Political cornerstones. State political parties providing structure, message and organizational muscle. We're questioning Iowa Party Chairmen, Republican A.J. Spiker and Democrat Tyler Olson on this edition of Iowa Press.
Borg: Iowa's republican and democratic state chairmen are well seasoned politically but they are new to their jobs. It was just a year ago this month that republican state central committee of Iowa elected Ames real estate agent A.J. Spiker state chair. At that time he had been staffing Congressman Ron Paul's presidential campaign. For Iowa democrats, it was just a couple of weeks ago that the state central committee chose Linn County State Representative Tyler Olson as state chair. Gentlemen, good to have you at the Iowa Press table today.
Spiker: Thank you.
Olson: Glad to be here.
Borg: And across the table, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, Congressman Bruce Braley announced this past week that he is running for the United States Senate in 2014. Is he the only candidate your party will put forward? Or is he going to face a primary?
Olson: Well, Iowa democrats will ultimately choose who our Senate nominee will be. Congressman Braley has been a really effective voice for Iowans in Congress, for middle class Iowans and the values that I think we all share. He has been a champion for us there and will be a strong candidate.
Henderson: Does that -- is that an endorsement from you?
Olson: No. I'm not endorsing Congressman Braley's run. I think he was a great congressman and ultimately Iowa democrats will choose who that nominee will be.
Henderson: Mr. Spiker, Governor Branstad says he doesn't want to live in D.C., he'd love to run but he doesn't intend to do so. Who is the best GOP candidate to run for the United States Senate?
Spiker: Yeah, the best GOP candidate to run is whoever our party selects as its nominee. We trust the grassroots to decide who the nominee of the party is and the party will fully support whoever is chosen.
Borg: Who is making noises to want to be chosen?
Spiker: Oh there are plenty making noises.
Borg: Name some.
Spiker: Obviously Steve King and Tom Latham are in the papers. You hear Bill Northey's name mentioned. You hear Secretary of State Schultz's name mentioned. Several other republicans. The Lieutenant Governor's name.
Henderson: Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds has said she's not ruling it out.
Obradovich: You say that Iowa republicans will decide. But Karl Rove this week suggested that he would like to help Iowa republicans decide. He is coming out with his organization against Steve King. Steve King, of course, is one of the more conservative voices in the party. Karl Rove says a candidate like that can't win the general election. What is your response to that?
Spiker: Well, Steve King obviously can win general elections, he has won them. He just beat Christie Vilsack in a very competitive race in the fourth district of Iowa. As far as Karl Rove intervening in our party's business in Iowa it is ultimately up to Iowans and Iowans are used to politics that is really grassroots, door-to-door activity where they get to know the candidates and they decide who they believe best represents their values. So I don't believe Karl Rove will have the kind of influence in a state like Iowa that he might want to have.
Obradovich: Does he even make -- does Karl Rove, his interference even make conservatives more determined to nominate one of their own?
Spiker: Well, I believe there's blow back when you have out-of-state interest groups or large PACs that come in and try to influence an election. And obviously to a lot of people Karl Rove represents part of what went wrong with Akin. Karl Rove was one of the people who turned on Todd Akin in Missouri right away and helped end the Akin campaign. I believe that his getting involved in this election in Iowa, it won't go in the direction he would like it to go.
Obradovich: And Mr. Olson, one name that hasn't been mentioned, actually two names, is Vilsack. They have been named as being potential candidates for U.S. Senate. Tom Vilsack, of course, Secretary of Agriculture and Christie Vilsack, who ran for Congress. What is your feeling about whether either of them might get into the race?
Olson: Well, I have not heard from either one of them one way or another. Iowans are going to decide who our nominee is going to be. I have great confidence that we're going to win that Senate seat. We already have one great candidate in the race, others may join. But ultimately we're going to be successful in keeping that seat in 2014.
Obradovich: What makes you confident about keeping the seat? We saw in 2010 an off year for the president, it was a republican year. It very well could be a republican year again mid-term for President Obama. What makes you so confident that democrats can hold the seat?
