Iowa Public Television


Election Politics in Iowa

posted on May 10, 2013

Considering the possibilities with options disappearing, Iowa republicans pondering how to capture another seat in the U.S. Senate.  Perspective from political operatives, republican David Kochel and democrat Jeff Link and reporters' roundtable analyzing final days of the Iowa legislative session.

Borg: In late January, Iowa's democrat U.S. Senator Tom Harkin told us he is not running for another term in democrat Jeff Link has managed campaigns for Senator Harkin and served as his chief of staff and he's a senior advisor to Congressman Braley's senatorial campaign.  Republican David Kochel has a couple decades in political campaigns including Terry Branstad's and presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  He founded red wave communications, strategically advising top-tiered republican campaigns across the nation.  Welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Borg: Interested in your perspective.  And across the table Des Moines Register Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Before we talk about the senate race let's get this party started.  A lot of national reporters coming to Iowa this weekend going to Cedar Rapids to see what could be considered the start of the 2018 presidential race.  Or 2016 presidential race.  Mr. Kochel, is it just too early to pay attention to these things or do events such as this tell

us something about the presidential race.

Kochel: They tell us a lot.  Who's getting the invites, who's interested in coming.  Sometimes you will see campaigns stepping gingerly into early states but with Rand Paul, it appears he's really out there, he's going to be in New Hampshire and South Carolina as well.  Senator Santorum here recently.  I think the season is now upon us.

Mr. Link as a democrat is everyone sort of sitting back and waiting for Hillary Clinton to make a decision?

Link: I think we are in a different position.  I think the republican nomination will be far more up for grabs in 2016 and for the democrats, they will wait to see what secretary Clinton does and the chips will fall into place.

Obradovich: Are there significant differences in the political landscape in Iowa between -- compared to what it was four years ago at this time when candidates were making their early steps.

Link: Well, I don't know that the political landscape has changed, but I think Senator Clinton's profile or Secretary Clinton's profile has been enhanced significantly by not only the presidential race, but her service as secretary.

Obradovich: You know, she had a sort of a -- off again, on again relationship with the caucuses.  Do you expect her to have a different attitude toward the caucuses this time?

Link: I think she absolutely would.

Obradovich: Mr. Kochel, what does it say about the republican party of Iowa that their first big headliner is Rand Paul if -- is there a message about perhaps who they're it interested in seeing in Iowa.

Kochel: I think it's pretty well known the leadership of the Iowa republican party is mostly comes out of the Rand Paul for president movement.  Rand Paul is a significant figure in the party.  I think you saw him seize the moment with the filibuster over drone policy of the president and he's kind of the -- one of the it guys in all the 2016 talk.  I think it wouldn't have been surprising, no matter who was in charge of this state party, but it certainly was -- made a lot of sense for them to get him.

Borg: Mr. Kochel, I am making an assumption here in asking this question, but I'm going to say, how has the credibility and the influence of the Iowa caucuses changed?  From just four years ago.

Kochel: I think it really started when senator McCain took a pass on the caucuses in 2000. You're seeing candidates looking at the caucuses a little bit more optional on the republican side. I'm not sure that is true for democrats.  But, you know, the Romney campaign, this past cycle, we chose to take a much more cautious approach and we were focused on expectations.  Obviously having finished second in the previous cycle, we, you know, made a strategic decision to really wait and come in late.  You might see one or more candidates in 2016 who decide not to play as hard in the Iowa caucuses.  I think you've got an opportunity to -- you've got to win one of your early states, whether it's Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, maybe Florida.  You can't wait until Florida like Rudy Giuliani did.  For republican candidates there's a chance that a candidate, I don't know if it would be someone like Chris Christie, for example, who might take a pass on the caucuses, play it low key, keep their expectations low so they don't get hurt going into New Hampshire.

Borg: Mr. Link, that influences, everything they said, influences the democratic side and would you agree that influence of the caucuses and the credibility is changing?

