up for election too -- what consequences might they be reading out of the past election results?

Lynch: Well, they saw the results, they saw who won, who lost and where republicans did well.  Governor Branstad is paying attention to that.  Senator Harkin I'm sure is looking at that.  These are two icons right now on the political scene in Iowa.  I think for both of them -- I don't think there's any question that Terry Branstad will run for re-election.  He has had two big fundraisers.  He just had Senator Rubio in for his birthday bash.  He has Governor Scott Walker from Wisconsin in a couple of weeks before the election for his own fundraiser.  Senator Harkin hasn't said whether he's running or not but I think we all sort of expect him to run.

Obradovich: Yeah, and Governor Branstad, of course keeping his options open, he hasn't specifically said he's going to run but I think we heard probably four or five times that he raised $600,000 at that Marco Rubio event.  I think he's scaring off potential challengers there.  And even if he decides not to run I think he had a hand-picked successor in mind in Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds.

Henderson: The one thing that I think will be at play in 2014 is whether the pendulum will swing the way it did between 2008 and 2010.  If it does that, if I'm Tom Harkin and I see things swinging the wrong way might I decide not to seek re-election because I specifically remember Tom Harkin saying in 2010 that he was glad his name wasn't on the ballot because he saw that it was going to be a republican landslide victory for many of the candidates on the GOP ticket.

Lynch: If Governor Branstad would decide not to run it would change the whole dynamic of the 2014 race because right now when we look at who his possible challengers might be there's nobody that really jumps out as a strong challenger.  But if it's a wide open race, whether Kim Reynolds is Terry Branstad's hand-picked successor or not, democrats are going to mount an all out effort to recapture the governor's office.

Henderson: Well, and as Jeff mentioned, democrats see those governorships as an obstacle to overcome.  Democrats have already talked about the need to raise money, to wage campaigns in each of these 30 states to try to turn the tide so that republicans don't have such a stranglehold on executive mansions in the country.

Obradovich: One thing democrats have in 2014 that they did not have in 2010 is the Obama list. They're going to benefit from the fact that President Obama did a huge amount of new recruiting for democrats.  He closed the gap on registration.  And that infrastructure is still there and democrats are going to be able to make use of that in 2014.

Borg: Jeff, from a national perspective you haven't been away from Iowa that long and you knew Iowa politics so well, deeply engrained in covering it when you were here.  Let me ask you about the congressmen who were re-elected and if you see political futures in what we're talking about here, either the Harkin seat or the governorship, in some of those who won.  Bruce Braley?  Dave Loebsack?  Tom Latham?  Steve King.

Zeleny: Well, I think a couple of different things to be said about that.  First, I think Steve King's role as a strong forceful opponent of immigration reform he is really going to go up against his party because republicans nationally look at the results of the 2012 elections across the country and see a changing country, changing demographics and to a person almost these potential 2016 presidential candidates realize that republicans have to be behind some type of immigration reform.  Haley Barbour, a long-time party boss, if you will, on the Republican Party, he said that republicans will not go forward as a mainstream party if they don’t' embrace immigration reform.  So Steve King will be a thorn in the sides of his party but I think he'll be probably steamrolled on that.  I think Bruce Braley is probably viewed as an up and coming figure in the state.  Is he going to run for governor?  Is he going to run for that Senate seat should it come open in 2014?  He probably emerges as someone to watch from the outside.  But overall that Senate seat in 2014 is going to be eyed by democrats here in Washington specifically because control of the Senate will once again be sort of up in the air an open question and the White House obviously wants to keep the Senate in the control of democrats because the House I think is pretty cemented in republican hands for at least the next cycle or two.

Borg: Kathie, you wanted to weigh in on what Jeff was saying there?

Obradovich: Well, I was just going to say with the congressional races in Iowa we have now a very sharp split in the state with democrats controlling and representing the eastern side, republicans controlling and representing the western side.  And so it will be kind of interesting to see as this goes forward whether we finally, we start to see a bench developing from western Iowa republicans, for example, to start looking at filling in, in some of those congressional battle for the future.

Borg: Let me ask, again, an election consequence.  Christie Vilsack stepped into the political arena, challenged Steve King, didn't make it but is there political future that you see, Kay, for Christie Vilsack?

Henderson: There could be.  Let's talk about the district in which she ran.  It had a 50,000 republican voter registration edge.  The district in which Tom Latham ran to the south had a 9,000 voter registration edge.  Both Tom Latham and Steve King, as we mentioned on the program last week, won by 7.6%.  So she had a sizeable share of republicans who voted for Mitt Romney and then turned around in the congressional race and voted for her.  She is well known, the Vilsack name is well known.  I would suggest, though, that the Vilsack we might be talking about is Tom Vilsack.

Borg: Why?  Where?

Henderson: Well, number one, will he do something else in the Obama administration?  He has been the Secretary of Agriculture for four years -- if there's a little bit --

Borg: We'll go back and ask Jeff that in just a minute.  Go ahead though.