Olson: Well, democrats in Iowa are in an even stronger position than we were coming out of the 2008 election. As you know there was historic turnout during the 2012 presidential election. 40,000 more Iowans voted for President Obama in 2012 than did in 2008. And I really think 2008 was a lot about who President Obama is and was and 2012 was about his agenda, the things that he was able to accomplish in Washington and his plans going forward. So I really think we're in two different spots and we're in a much stronger position today than we were even coming out of 2008.
Borg: Go ahead.
Obradovich: I was going to say, Mr. Spiker, are the republicans prepared to counter what Mr. Olson describes as a much stronger position than 2008?
Spiker: Off year elections typically the party that holds the White House loses seats in the Senate. So we've got a great opportunity with an open seat in the U.S. Senate to pick it up. Iowa is a swing state. We're a state that sent Harkin and Grassley to Washington. And having it be an off year with an open seat puts us in a wonderful position. And I know the RNC and the National Republican Senatorial Committee are committed to making sure that the republicans win the seat.
Henderson: Let's quickly address the elephant in the room. Mr. Spiker, there are republicans who think the party apparatus is not prepared because of the people who are at the helm. How do you respond to those critics who look at democrats who were able to marshal resources in a way that republicans were not able to and they don't see fundraising flourishing? How do you respond to those critics?
Spiker: We had our largest year as far as spending on a victory program. The republican party of Iowa spent over $5 million, had more phone banking than we had ever done in the past, knocked on more doors than we had every knocked on in the past.
Henderson: And where did that money come from?
Spiker: The money largely came from the Republican National Committee to fund the victory program.
Henderson: If you don't have outside resources are these candidates out on their own? Do you have the ability to raise money to help these candidates?
Spiker: Absolutely. The state party has always raised money to help the candidates and will continue to.
Borg: Mr. Olson, what fortune cookie are you reading that gives you an idea that Congressman Braley would run strongly in the western side of the state where Congressman King just ran for re-election and runs for re-election and wins every time?
Olson: Well, I think Congressman Braley's strong advocacy for middle class Iowans, for the values that we all share, his belief that the connections that we share make us stronger and his message that we're not as strong when we're divided plays across the state. And that is really Iowa democrats' message as well. So I think we're going to be strong statewide. Congressman King has a decision to make I think whether or not he thinks his message is more than just a niche message, a regional message in this state, whether or not he thinks that that message plays statewide.
Borg: Well that brings the question to you, Mr. Spiker. Can that conservative message go in liberal eastern Iowa, not overly liberal but Congressman Braley has been re-elected there and also Congressman Loebsack.
Spiker: Absolutely. Governor Branstad has done well in eastern Iowa and republicans can do well in eastern Iowa. When we stand on the principles that the party believes in, empowering the people, focusing on jobs, the economy, pointing out the fact that we're a state with under 5% unemployment in large part because of our republican leadership, we're going to win that eastern Iowa.
Borg: But you're kind of both going back to boiler plate, party boiler plate in those answers. When push comes to shove, can each of them run strongly in which is right now divided republican west, democratic east?
Olson: I think absolutely democrats will run strongly across the state. One of the things that I learned from 2008 and 2012, that there is a strong group of active, passionate leaders in communities across the state and when they have the tools and the resources they need, the training that they need, they will organize their communities. And that is one of the things that the Iowa Democratic Party is going to be focused on over the next couple of years, building out that infrastructure, making sure that leaders in each of our communities have the resources that they need and I think we're going to be successful in 2014.
Obradovich: Well, the Des Moines Register has a new poll out that looked at the candidates for Senate and some interesting results. I mentioned former Governor Tom Vilsack. He is actually at the top of the heap, republicans or democrats. And we asked Iowans which candidate they would find appealing and what we're seeing here is a difference between yes and no. Tom Vilsack at 21, Tom Latham 6, Bruce Braley 3. That is the difference between people saying they are appealing or not. And then everybody else is a negative number. Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, Christie Vilsack, Steve King at minus 8. His negatives are greater than his positives. Chet Culver minus 10. Bob Vander Plaats minus 33. What is your reaction to that?