Link: I think it has changed on the republican side. I think they had a -- sort of a strange dynamic just for the reasons that they've talked about last time, but on the democratic side, you know, the caucuses were enhanced by the competition between Senator Obama and Senator Clinton.  It was a very joined race here in the state.  No one thought about taking a pass in a serious way.  And I think it just enhanced the role of the caucuses in the -- on the democratic side and I think the fact that President Obama won the caucuses, feels so strongly about the system and about the state of Iowa, that we're in a great shape going forward.

Henderson: Let us talk about 2014 and the senate race presented to Iowans when Tom Harkin announced he would not seek re-election.  Mr. Kochel, why has no prominent republican stepped forward to run?

Kochel: Well, I think they don't feel it's their time.  I know that Congressman Latham is in a great position in the congress.  Close to speaker Boehner, obviously.  Kim Reynolds chose to stay put.  The governor and her are a great team for Iowa and she's got other things she would like to do in the future.  Steve king made a similar decision.  That doesn't mean we're not going to have a strong candidate who could emerge.  The primary is going to really show us who's capable of raising the money, finding the right message and building a strong coalition going into the general election.

Borg: If somebody is going to emerge, where are they hiding and why?

Kochel: It's early, Dean.  Plenty of time for campaigns to get going.  We don't have to have 24/7 campaign cycles year-round.  We’ve started to see some people emerge and there will be more coming.

Henderson: I want to ask you about Congressman King.  He said he is interested in running for the senate, perhaps interested in running for governor.  If, in fact, Senator Grassley chooses not to seek re-election in 2016 is Congressman King's brand damaged by the dances up

to the point and then not saying he would run for those offices?

Kochel: No.  I think congressman King's brand is perfectly intact.  He ran a strong election from a strong challenge from Christie Vilsack.  He is the big player on the field.  If he wants to run for senate he would win the primary.  He decided this wasn't his time and I take him at his word he would rather serve in congress this term and maybe looking at the future for another opportunity.

Obradovich: Mr. Link, governor Branstad recently framed this race for republicans as an Iowa problem solver versus a congressman.  It looks like it's at least going to shape up that way in the sense that it's not going to be a congressman running against Bruce Braley.  How does Bruce Braley frame his message so he's not, in fact, being -- he's not being associated necessarily with the unpopularity of congress right now?

Link: I'll answer that question.  Going back to the King issue, the governor's remarks hit Steve King at a time deciding whether or not he was going to enter this race or not and I think what it showed was that Congressman King's stature was diminished through this process. He started out as this prohibitive favorite, and the governor took a shot at him, other people took shots at him throughout the entire process.  Candidates started jumping ahead saying they were going to get into the race and were considering the race even while he was still doing it and then he ends up getting out of the race sending in an e-mail at 9:30 on a Friday night.  That's not the way you improve your stature statewide.  To get to your question, though, what congressman Braley will do is talk about what he's done.  Represented the people of northeast Iowa, he's worked hard on issues, he's worked hard on small business issues.  He's introducing himself throughout 6the state right now, letting people know what he's done.  Originally from Brooklyn, Iowa, grew up in a small town.  His mother was a teacher.  His father worked at a grain elevator.  Those are the kind of things he's going to talk about.

Obradovich: But it's possible and likely that he's not going to be running against somebody who has a record of voting in congress, and is that a handicap for Bruce Braley?

Link: I don't think so.  I don't think so.  He has a record on issues that the senate will deal with. I think whoever he runs against is going to have to take positions on issues that senate is likely to deal with and so there will be a comparison of those ideas.

Obradovich: Mr. Kochel, is part of the concern for republicans the fact that the party itself has not decided what it wants to be?  It seems to me like when I talk to republicans about who should be their nominee, they are framing it in terms of a faction of the party, that a candidate needs to appeal to.  What's your take on that and how does the -- if that's your concern, how does the party overcome that?

