Iowa Public Television


Reporters' Roundtable

posted on June 14, 2013

Surveying the political landscape, Iowa's elected officials and those hoping to hold office preparing for the2014 campaigning. Iowa’s political journalists are watching, and we're getting their insights during a reporters' roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: While dreary weather, including flooding and tornadoes, are catching headlines and most Iowans’ attention these days, some politicians are hoping to grab increasing attention in the coming months. Right now they're concentrating on the weather. But the ones seeking reelection are now hoping to align themselves into primaries in which they will be competing in the future. Iowa has some high-profile elections in November 2014 --U.S. Senator -- the seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin. Governor -- speculation is Republican Terry Branstad will be seeking a sixth term. Iowa’s congressional districts, especially Eastern Iowa's first district where incumbent representative Bruce Braley is hoping to hold Senator Harkin’s seat on the democratic side of The Senate aisle. We’re seeking insight from the men and women watching and listening as the campaigns are aligning. Mike Wiser, Statehouse for Lee Enterprises. James Lynch writes for The Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson. And I alluded to the weather back as I was making opening comments here. And I'm not talking about weather, when I ask the political climate in Iowa right now. You, at the register, have had polls recently that may give some indication.

Obradovich: I would say it's sunny in Iowa, and it's stormy on the national map. Here in Iowa, the Des Moines Register Iowa poll found a majority, a healthy majority of Iowans think things are on the right track here in the state. But when you ask about how things are going in the country,60% say it's on the wrong track. You see similar reflection with job approval for our top executives, Governor Terry Branstad, and a vast majority of Iowans across the board approve of his performance. President Obama, however, has gotten the worst Iowa poll ratings since he took office. And that is even including the campaign when people are attacking him on a daily basis.

Borg: Could we, pretty good at storm predicting right now, Kay, but could we have seen this coming? Was that a surprise to you? Or is it predictable?

Henderson: I don't think it's a surprise. Because I think we've seen this pendulum swing so quickly. We saw it swing in 2006.We saw it swing in 2010.I don't think anyone should be surprised that things are swinging so dramatically in preparation for the 2014election.I would caution, though, that the events outside the control of these politicians tend to influence elections in a way that they can't predict. If this case had perhaps occurred a little farther down the line, I think you would have seen folks like Terry Branstad seize upon the issue of capital punishment in a way they haven't heretofore. The young woman kidnapped and murdered. And I also think that things outside of the control of Iowa politicians, like in the decision to intervene in Syria, may have a dramatic effect on the mood of voters in 2014.

Wiser: You know, I think it’s interesting, too, that the big advertisement, at least from the Iowa side, was we're a -- we have Republicans and Democrats in control of different houses just like we do in Congress. We came together for compromise. They’re gridlocked in Washington, D.C.  But I wonder how that translates to the campaign trail, because it’s easier to get behind somebody who says, these are my principles, I'm going to stand for them, compared to someone who says, elect me so I can negotiate, or compromise.

Lynch: Compromise has become sort of a dirty word in politics these days.

Borg: Really?

Lynch: Although you wouldn't believe that, if you were listening to state political leaders who talk about the great compromises they’ve had this year in pushing their legislative priorities. But yeah, I think as we head into the primaries, you'll hear a lot of candidates who are unwilling to compromise, and they’ll actually make that a focal point of their campaign, that they're not going to compromise.

Obradovich: That's interesting. Sorry, Kay. I thought it was interesting, though, just three months ago, you had Steve king out here saying that the Senate race, coming after Barack Obama had won Iowa two times, would be an uphill battle for any Republican. All of a sudden the critical landscape does look different for Republicans on the federal level. I think Barack Obama's approval is very much driven by the scandals going on in Washington right now, with the national security agency surveillance, and the spying on reporters’ phone records, and so those things may be -- who knows how long those legs are for those scandals. As candidates right now are making their decisions about whether they have a good chance to run, those kinds of decisions can be influenced by poll results like that.

Lynch: In Barack Obama's case, the sixth year of his presidency, I don’t think it's surprising we see his popularity drop off a little bit. He’s not out there on the campaign trail now boosting himself and boosting his image as much as he has been up until the last election.

Borg: Kay?

Henderson: If there's one issue that is paramount this year that I think will be a huge issue in 2014, it is immigration. And you see two Iowa Republicans playing a key role in the debate at the national level. Steve King in the house, resisting any reform that clears the Senate. And Senator Chuck Grassley, even though you have Republicans who are helping to advance the bill through the U.S. Senate.

Borg: Yes. Let’s go to that Senate campaign and talk about that. The seat being vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin. Bruce Braley is on the Democratic side.

Lynch: He announced early after Senator Harkin announced it. He cleared the field. Nobody else has come forward to challenge him for the Democratic nomination. I think he has a clear shot there.