Olson: Well I'm not surprised that Governor Vilsack has a high favorability rating. He did a great job as Governor of Iowa and obviously he is doing a great job serving the President as the Secretary of Agriculture. And I think he has really moved the state forward and Iowans see him as a great leader. Congressman Braley also is very strong in head-to-head matchups that I've seen, runs very strongly. And I think that really shows that we're going to have a strong team into 2014 and we're going to win that Senate seat.
Borg: But how can the party -- on Tom Vilsack's most favorable there and I'll let you back in here Kathie in just a minute -- but how should the party be capitalizing on that Vilsack popularity? It's not right now with him in Washington as Secretary of Agriculture.
Olson: Well, he's really doing a lot of good for Iowa as Secretary of Agriculture. When you look at the percentage of our economy that comes from agriculture, that is based on agriculture --
Borg: But not capitalizing on that popularity is the question I have.
Olson: Well, obviously there is electoral politics that goes on. I mean, ultimately I'm in this business and I think a lot of people are not only to win elections but then what we're able to do moving the state forward. And Tom Vilsack has done a great job of that and I think democrats have done a great job of that and we're going to be successful.
Obradovich: Do you want to avoid a primary between Tom Vilsack and Bruce Braley?
Olson: That is really for Iowans to decide.
Obradovich: That's for the candidates to decide first.
Olson: Well, and that's right and that is who is going to make that decision.
Obradovich: And the party might help them, people in the party might help them decide whether to run.
Olson: Well, I'm not going to endorse anybody. The Iowa Democratic Party is not going to endorse anyone. Congressman Braley has been a strong voice for Iowans and Governor Vilsack obviously has a strong track record.
Obradovich: And Mr. Spiker, the poll looks like Tom Latham is the most popular republican or at least the one with the broadest appeal at this point. Do you think that is the way republicans feel generally?
Spiker: Well, I think it's very early and you're looking at polling very early which means it is more name ID than anything. Tom is obviously very well known. He covered a lot of north, west and south now Iowa so he has really had a good chunk of the state. But I think it's pretty early to be completely putting, the media to be putting too much emphasis on polls.
Obradovich: Tom Latham is not better known than Steve King and he's not better known than Bob Vander Plaats who has run for governor three times. It can't be just about name ID.
Spiker: Well, I haven't read the poll, I haven't read the questions that were asked in the poll so I'd have to look at that to be able to answer better.
Henderson: There was some other polling out by PPP this week which showed a Braley/King matchup and it showed Braley leading Congressman King by 11 points. Both of them apparently are well known to at least a segment of people, neither one of them getting above 50%, but Congressman King lagging significantly behind Congressman Braley. The other PPP showed Braley leading Latham by just 3 points. What sort of message should republicans glean from these sort of early measures of how the respective candidates match up with democrats?
Spiker: Like I said before, I think it is too early to really put too much stock in the polling. We're going to see a lot of polling --
Borg: But they're not new people, Mr. Spiker.
Spiker: No, they're not new people but to simply look at a poll literally a couple of weeks after Tom Harkin has said he's not going to run again and say that's the way it would look if there's a primary I think is unfair. We'll just have to wait and see who ends up running and what the numbers end up being. But I do know republicans are very excited about both Tom Latham and Steve King and they are very well liked within our party.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, the other thing about those two polls is that Mr. Braley is not leading in a convincing fashion, he's not above 50% in either one of those polls. Is that, I guess, something that Tom Vilsack should look to and say, well I guess he doesn't have this sewn up?
Olson: Well, I think when you look at Congressman Braley's e-mail that he sent out announcing that he was taking those first steps he acknowledged that he has some work to do to get out around the state. Again, I think his record and his ability to champion Iowa values in Washington, D.C. is going to play well across the state. And there may be others that decide to run as well and if that is the case Iowa democrats will decide who our nominee is going to be.
Obradovich: How does the party come out of what potentially could be a divisive primary in 2014 and be prepared to hold onto the U.S. Senate seat and fight a governor's battle? Is there potential there for a party division that didn't really exist in 2012?