Kochel: Well, I'm in the big ten camp.  You probably noticed that I've been working to try to get the party to be more hospitable to people who have views that are maybe different from our platform.  That's the party we need to be.  Primaries are for sorting that out.  I think we're going to find a candidate who will successfully navigate a primary by raising money, by identifying activists, bringing new people into the party and then by challenging a Washington record and a congress that is very unpopular.  I don't think Iowans will be in the mood to promote a member of congress to the senate and that will be our best opportunity. We will look for an Iowa problem solver who speaks our language and go to Washington to try to change things.

Obradovich: Do republicans need to worry about nominating a candidate they think will be the best suited to win the general election, or should they be looking for a candidate that best represents their views?

Kochel: They should be looking for someone to win the general election.  That's the point of the primary.  We're not looking for someone who makes us feel good, but has no chance of winning the seat.  This is about governing, this is about winning back the senate and being able to stop the president's left wing agenda, Obama care and other things we

disagree with fundamentally on policy.

Henderson: Mr. Kochel, let's brief viewers who aren't familiar with your recent attempts to broaden the tent as you so recently explained it.  You have suggested that the party needs to take a less strident stand in regards to same-sex marriage.  When do you think the republican party of Iowa will nominate a candidate who supports same-sex marriage?

Kochel: I'm not sure when that will happen.  I think we’ve got a number of people in the legislature who are kind of looking at the issue right now who agree with me, but aren't out there on the issue yet.  I think it's not that far off that we'll have candidates, maybe for congress, or higher than that, who have that point of view and for me, it's not about driving people out of the party who are supporters of traditional marriage.  It's about making it hospitable for people who have different views.  I think we can't grow as a party when we're defining ourselves into a narrow category, whether it's on marriage or any other issue.

Borg: Mr. Link, a moment ago I made a note here, you said in denying that Congressman Braley is going to be bringing some congressional badge into the campaign you said you said the republican, whoever it is, is going to have to take a position on issues.  What issues?  What issues are going to dominate the senate campaign?

Link: I think the general election will be dominated by the economy and by who best can help the middle class in the state of Iowa.  I think the primary, frankly, is going to be a lot about social issues.  I think the sorting out that they referred to is going to be about social issues, much like the caucus was and that's why Rick Santorum ended up winning.

I don't think the republicans looked to Santorum as their best general election candidate, but that was the person who sort of appealed to the people who showed up on caucus night.

Borg: Mr. Kochel?  Issues?

Kochel: First of all there's a difference between a primary and caucus electorate.  The primary electorate is bigger and I think it will suit a candidate with a message that is more focused on the economy and I think that's true.  I think -- I do think the issues will be the economy and jobs and how to grow jobs here at home as opposed to growing Washington, which is what Bruce Braley has been about while he's been out there.  He's voted for every big budget busting tax increase and spending bill.

Borg: I notice you’re already in campaign.

Obradovich: Are you concerned that Obama care, which will be going through probably messy throes of being implemented, could be a drag on democrats in 2014.

Link: The implementation of Obama care will be a matter of great discussion and debate in 2014 as the pieces start to come into place.  But I think the advantages of Obama care, young people being able to stay on their parents' policies until they're 26, not being able to be denied coverage because of preexisting conditions, some of the pieces of this reform that are going to be positive, are also going to start taking effect.

Obradovich: Mr. Kochel, the only candidate who's actually – two candidates, republican candidates, announced in the past week, Matt Whitaker announced he's interested in running for senate and not calling for the repeal of Obama care.  He says let's overhaul it, let's keep the parts that people want and need.  Is that a softening of the republican position or is that unique, do you think, to Mr. Whitaker?

Kochel: Probably a different way to say it than most republicans would.  Although there are certainly things in Obama care that republicans support.  Preexisting conditions, for example.  The problem with Obama care is that it's implementation so far has proved to be much different and wrong from where we were told it was going to be.  It hasn't bent the cost curve down.  Health care costs are rising at an alarming rate.  It's unsustainable.  There's a better way to do it.

Henderson: Gentlemen, there is another big race in Iowa coming up.  The race for governor.  Where is the democrat who is going to challenge Terry Branstad?

