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Congressional Voting and Political Positioning

posted on October 18, 2013

Scoring the match.  Republicans and democrats skirmish then reconcile resuming government services.  We're getting analysis from Iowa political journalists on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Figuratively the nation was looking over a fiscal cliff this past week.  Then Congress miraculously rushed to the rescue.  Sounds heroic.  But all along it was Congress pushing the nation to the fiscal brink.  A zenith of partisan politics and, again, exposing a philosophically splintered republican party.  We're seeking insight on the past couple of weeks and the implications for Iowans and other political news too from Des Moines Register Political Reporter Jennifer Jacobs, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines Register's Kathie Obradovich, a columnist there and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  Kathie, we're hearing plethora analysis and analyses nationally on what happened and the effects and so on.  I'd like to concentrate our discussion on how it affects Iowa politics.  What is your analysis on that?

Obradovich: You know, Dean, in the short-term I think Iowans are no different from what we've seen in the nation.  People are really disgusted with what has happened in Congress.  Kay and I recently were at dinner with a friend who said, I don't care who it is, I'm not voting for any incumbents in 2014.  And I think she meant it.  In the short-term I think that gives perhaps some energy to candidates who can be credibly called outsiders, who are not associated with this really unpopular institution.  However, the 2014 election is a long time away and I think a lot depends on what happens between now and say February when we get to the next fiscal cliff.

Henderson: And I think the immediate impact on the politicians who voted on that package is felt most viscerally by Congressman Tom Latham.  He is the republican who represents a district that is kind of the southwest quadrant of the state and includes Des Moines and you have republicans who are already talking about presenting him a primary challenge because he supported the package.  So I think he is the one that sees the greatest degree of fallout from this.  He would argue that he voted to sort of kick the can down the road so the country's economy didn't kick the bucket.  But I think a lot of republicans who are part of the Tea Party wing had hoped that republicans would continue their stand and keep the government closed.

Jacobs: That's really true because he was the only Iowa federal lawmaker to vote yes for that deal in the stalemate.  Out of all the GOP U.S. Senate candidates they all opposed it so that tells you where the grassroots is in the Iowa GOP and for him to be the only one who voted yes for it has really made people, the most deeply conservative Iowans furious.

Lynch: And he is already getting smacked by interest groups, free market groups are complaining that he caved in on this issue.  So yeah, he's going to take some heat for it.  But I think it's a long time until November of 2014.  There will be other issues, possibly other brinksmanship before then that will affect how people vote.  And one of the things about throwing the rascals out, generally the people who want to replace the rascals are pretty much of the same variety, different parties, different labels but they're the same sort of people who run.

Borg: Using your word, rascals, Kathie, are the rascals only incumbents?  Or is the blame assessed to the political parties?  What I'm getting to, does this open the door for third parties?

Obradovich: I'm not sure about third parties.  I think that right now at least the Tea Party contingent of the Republican Party has decided to try to work through the larger Republican Party and to continue to try to increase their influence over the Republican Party.  I think third parties are a lot of times where political movements go to die.  And so because our system, our process is really set up for a two party system.  So I don't see this coming to be a third party -- people talk about the Tea Party as being the big loser in this national debacle and to a certain extent they are to the extent that they did not get very much of anything out of this at a pretty big cost.  On the other hand, Tea Party gets its energy from anti-government sentiment, right, and so anti-government sentiment has gone through the roof and I think that ultimately in the longer term the Tea Party will actually benefit from that.

Jacobs: I do think that this rallies democrats though.  You've got some democratic activists in Iowa who are really energized by this whole shutdown maneuver and who really think that they can use this against republicans in 2014.

Borg: What are you sensing there?  Can you give me some specifics on that?

Jacobs: Oh sure.  They're just saying, you know, you've got Chuck Grassley who was one of only 18 Senate republicans who voted no on this.  He went against the democrats, he went against the majority in the U.S. Senate.  There are some people who are trying to argue now that Chuck Grassley has gone off the deep end into right wing politics.  Chuck Grassley has always been known as this very practical politician, he's this guy who rigs lawnmowers together so he can mow more grass.  I mean, he's just very practical.  And now they're saying, you know, conservatives in Iowa are saying, we can't find anything that this guy has done in the last few years, in the last four years that we don't love and so the democrats are pointing to that saying, you know, the republicans are just veering to the right.