Borg: And on the Republican side, Kathie?

Obradovich: There's a host of thousands. I don't think that we've seen everyone yet. Matt Whitaker, former U.S. attorney, was one of the first to come out. I think he probably appeals a little bit more to the tea party segment of the party. But now the most recent candidate, Sam Clovis, radio commentator and radio host from Sioux City area, I think will probably compete for that demographic in the party. You’ve got several other candidates who are waiting in the wings. I think state Senator Joni Ernst would be the one most talked about, and the one that clearly Terry Branstad would get into the race. He mentioned her favorably when he was out here.

Henderson: The other thing I would point to is this would be an interesting test of the residual leftover campaigns for the caucuses. Sam Clovis endorsed Rick Santorum.

Borg: He's from Sioux City.

Henderson: The talk show host that Kathie just mentioned. Matt Whitaker was mentioned in a couple of campaigns during the cycle. It will be interesting to see if those particular candidates can sort of resurrect what was in place for those caucuses.

Obradovich: And by the way, David Young, Chuck Grassley’s former chief of staff, Senator Grassley is staying neutral in the primary, but he did say this week he believes David Young will be very good at raising money.

Wiser: Yes.

Borg: And do you want to say --

Wiser: I wanted to mention David Young as well. David Grassley said he wouldn’t endorse him in the primary, you would assume he's his guy. And if Joni has not announced yet as Terry said, the preferred candidate, you sort of have a bigger -- I don't know if you would -- two of the most powerful Republicans in the state backing them. Something we saw happen in the statehouse race, in this last cycle, with Pat Grassley, the Senator’s grandson, and Ed Sweeney, who was favored by one of Branstad's big supporters.

Lynch: I was at a Democratic fund-raiser this weekend. There was discussion about Joni Ernst, that the Democrats saw her as possibly a formidable candidate. They think she has a good story, that she is -- you know, has presented herself well, as a state Senator. And so they -- they're worried a little bit about Joni Ernst getting into that race.

Borg: What about the competitiveness in a primary? Is it good or bad for the Republicans to have the primary as Bruce Braley goes on his happy way raising money?

Obradovich: I don't think it's bad. Especially when you've got a lot of candidates that don’t necessarily have a lot of campaign experience statewide. These primaries can help them shake down their message. When it becomes hurtful or harmful for them is if it becomes a nasty primary, where candidates are essentially sabotaging each other’s reputation and then it becomes more difficult for them to not only rebuild, but unify the party going into the general.

Lynch: The challenge, too, for Republicans running in a primary is the gymnastics, or contortions we have to go through to win a Republican primary, with a sort of increasingly conservative tea party oriented party here in Iowa. And then run to the middle to capture independent voters in Iowa, in the general election.

Borg: Do you think that we've seen the extent now of those who might be running for that sufficient Senate seat, the nomination for the U.S. Senate seat, Kay?

Henderson: It's hard to say. Because it doesn't take much --

Borg: It's always been hard to say.

Henderson: Exactly. We won't have a big-name candidate. But I think there could be a few other people who are seriously considering it who could throw their hat in the ring.

Borg: If we look over in the first district, where, as we said, Bruce Braley is vacating that seat, Jim, to run for Tom Harkins' seat, it's competitive over there and it's going to be a Democratic primary, isn’t there?

Lynch: It looks like both Democratic and Republican primaries in the first district. We have Monica Vernon has declared -- and pat Murphy, to be a Democrat, former speaker of the house is in that race. And there are other people, a former legislator, David Brian, and the possibility that representative Tyler Olson will run in the first district. On the Republican side, we expect that Craig Paulson will get into the race soon. There’s already two declared candidates.

Borg: That's a district, Kathie, where Cedar Rapids is a major anchor city, Waterloo, Dubuque, and all the intervening rural areas in between. But the candidates that Jim just mentioned are all -- I mean, not all of them, but other than Pat Murphy, they're from the Cedar Rapids anchor.

Obradovich: That's probably good for Pat Murphy. If the other candidates divide up that Cedar Rapids vote, it makes his home part of the district a little bit more competitive and important. The other thing about Pat Murphy is, I think he's a favorite of labor unions. And he will make good use of that in a primary race. So I think those are a couple of advantages that he has, especially if you have a crowded field in Cedar Rapids.

Wiser: One thing about pat Murphy, though, he came out pretty early for the Braley seat. And a lot of people were wondering, former speaker of the house, friend of labor, so he probably has a ground game, and they were looking to see the first quarter fund-raising, or first time fund-raising, he raised about $60,000, which emboldened some Democrats to run against him because they didn’t think that was impressive as much as his resume might say that he would. So pat Murphy might be a victim of his own reputation in this fact, when it comes to his challengers.