Link: I think we have a number of democrats who are in the legislature who are thinking about this and will probably make their intentions known very quickly, as soon as the – as soon as they reach an agreement on the budget and adjourn the legislature.

Henderson: If the argument is that republicans are in disarray because they don't have a candidate for the state, shouldn't the same be said for democrats in a race of statewide importance such as for the governorship?

Link: I think the big difference is, you don't have as many camps on the democratic side as exist currently in the republican side.  I think, you know, obviously it's a -- we have a different situation with governor -- we're looking at challenging an incumbent as opposed to running in an open seat.  It's a little tougher race to take on to challenge an


Henderson: Is there any way that Terry Branstad will not seek term number six?

Kochel: I he hasn't turned me what his intentions are.

Kochel: I worked for him for a long time.  I think the worst kept secret in Iowa is Tom Vilsack continues to freeze the democratic field and I think there's a head versus heart discussion going on in the democratic primary.  They want to go with their heart.  It's going to be someone like Jack Hatch but he's trying to keep the field froze son there's

someone else to get in the race, maybe your state chairman.

Henderson: A lot of people are saying, which Vilsack will run, Christie or Tom, what is up with Tom Vilsack.

Link: I think he loves his job as secretary of agriculture. I think the president loves the work he's doing there. I know he get approached about this.  I hear from people that have called him or met with him and encouraged him to take a look at it.  But I think he's happy with what he's doing right now.

Borg: You, Mr. Kochel, you're the speculator on this parlor game.

Kochel: I think that democrats are trying to figure out who their best candidate is.  I don't believe Tom Vilsack will run.  He kept his name out there for the reason of keeping the field frozen until they can find a candidate that's not going to hurt the party, damage them at the top of the ticket and looking for someone like Tyler Olson.  Otherwise they will end up with jack Hatch and that will hurt the ticket.

Obradovich: Just really quickly in the final minutes we've got an open seat in the first congressional district.  How do you see that field shaping up, Mr. Link?

Link: We’ve seen a couple candidates announce their interest in running already.  I think there's going to be a big field probably on the democratic side.  I assume there's going to be more than the two candidates on the republican side.  I think that's going to be a

jump ball and free for all.

Obradovich: Mr. Kochel, quickly.

Kochel: I think we'll see our field grow as well and it should be a pretty spirited primary and campaign.

Borg: Mr. Kochel, Mr. Link, thanks so much for sharing perspectives with us.

Thank you.

Borg: In just a moment we're shifting gears on Iowa Press with reporters' roundtable. Contact the "Iowa Press" staff on-line at our website or e-mail us at Iowa Press at

Borg: Continuing Iowa Press we’ve asked radio Clay Masters to join us.  Welcome, Clay.

Masters: Thanks.

Borg: Across the table you know the register's Kathie Obradovich and Kay Henderson, always up at the legislature with you.  I ask you, Kay and Kathie, from what you heard from our guests here, what sticks out in your mind of what they said, Kay?

Henderson: I think we’ve already heard the broken record of what the campaign will be like for and against Bruce Braley.  Hometown boy, a success on the part of the democrats and republicans.  He's a congressman.

Obradovich: I'm a little surprised to hear them say that it's early yet for candidates to be coming forward.  These races are getting more and more expensive, you know, and especially when you're starting with somebody who has to build name I.D.  As in some of these races, I don't think it's too early for some of the folks to start making decision to get into the price.

Borg: Are there gubernatorial candidates hiding in the legislature right now just waiting for the session --

Henderson: They mentioned the name Tyler Olson from Cedar Rapids, an attorney, works in his family firm, electrical firm in Cedar Rapids, the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.  It's well known he has been contemplating either running for congress or governor.

Borg: Clay, up at the legislature, is it like I'm picturing right now, it's a pond, doesn't look like there's any action but the ducks out there are underneath the water paddling like mad?