Henderson: The other thing is this could turn out to be sort of an election like 2006 in which democrats had a huge surge of support and republicans sort of stayed home because I think the fact that republicans in Congress didn't do as the base of their party had hoped and accomplish more in this deal.  I think that leaves them dispirited and unwilling to do the kind of legwork that is required in 2014 to elect republicans across-the-board, especially when you have at the top of the ticket Terry Branstad, who many conservatives don't wish to campaign for as heartily as they might some other candidate.

Borg: Jim?

Lynch: I think, the consensus is republicans lost here, the Tea Party lost, the republicans lost.  But what we don't want to overlook is the fact that republicans maintained the sequestration level of funding so when all this comes to a head again in January that's the starting point, lower funding levels.  So they have already had an impact on the budget in that sense.  So they took a body blow here but they're going to fight again and they're starting from their corner, their starting point.

Borg: Are you saying only Tea Party philosophicals or even broader in the Republican Party than the Tea Party had some victory?

Lynch: The whole party.  I mean, conservatives in general, people who want to do something about debt and deficit.  They have lowered that funding level, they maintained that sequestration level.

Borg: Jim, you're from the eastern side of the state, let's start over there with the first congressional district and then go into the second and tell me how, because Iowa is philosophically divided too, especially in the fourth district as contrasted with eastern Iowa.  So how might this affect, if at all, the congressional campaigns in eastern Iowa?

Lynch: Well, I think democrats, as Jennifer said, probably will try to use it to their advantage and say, you know, we don't want more of the same, we don't want to send a republican to replace Bruce Braley in the first district.  Republicans there it will be interesting to see how they use this.  I mean, they all talk about debt and deficit and doing something about the long-term problem as opposed to just quick fixes and kicking the can down the road.  I don't think it really changes anything there because they're philosophically opposed already.

Borg: So, in Dave Loebsack's district in southeast Iowa?

Lynch: Again, I mean, if Loebsack had made any concession here I think it would be a negative for him in his district there.

Jacobs: I think the democrats come out of this fight looking pretty good, they're pretty clean whereas there is a lot of discontent for republicans and that could have some impact on some of those GOP candidates, those newcomers who are running in the first and second districts, although those most likely lean democratic anyway so we're probably not going to see those seats change from democratic to republican anyway.

Borg: We talked about, Kay, Tom Latham.  You brought up the fact that there may be, could be a primary challenger to him in the republican primary.  But what about the democrats?

Henderson: You have two democrats, you have an activist Gabriel De La Cerda I believe his name is and Staci Appel, democrats who have emerged from a primary to go against Latham.  I think the problem for any democrat who may run against Tom Latham is that he will have an unlimited amount of cash to throw at this race.  He is the best friend of the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives who will raise money, who will direct money and in the end I think that will benefit him.  In regards to the other race on the western side of the state, Steve King, despite what some, you know, establishment republicans may be saying, Steve King's position on this and being one of the leading spokesmen for House republicans throughout this episode of the government shutdown has really raised his stature and really energized his base of support in western Iowa.

Borg: There has been some talk about a more conservative, not conservative, more moderate candidate than Steve King, even challenging him in a primary.  Is that a possibility?

Henderson: You know, of course anything is possible in politics.  But we've heard that may be the case.  We just haven't heard a name.  And until we actually hear a name that's really not going to happen.

Jacobs: I do think that there is somebody who has his eye on that but I think that any of our GOP incumbents could face a primary challenge this year for various reasons.  Latham could be challenged from the right.  Steve King could be challenged from somebody who has a more moderate position.  Steve King has really, he thinks he is safe at home so he has gone into a more national profile, he was all over CNN about this shutdown --

Borg: You could have convinced me that he's running for Vice President this past week.  He has been all over the national --

Lynch: He's been to New Hampshire, he's been to South Carolina, he has been all over.  But I think one thing to keep in mind is that his situation is sort of the mirror opposite of Loebsack's, that if he had given up any ground in this fight it would be a negative in his home district, that people, the conservatives rule over there.