Henderson: The other thing I might say about this race is, among Democrats, there is a hunger to have a woman serve Iowa in the nation’s capital. And so from that perspective, I think the candidacy of Monica Vernon is interesting, as opposed to Swati Dandekar from the Marion area, who angered a lot of Democrats when she resigned to be appointed to the Iowa Utilities Board by Republican governor Terry Branstad. Democrats had to expend a lot of time and money to control the Senate. There’s a lot of resentment against her. I think Monica Vernon benefits from that resentment, and I think at some point you may have people coalesce around her. Especially if Joni-- if they say, Democrats have to have our female candidate of the year.

Lynch: It's probably worth mentioning that Monica Vernon is a former Republican who changed parties to support president Obama. I think what's also interesting about that race is that I think Pat Murphy has a real advantage in the primary. He’s done the legwork in that district, recruiting candidates for the state legislature, raising funds for a lot of candidates. He’s known within the party.  Monica Vernon and Swati Dandekar might be in a general election where they pick up crossover votes from independents and some Republicans that Pat Murphy wouldn’t be able to reach.

Borg: Kathie, I wanted to ask you about Monica Vernon. In your analysis, Jim's already mentioned she's a former Republican. I think in 2009, wasn't it, she switched to the Democratic Party?

Lynch: I think so.

Borg: Something like that. But she doesn't make any bones about it, doesn't hide the fact. In fact, she said the Republican Party left me. And so how is that going to play in a Democratic primary?

Obradovich: I think that Democrats have to, first of all, test the period of their own candidates, and see how they stack up on the issues that they care about. They also need to make the calculation about who will do the best job in the general election. And it goes back to James' point. Somebody who perhaps is now too moderate for the Republican Party, but shares -- still has some of those kind of fiscally conservative principles perhaps, may be better able to snare those independent votes in the general election.

Borg: We've been spending a lot of time here in the first district, because that's where we know there will be an open seat. Mike, just go through the other districts for me and see, is there any competition there that you see?

Wiser: Well, in the second district, it’s Democratic incumbent Dave Loebsack. As far as people on the map to challenge him, nothing yet that I’m aware of. If anybody has anybody, please jump in.

Borg: Tom Latham in the third.

Wiser: He's a Republican incumbent. He was actually one of the people that was early on, they said he would be a great Senator. He would be a great bearer for the Senate. He declined and is happy to stay in the third district and run for reelection. And Steve King froze the field until he made his Senate decision, and King said that he would not be running either.

Borg: Talking about freezing the field, Kathie. We’re coming up, I want to turn now to governor, and we’ve already talked about in our opening here Terry Branstad may go for a sixth term. I think if I said may, the rest of you disagree with me and say, Dean, it isn't even may, it’s will, and shall. But I'll use may right now, because he hasn't announced. But is anybody freezing the field there as far as the Democratic opponents?

Obradovich: I don't think anybody’s freezing the field as far as Democratic opponents are concerned. I think people kind of waited to see if former governor Vilsack might come back and run. And his confirmation that he’s not running, I think takes sort of the last big name player off the board probably on the Democratic side. On the Republican side, really, the only person freezing the field is Terry Branstad himself. And if he should sometime early next year say, guess what, I’m not running after all, then that really gives the biggest advantage to Lieutenant Governor Kim Reynolds, presuming she would run in his place. A lot can happen. I think Terry Branstad and everyone else is going on the assumption he is going to run. But things can happen, things can change, and so, you know, there is a slight possibility that we could get to next January and he would say, I can’t do it.

Borg: Who are the Democratic possibilities there?

Lynch: Right now, jack Hatch, state Senator from Des Moines is running, and bob Krause, a former legislator, said he’s exploring it. And we're sort of waiting to see what Tyler Olson is going to do now that he's stepped down as Democratic Party chairman. I guess the betting is he’s going to run for governor. There likely would be a primary, Jack Hatch and Tyler Olson in a Democratic primary.

Henderson: Mike Gronstal said on this program a few weeks ago that he would consider running for governor and make a decision by end of summer. I think what you have shaping up here among these Democrats, we have just mentioned, is the generational contrast versus the longevity in office. You have jack Hatch, who spent a lot of time as a state legislator. You have Mike Gronstal who is arguably the most powerful legislator currently. Both in their 60s running against 67-year-old Terry Branstad next year, versus Tyler Olson, who has already begun in his resignation letter to sound like a good gubernatorial candidate, and to make a generational argument, that it’s time for a new generation of leaders in this state.

Lynch: I'm not sure running a generational campaign in Iowa is a wise idea, given the age of the electorate. But I think the opening is therefore Tyler to draw a real contrast between the ideas that have been tried and tried and tried, and some new ideas, some21st century ideas. I think as we've listened to him during the legislative session, we’ve kind of caught the undertones of that on various bills, contrasting Terry Branstad's plans he's used for five terms, versus some new ideas.