Masters: I hadn't thought about that metaphor but I like it. Things are pretty quiet.  You can't see a whole lot of work going on.  The house wrapped up early last week.  Party leadership press conferences we have at the end of the week have been bare bones. We had to stop the senate majority leader in the hall to say how are the three big issuing going? He went into auto pilot.  People of good faith are working together and finding common ground.

Obradovich: Sometimes the less they say the better it is because a lot of times it means there's talks going on behind the scenes and they don't want to mess them up by saying something at the wrong time.  So, you know, I think there has been progress in the past week.  I'm not ready to say they're going to be ready to adjourn next week.  They still have a lot of work to do.  They've been starting to make progress on some of these big issues keeping them apart.

Borg: The issues, Kay, are property tax, education reform and Medicaid.  Time sensitive.

Henderson: Really easily solved.  Not so much.  You know, Gronstal said he was optimistic about these things moving forward and I don't see the reason for the euphoria.  I do think that, perhaps, there is a property tax deal coming together which is remarkably similar to what was negotiated at the end of the legislative session last year. But republicans walked away from the negotiations saying you know what, it's an election year, we're going to win the house and the senate with governor Branstad, we'll be able to do whatever we want in regards to property tax reform.  That didn't happen.  So I think what's sort of gelling right now may be similar to what had been part of the negotiations at the end of the session last year.

Borg: I see both sides, publicly still floating, will compromise here.  Usually in the closing days, when compromise is really getting close, those aren't publicly revealed.

Obradovich: It depends.  I mean right now, they have a lot of in conference committee which is not necessarily happened before.  A lot of times what you've had is the leadership, you know, holding up and making a deal and then running the bills on the floor.  This time they've chosen to run a lot of bills through conference committee and sometimes that is a more public process.  It's good for the public to see, but it also may take more time.

Henderson: I had someone from the governor's office make the point that at some point the leaders have to be leaders.  And say okay, this is what we're doing, follow me.

Masters: That's very much what it seems to be happening.  I mean, we're not seeing much activity, so hopefully these closed-door meetings, they're making progress and just not tipping their hand.

Borg: Clay, Jason Glass is a finalist to be a superintendent in the Vail, Colorado area, public schools.  He's been in that area before, but isn't that a blow?  Isn't he the architect and the point person leading or will lead the education reform in Iowa?

Masters: Well, it's up to the director to implement education reform, but at this point, you know, the talks of how reform will work, those are being made by -- decisions are being made by other peoples besides Jason Glass.  I don't see it being a huge factor.

Obradovich: I think that Jason Glass was here to start the conversation.  He was here to help set the agenda.  He was here through the governors seminars and senates on education reform and brought in a lot of ideas he has worked on over the years.  The thing is, though, with implementation it is going to be the department of education who has implement all of this.  If the architect leaves before the building has to be constructed I think it might add some uncertainty.

Henderson: One thing his exit does highlight is that agency directors in Iowa are not paid as well as private sec counterparts.  He'll get a huge raise should he land this job as a superintendent in Colorado which is an illustration of the difficulty governors in the state have in encouraging people to leave the private sector and the lucrative pay they can get there and work in state government.

Borg: That brings another, if governor Branstad were to run and win another term might he see some of the people in his administration leaving for more lucrative jobs?

Obradovich: I think that usually happens.  In fact, you usually see a shift over, personnel from the first term to the second, and as you get a couple years into that second term you start having people looking for opportunities elsewhere because they know no matters what happens in the election there will be a new administration.

Borg: Clay, just the seconds we have, predict adjournment.

Masters: Well, you know if I was following what the leaders are saying, it would be next week. There are some speculating we might have to come back for a special session and I don't know if everybody is agreeing that would be a fun thing to do.

Borg: Do you all agree?

Obradovich: I'll say some time around Memorial Day.

Henderson: I'll say July 31st for the regular season and December 31st for the special session.

Borg: We're going to hold you to it.  Which ever one it is.  Next week we're back with another edition of Iowa Press.  Usual time 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon.  I'm Dean Borg.  Thanks for joining us today.

Tags: David Kochel Democrats government Iowa Jeff Link legislature news politics Republicans