Jacobs: Although there are some democrats who feel like Steve King maybe is losing some ground.  You've got his democrat challenger, Jim Mowrer, this Iraq veteran who actually outraised him in the third quarter.  He just simply brought in more money than Steve King.  And so democrats are really energized by that fact and they're saying now the fourth district could be a district to watch whereas you couldn't say that a year ago.

Obradovich: We can talk all we want about primary challenges against incumbents and I don't care how anti-incumbent the rhetoric is, it's still Iowa and an Iowa incumbent, that I after your name for incumbent is golden.  It is so rare that Iowa would usher out an incumbent, especially over something that happened in 2013.

Jacobs: Even an 80 year old Chuck Grassley could face a primary challenge but it's not likely to be successful.

Borg: It strikes me that we have gone through the entire congressional delegation from Iowa and we haven't mentioned Tom Harkin.  Is that because, Kathie, he is so lame duck?

Obradovich: You know, Tom Harkin is not going to be on the ballot in 2014.  I would not necessarily put the label lame duck on him yet.  He still has lots of influence in the U.S. Senate.  He has a lot of things that he still wants to do and I think that he will be a strong voice here in the next few months for trying to raise spending above sequestration levels.  He was arguing this week that that is going to be really bad for the economy.  So you don't rule out Tom Harkin yet.  He is a strong voice for the left in the U.S. Senate.

Lynch: And on the campaign trail it's going to be Tom Harkin unchained since he's not on the ballot.  He can say anything he wants and I think he'll be out there really being a strong voice for democrats up and down the ticket.

Borg: Before we leave the Senator and discussion there you had mentioned already Chuck Grassley's vote.  But is that vote, that no vote, was that looking ahead to his re-election, Kay?

Henderson: Sure.  I mean, he is positioning himself to protect every flank that might attack in 2016 and he has effectively protected himself from a Tea Party challenge by being among the 18 Senators who voted no on that.

Obradovich: I wouldn't necessarily say though that he is going to go there again, if we get back to another brink like we did before.  He may make a different calculation if it comes to that actually in 2014.

Borg: Give me some, Jennifer, winners and losers overall.  We've analysized, if you can use that word, here on the specific candidates.  But broader than that in Iowa winners and losers.

Jacobs: From the shutdown -- well, one person who just isn't touched at all is Terry Branstad.  He comes out of this, you know, unscathed for 2014.  That's one for sure.  I think Latham could face a lot of outrage.  I know his office was bracing for a lot of criticism and I think they're definitely getting it.  So that's two right there.

Borg: But what about the Iowa Republican Party in itself?

Jacobs: Oh sure.  This just accentuates those fissures in the GOP.  If anything it just creates more mayhem in the GOP.

Obradovich: It will be really interesting, Dean, coming up, Ted Cruz, who was really the figure head of this revolt in Congress, is going to be here in Iowa for a Republican Party fundraiser and I think that he, on any normal occasion, would attract a lot of attention.  I think the question will be how many of those republicans who are unhappy with the party leadership are going to boycott the chance to see Ted Cruz just because they don't want to give money to the state party right now.

Borg: Back to the effect on the Iowa Republican Party, Kay, and then we'll talk about Ted Cruz more in just a moment as we talk about the caucuses.  But, Kay, the Iowa Republican Party controlled right now by ultraconservative, more of the Ron Paul philosophical bent --

Henderson: Libertarians.

Borg: Libertarian, okay.  What, if at all, there's some, there's a lot of discontent within the Republican Party of Iowa right now with that control.  What might what happened in Washington, any effect on that?  Does it embolden, strengthen or weaken anyone?

Henderson: I think this game is being played out on the Iowa field and there is no influence whatsoever coming from outside.  You have establishment republicans trying to dethrone Ron Paul libertarians from party leadership and there have been four county level parties who have passed resolutions or drafted letters calling for the resignation of A.J. Spiker, the chairman of the party who was one of Ron Paul's campaign managers here in Iowa during the caucus season.  That's not going to happen just because of the way the party is set up right now.  What will happen is establishment and moderate republicans are trying to encourage people to attend the 2014 caucuses and in that manner take back control of party leadership.