Borg: Mike Wiser and Kathie Obradovich. We were at a Cedar Rapids bill signing by Terry Branstad and about 20 other legislators, including Mike Gronstal, and Greg Olson in the house. I would compare that to a Sunday school picnic. And Jim's laughing, but I think you agree, Jim.

Lynch: It was a love fest. The governor, Republican governor, Democratic Senate majority leader, house speaker, they couldn't have been nicer to each other, given more accolades to each other. They posed for pictures together. It was a love fest.

Borg: The question is, Mike, these are people who are going to be campaigning against each other?

Wiser: I think these are all people who -- I'm still not sure if Mike wants to leave his Senate seat. I think of the ones we just mentioned, he might be the one. Craig probably said in his mind I’m either going to run for the first district or go back to my attorney’s breakfast. I think they're not -- I think they both -- that signing in Hiawatha set the stage.

Henderson: The other thing they've done is they're all staking out the same message in that we don’t have gridlock here. Things are working. We are part of the reason things are working. So if any of them, all of them are running for reelection, that’s their message. And so they were all supporting the universal message that Republicans and Democrats at the legislative end, at the executive level are going to make the argument.

Obradovich: And they're taking that argument, which is basically an incumbent protection argument. The idea that everything is going great is the argument for keeping the people who are in power, in power. Now, if you're Mike Gronstal, however, you need to make a, we can do better argument eventually, because you want to get better than 26 seats in the Senate. You want to get the majority in the house. So you're going to have to start making a, you know, yes, we are doing well here in Iowa, but if we were in control, we could do even better.

Lynch: Dean, I don't know how you read it when Gronstal spoke at that bill signing, but I though this remarks sounded like something he would say on a gubernatorial campaign. I mean, it was almost as if he was a candidate for governor talking about what they had accomplished and how they had accomplished it.

Borg: We can do in Iowa what they can’t do in Washington.

Lynch: Yeah.

Henderson: The freedom he has is he just won reelection in the last cycle. And so he has a four-year term. He doesn't have to decide whether he's running for reelection to the Senate or running for governor. He can still serve in the Senate and run for governor.

Obradovich: When he was out here on the program, I sent out a tweet about his comments about possibly running for governor. One of the responses I received is, why would he want to have a demotion? People often call him governor Gronstal and say he is the most powerful guy at the state capital right now. And so there may be something to that. The thing is, though, the only people who really know that are people inside the state capital. He still has to, I think, have a job to do to introduce himself to the rest of the state. And as does every other Democrat looking for that job.

Henderson: And the pitfall they're going to have is whoever wins the Democratic nomination at this time next year is going to get a barrage of negative advertising hit at them the moment they win that nomination by Terry Branstad. Because Branstad is going to try to define them. Their challenge will be defining themselves.

Borg: Mike, the play off of that, how in the world would Terry Branstad define Mike Gronstal?

Wiser: Terry Branstad would, as you would say, as governor, look at my record. These guys have -- the only reason we got this accomplished is because these guys acted as obstructionists. But as governor I've been able to push this forward. You play off each other in the party. Terry probably has the loudest microphone and probably the biggest campaign, coffers of anybody.

Lynch: Outside of Des Moines I don't know if Mike Gronstal is all that well known. He has a challenge to define himself to the rank and file island.

Obradovich: The next legislative session is going to be about contrasts of the parties. This bromance we've had going on is not going to last through the next legislative session. I fully expect Republicans to offer a much bigger tax cut than Democrats can stomach. For example, Democrats are going to be pushing on some --probably bigger spending programs than Republicans want. And it's probably going to be building contrast for the next campaign.

Borg: In the minute we have remaining here, Kay, the Democratic Party now is going to be choosing their third leader within about six months.

Henderson: Right.

Borg: And contrast the Democratic Party and the Republican Party right now, as far as health.

Henderson: The state central committee for Democrats meeting Saturday to select Scott Brennan, who is a Des Moines party in the 2008 cycle. Widely respected as a fund-raiser, as an organizer, and has ties to Harkin because he used to work for Tom Harkin. He is chosen by the party pubas, if you will. That’s in contrast to Republicans who have a chairman chosen by the grass roots, mainly Ron Paul supporters. You already have the sort of attempt by some people in the party to displace Ron Paul leaders at the county level, in order to displace the chairman of the Iowa Republican Party.

Borg: With that, we're going to have to close. Thank you for your insights.  As we close this edition of Iowa Press, we're also closing the season, if you will. We’ll be taking a brief hiatus, preparing for next season’s politically intense campaigns that we've been discussing and the Iowa general assembly's next session. Thank you for your many compliments and support during this season. We’ll be back on September 6thwith our 43rd season. Best wishes for a safe and pleasant summer. I’m Dean Borg. Thank you for joining us today.

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