Olson: Well, I think Iowa democrats are united in the values that we share. We're focused on building an economy from the middle out, equal rights for all Iowans, making sure everyone is treated the same under the law and we have a long, proud history of that and a primary is not going to change that. We're focused on moving the state forward, some in the Republican Party have been focused on issues like the United Nations and that kind of thing which I just don't think are mainstream Iowa issues. So we're going to unite around those issues no matter who our nominees will be and I think that is going to lead to success in 2014.
Obradovich: And Mr. Spiker, the Republican Party has had some rough primaries over the past couple of cycles. There's still I think a battle going on for what is the voice, who is the best candidate, what will be the best voice for the republican party. Is that going to play out again here heading into 2014?
Spiker: Well, time will tell but primaries are very healthy. They do help a candidate prepare for the general election and they help a candidate put in place the infrastructure to be able to be competitive and to ultimately win. So I would think whoever runs, being in a contested primary would help them ultimately.
Henderson: Let me as a simple question about the governor's race. Raise your hand, you two gentlemen, if you think Terry Branstad is going to run for re-election.
Obradovich: I'll raise mine too.
Henderson: Exactly. Mr. Spiker, what sort of relationship do you have with the Governor? You and the Governor had sort of a very public spat over the future of the Iowa straw poll which is held in August preceding the caucuses. Do you have a working relationship that is actually working?
Spiker: We do. As far as the straw poll, though, up until September of 2014 the rules that the RNC can be changed in such a manner that could threaten the first-in-the-nation status. And one of the biggest things we need to do as Iowans, and it goes for the media as well, is to remember that the tradition of the Iowa caucus, which does include the straw poll, is one of our strongest cards for keeping the Iowa caucus first-in-the-nation. And within the RNC people do view the straw poll as being part of our caucus. So as people talk about diminishing or taking away the straw poll, everybody needs to be very careful in having that discussion.
Henderson: Mr. Olson, question for you. Are you going to run for governor?
Olson: Well, we need a new governor. I mean, just look at the last couple of weeks. Governor Branstad has pushed forward proposals to cut education spending --
Borg: But the question is, does that put you in the race?
Olson: Well, that's a decision that will be made over the course of some weeks and months. But we need a new governor. He has pushed cuts to education funding, he is opposing access to health insurance for 155,000 Iowans, cutting funding for clean water and that is just in the last couple of weeks. His record over the last two years reflects the same thing, vetoing middle class tax cuts for Iowans, trying to end our preschool program which meant 25,000 Iowa four year olds would have been out on the street.
Henderson: That may have been your first speech on the campaign trail. Can you be both? Can you be party chair and governor? Or is this party chair thing just a precursor helping you ramp up?
Olson: Well, I'm focused on making sure that Iowa democrats are in a spot so that when we get to a year from now our nominees, no matter who they are, have the resources they need, have the organizational structure that they need to be successful in 2014. We are in a strong spot but we're not going to stand still. We're going to keep moving forward and making sure that our organization is strong.
Henderson: It can't hurt to have the ability to travel to all 99 counties and introduce yourself to people.
Olson: Again, my focus is going to be on building that organization no matter who our nominees are going to be. We're in a strong spot, we're going to keep moving forward.
Borg: Let me ask it this way. Up until Tom Harkin's announcement that he wasn't going to run again we thought it was Bruce Braley who was a prime candidate, democrats did too I think, to go against Governor Branstad, who you raised your hand a moment ago and said I think he's going to run again. But doesn't this now attention -- isn't this a game changer, the announcement, and doesn't it shift all the energy, if not maybe all, a good share of the energy and momentum now toward that Senate race and away from the governor's race, money and attention?
Olson: Well, I think there's going to be a lot more attention on Iowa because Senator Harkin's decision not to run for re-election --
Borg: Is that going to make it harder for the democrats to run someone strong against Governor Branstad?
Olson: I think it's going to benefit democrats running at all levels of office. Senator Harkin talked in his speech announcing that he was not going to run for re-election about the need for a fresh perspective, for voices that understand the world today and maybe not what it was 30 years ago and that is the case that I think democrats are going to make against Governor Branstad as well.