Obradovich: And to the extent that you have already in Iowa a sentiment that part of the party wants to take back their party from what they consider to be extreme elements, this is another, this adds a little bit of heat to that in the sense that this is a nationwide example of where republicans feel the need to somehow take back their party from extremists that maybe made them all look bad.  So I think that this doesn't have a direct effect but it could have an indirect effect of focusing more attention on that.

Borg: There have been four counties, central committees that have now passed resolutions calling for the state chair of the Republican Party, A.J. Spiker, who is from Ames, to resign.  And I'm going to tick them off here if I can recall them mentally.  But I'm going to ask you, Jim, what is the significance, if at all, among those four counties, that is you've got Linn, Polk County, you've got the Montezuma area and that was Poweshiek and Appanoose.  Anything significant about where those calls for resignation are coming from?

Lynch: Well, I think one significant point is that Polk and Linn are the two largest population centers in the state, so the two largest county parties are calling for his resignation.  I'm not sure it's for the same reason.  Linn County GOP has fought with the state party forever.  Regardless of who the chair is they seem to always be at odds with the state party.  So I guess in some ways it's not surprising.  It is interesting that the people calling for the resignation, many of them are very conservative, some of them probably are Tea Party republicans.  And so beyond that, Poweshiek County, I'm not sure what's happening there.  But I think it is significant that the two largest population centers --

Jacobs: And it's interesting that it's a sustained call.  We've been seeing this for more than a month now with these county groups calling for A.J. Spiker's resignation, it's not going away.

Borg: But does it phase him?

Jacobs: It doesn't seem to.  He seems to just ignore it.  He seems very confident in what he's doing.

Lynch: One person brought up the point that really it's not a matter of getting rid of A.J. Spiker but maybe they need to get rid of the state central committee that re-elected him.

Borg: I see.

Obradovich: Yeah, and ultimately that's not going to happen until after the caucuses in 2014.  And so what really, if republicans want a change in that party central committee, they're going to have to get their people out to the caucuses and stay, just like what happened in 2012, they'd have to actually stay and make sure that they elect their people.

Jacobs: And people don't want to go to those conventions.  They can take a long time.  They're very time consuming.  They can get down into the weeds of party politics.  But you are hearing just some, you know, rank and file republicans in the suburbs who are saying, it's worth it now, you know, you've got inmates taking over the asylum, we've got to get in there and do something and take our party back.

Borg: Kay, I'm wondering if this carries over into state legislative politics.  We have a special election coming up.  Tell me about that.

Henderson: State Senator Kent Sorenson, a republican from Milo, recently resigned from the Senate after a special prosecutor, if you will, released a report suggesting there was probable cause that Sorenson accepted money for work on Michele Bachmann's campaign and for Ron Paul's campaign through 2012.  He has denied the charges vehemently, there is a small section of the party who is right there with him in saying that he was targeted because of the stands he has taken in the past and this is just another example of the, as Jennifer said, the fishers in the party among people who are anti-establishment and those who are more moderate and establishment republicans.  This district, it's not, it's very republican.  It's not going to tip the balance of power in the state Senate partly because democrats already have 26 seats in the Senate.  This district was won by John McCain and Mitt Romney, which shows you how republican it is.

Borg: But likely to stay republican then.  Kathie, does it at all, because it happened during the caucus time, does it further stain the reputation of the caucuses?

Obradovich: I think that critics of the caucuses like to find any sort of dirt or scandal that they can use to say that Iowa should not be first in the nation, that Iowa can not handle it and to that extent anything, any bad publicity is not good for the long-term reputation of the caucuses.  However, this is a situation where the person who was accused has essentially been punished in a public way.  I would argue, and I have argued, that this actually makes the process cleaner, that there's a lot more scrutiny, that every elected official now I think is going to be very careful that they're not going to be able to be accused of this.  And to that extent, you know, the caucuses have helped clean themselves up.

Borg: Overall, Jim, who is showing interest -- let's talk about the caucuses -- we mentioned Ted Cruz a minute ago and he is coming back to Iowa -- but who is showing interest among the potential presidential candidates?

Lynch: Well, we've seen Ted Cruz, of course.  We've seen Rand Paul.  I'm probably going to forget some people here.  But there's a parade of people who have come to Iowa and will be coming again.