Henderson: There's a little bit of fruit basket upset, obviously, when a president wins a second term.  You sort of rearrange the deck chairs, people get different roles.  Might Tom Vilsack move to something like Chief of Staff or whoever knows.  There might be another role for him in the Obama administration that there might be another role for Tom Vilsack on a statewide ticket.  He might run if Tom Vilsack, I mean Tom Harkin rather, retires.

Borg: What do you think, Jeff?

Zeleny: I think that's certainly a possibility.  I mean, there are going to be some shifting positions in the Obama cabinet.  The ones that we're hearing most about here in Washington are Secretary of State, obviously Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury.  I don't believe that Secretary Vilsack will be in the running for any of those.  But he could be potentially Homeland Security, perhaps a long shot to be Attorney General.  But I think that he has to have one eye on Iowa as well and if Tom Harkin would signal that he is not running I could see Secretary/Governor Vilsack want to try his hand to be Senator Vislack.  Who knows but I think that he certainly would be a big early favorite if that were to happen.  But a lot of ifs in that scenario.  So I think he just has to see how things play out in Washington.

Borg: Go ahead, Kathie.

Obradovich: Vilsack's name gets raised a lot for a Senate seat but I don't see that as necessarily being his desire.  He often says that he feels like he is better in an executive role.  I don't think he enjoyed necessarily his time being one of 50 or one of 100 in the legislature.  So I would be more likely to see him going for some sort of executive role either outside of government or -- and this is not something that I've heard people talk about -- but I would be more likely to see him come back and run for a non-consecutive term as Governor of Iowa than to run for Senate.

Borg: Jeff, back to you.  There are four states in the nation that have split control.  Iowa is one of them in the General Assembly.  That tells you the political climate in Iowa, number one.  But it also tells a little bit about Iowa republicans kind of losing control because their control, their dominance in the House of Representatives was eroded during this past election.  As you watch that what are you seeing?

Zeleny: I see one thing that republicans in Washington were looking to defeat Senator Mike Gronstal more than any other Senate democratic leader at the state level in any state that I've seen.  He was a top target and he won obviously and democrats have maintained their control in the Senate.  So I think it just shows the power that one individual can sort of have as a leader here.  But it also shows, as we talked about earlier, the split in the Republican Party.  It just is not a moderate enough party for some of those voters and that is one of the reasons that I think we still see a split in Iowa.  But I think going forward like on legislation it is going to have some significant consequences.  I'm not sure that Iowa has all that much in common with the other states that are split.  It's more of a state-by-state level.  But the fact that Iowa democrats held control of the state Senate and republicans lost some of their strength in the House I think is a pretty significant outcome of this election.

Borg: Jim, is that at all going to affect what is brought up this session because things stayed just about the same although republicans don't control the House by dominance?

Lynch: I don't see how things changed very much at all.  Mike Gronstal still controls the Senate.  Kraig Paulsen still is Speaker in the House.  And although they talk a good game that they're going to work together to get done what they can get done we've heard that for the last two years and a lot of things haven't gotten done whether it is property tax relief or education reform.  They have a hard time actually getting an agreement.  And I think it's going to be just as hard in 2013 as it was in 2012.

Obradovich: We certainly haven't heard the leaders talk about any sort of creative new ways of getting legislation passed.  When we talked to the re-elected House Speaker Kraig Paulsen he said, well we're hoping the Senate will take up some of the bills that we sent over last year.  So it doesn't sound to me like they're looking at any particularly creative new approaches at the Statehouse.

Lynch: And he's been saying that for two years and the Senate hasn't taken up those bills.

Obradovich: But I think --

Borg: There are some things that are just percolating, Kay, that have been percolating waiting for the election outcome.  Things stayed about the same but they can't percolate any longer.  They've got to be moved to the front burner.

Henderson: Well, there are some outside pressure groups that are trying to move the legislature to consider an increase in the gas tax.  That's something that Governor Branstad has suggested that he might be amenable to in the future.  But I think if you look at the dynamics of statehouse politics, I think Terry Branstad is the driver here.  I think he can deal with Mike Gronstal, the democratic leader in the House, in the Senate rather and if he can bring Kraig Paulsen to accept some deal that is struck between the Governor and Senate democrats I think that is the dynamic that will be at work to get anything to move.  If that doesn't work, if people are stuck in their trenches we may have another two years of status quo here.

Lynch: And 2013 might be the year to do that because it's not an election year.  It might be that the legislative leaders and the Governor say, we can do a gas tax increase, we can do education reform, we can do some of these things without it being in the election year and give them some breathing room.

Obradovich: I'll just throw out there that the agenda may be turned on its ear if we don't get this fiscal cliff done at the federal level because a lot of that, the extreme budget issues could be pushed down to Iowa's budget.

Borg: We've got to go there.  Thank you so much.  Thanks, Jeff, for being with us today from Washington.

Zeleny: Thank you.

Borg: Next week on Iowa Press a preview from Iowa legislative leaders.  We'll be questioning Iowa Senate Democratic Majority Leader Mike Gronstal and Speaker of the Iowa House of Representatives Kraig Paulsen.  You'll see Paulsen and Gronstal at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and again at noon on Sunday.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: elections Iowa Jeff Zeleny politics