Obradovich: Mr. Spiker, speaking of energy in the primary season, do you expect Governor Branstad to have a primary opponent from your party?
Spiker: I don't know. I know there have been primaries in the past but I haven't had anybody ask me any questions about it at this point.
Henderson: Would you discourage someone from challenging the Governor in a primary?
Spiker: I would not discourage anybody from a primary period within the party. I think if somebody chooses to run in a primary that is their choice and parties ultimately benefit from primaries.
Obradovich: But you haven't heard anybody making moves in that direction?
Spiker: No, I haven't.
Obradovich: Well, let's talk a little bit about the ground game for 2014. It was a big part of the story in 2012. Democrats and the Obama campaign had a lot more campaign offices as part of their strategy. Republicans had fewer offices and tried to have more bang for the buck perhaps. Obviously democrats came out on top. What are you doing to make sure that republicans are in a good position to turn out their supporters for 2014?
Spiker: Yeah, the most important job within the party is the precinct committee person and really what we need is people working within their little precinct to deliver that precinct for the party. So that is going to be a big part of our emphasis going into 2014.
Obradovich: Is recruiting the right committee people or --
Spiker: Well, we have the caucuses coming up obviously in 2014, excuse me, 2014, we have the 2014 --
Obradovich: Oh you're talking about the 2014 caucuses, okay.
Spiker: mid-term for organizational for the party. But that is when we elect people to represent the neighborhoods and we really need to have people turn out and have people sign up to be precinct representatives and working their precincts. That is a key piece of it.
Obradovich: Mr. Olson, do you see the same sort of approach for 2014 as you took in 2012 with a heavy emphasis on ground game? And can you do that without the Obama bank roll?
Olson: We're obviously going to take those lessons and build on them. I mean, there was no question that that was successful and I see a lot of success in that moving forward. Obviously a non-presidential year is a little bit different. But we're really going to be focused on areas that democrats maybe have not been present in the past in off year elections.
Obradovich: Such as?
Olson: In more rural areas of the state. We're going to focus on courthouses, making sure that we are building a grassroots organization. People want to get engaged in different ways. Some people want to be elected to a central committee. Some people want to organize their friends and neighbors. Some people want to make phone calls. Some want to knock doors. And we're going to make sure that we have the tools and resources in place so that no matter how someone wants to get active they have the ability to do that.
Henderson: Mr. Spiker, there is a group of republicans who are meeting with the goal of eventually getting the GOP to accept same-sex marriage or at least not make it a central point of any campaign. What are your thoughts on that effort?
Spiker: Well, the party wants to be welcoming and we're a big tent and we want to have people of a lot of different views that are part of the party. But what they also need to understand is that there is a gay marriage party in the state of Iowa and that is the Iowa Democratic Party. The Republican Party embraces one man, one woman marriage and embraces the right of the people to vote on the definition of marriage.
Obradovich: So should those republicans leave and join Mr. Olson's party?
Spiker: No, they are very welcome to be a part of it. But there are areas where we have disagreements as republicans. We have republicans who are union members that may not agree with us on our plank on right to work but they're still republicans and we want them to be a part of the party.
Borg: Quickly, Kathie.
Obradovich: Mr. Olson, Mr. Spiker talked a little bit about the caucuses and Iowa's effort to be first-in-the-nation. Traditionally that has been a job for both party chairs to work together. Have you started talking about that? And what is your assessment about Iowa's position for 2016?
Olson: We have started talking about it and we're going to work very closely together. It's something that I think is top priorities for both of us. We're going to do the things that we need to do to maintain our first-in-the-nation status. One thing I want to say ---
Borg: I've got to interrupt. You'll have to tell them privately and we'll have you back to tell what you told him. Thanks a lot for being with us. Next week on Iowa Press, Iowa Board of Regents leaders, Board President Craig Lang and President Pro Tem Bruce Rastetter. Plenty of issues there to discuss regarding the Regents institutions in Ames and Iowa City as well as the newly chosen president at UNI. Lang and Rastetter at the usual times, 7:30 Friday night and again at noon Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.