Jacobs: Rick Perry --

Lynch: Rick Perry is coming back.

Borg: Texas Governor.

Lynch: No wonder I couldn't remember his name.

Borg: Oops.

Lynch: Rick Perry is coming back.

Jacobs: Paul Ryan, Sarah Palin --

Lynch: Mike Lee, Mike Huckabee is coming I think next month.  And so yeah, there's quite a parade coming.

Henderson: I think among that list, one of the most interesting to me is Rick Perry.  He said he's not going to run for re-election as Texas Governor and he is going to evaluate what his future path may be.  I wonder if he will do as Al Gore did, come here repeatedly and be self-deprecating.  That was what Al Gore did from 1993 to 1999 and the 2000 caucuses.  He came here and admitted his faults repeatedly, poked fun at himself, called himself stiff and I'm wondering if Rick Perry will be successful in rehabilitating his image because when you talk to activists many of them just absolutely love the way he has governed Texas.  It's just the first impression he made on the national stage was so disastrous.  Can he turn that around?  I think that is one of the most interesting bits that we look at this parade of people who are coming.

Obradovich: And with Perry there's a combination of things that were going on with him and I do think that he suffered in 2012 by coming to Iowa late, he did not join the race until the day of the Straw Poll.  I think he lost an opportunity to figure out how to be a candidate in the caucuses and that experience would have helped him go on from Iowa and perhaps be a better debater for one thing. 

Lynch: Watching him when he was in Iowa he seemed to be very good at the sort of politics you need to practice in the caucuses, talking to people, really warming up to them and getting them to warm up to him.  But I think he just started too late to really make an impact and then he shot himself in the foot a number of times.

Borg: I'm not suggesting Governor Branstad is starting too late, but everybody is expecting him to run but he's not announcing yet.  Jennifer, starting too late?  He's got a field of democratic challengers.

Jacobs: Yeah, probably not.  He has already got his campaign machine on the roll.  He's got a very strong campaign.  In fact, he is so confident in his campaign we're hearing now that he doesn't really want any third party groups, any outside groups to come in and step into Iowa to influence Iowans during his campaign.  So I think he is pretty confident that he's going to do well.

Obradovich: You think about how Terry Branstad started running in 2010.  He did this very slow, I called it a strip tease where he started having a lot of interest generated with a poll that suggested that he would be a good profile for a candidate and it went very slowly into 2010 before he finally announced.  He is right now getting all the benefits of being a candidate and still having the interest of generating that question, will he or won't he.

Henderson: And also this past week he really did something that I think shows that he, like Grassley, is protecting a flank that he believes may be vulnerable.  He issued an executive order about what is called the core curriculum.  It enrages Christian conservatives and many members of the Tea Party.  There have been huge conflagrations about this in states like Florida and Louisiana.  He issued an executive order essentially saying Iowa won't share statistics with the federal government about this and the language of it said, I understand what you're saying.  So he is reaching out in many different ways to conservatives to say, I am a conservative.

Lynch: And he got a positive response from those groups, they thanked him for that executive order saying they would only show aggregate data and not individual student data.

Borg: And there will be a democratic primary, Jennifer.

Jacobs: Right, there are two main democrats who are running and that is a Cedar Rapids Legislator by the name of Tyler Olson and then a Des Moines Senator, state Senator by the name of Jack Hatch.  And then there's another lesser known democrat who is also running.  But the main battle is between Hatch and Tyler Olson.

Borg: And, Kay, Governor Branstad has received some negative exposure too over the past -- in a vehicle that was speeding, he wasn't driving himself, but is that kind of brushing off?

Henderson: It did show that his apparatus was a bit flat-footed at first.  They did not respond to this in the best way.  And then that it happened again merely poured fuel onto the fire.  And it gave his opponents something to argue is representative of an entitlement, that he believes he is entitled -- it plays into the whole idea that Terry Branstad thinks he is entitled to be Governor for life.  And that is going to be a real theme for the 2014 campaign.

Borg: Thanks for your insights.  We've got to go ourselves.  And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next weekend, same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  Thanks for joining us today.


Tags: coalitions Congress debt ceiling limits federal debt limit government government shutdown House of Representatives Iowa news partisan politics politics voting Washington D.C.