Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable

posted on January 3, 2014

Peeking at 2014 in the rearview mirror.  Iowa political journalists providing insight into the New Year possibilities on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: There's something fresh about turning a calendar to a new year.  But in all reality for most of us the biggest change is a new tax year.  2013's political twists and turns are still playing out as we move into this new election year in Iowa.  Iowa voters will be electing a U.S. Senator, the state's entire delegation -- that's four members of the U.S. House of Representatives, a Governor, the state's House of Representatives and one half of the state's Senate, among others.  In addition, presidential candidates will be sampling Iowa's 2016 support.  Within those campaigns major state and national issues shaping our future will emerge.  And covering those issues and the candidates are Mike Wiser, Statehouse Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises, Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich, Jim Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs along with Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.  And before we get to your thoughts everyone, I want to show you some video just to kind of refresh your memories.  It's been a busy year in Iowa politics and right here on Iowa Press too.  We're taking a quick look back now at some highlights from 2013.

Harkin: It just seems like the time that I should step aside and it's somebody else's turn, okay?  After 40 years it's somebody else's turn, that's all I can say.

Borg: How are you feeling toward looking toward another term?

Grassley: I'm planning on running for re-election.  I'm a firm believer if you do a good job at what you're doing people recognize it and the future takes care of itself.

Borg: So it would be a real surprise if you didn't run again?

Grassley: I said I am making plans to run for re-election.

Kochel: They should make the party hospitable to people like me who support marriage equality, who support the freedom to marry.

Spiker: If you want to abandon one of the major tenants of Christianity, which is marriage as a sacrament for most people, then you are going to drive people out of this party who are committed Christians.  So I'm not willing to go in that direction as the chairman of the party.

Latham: There's no perfect time, there's no right time but for us this is the time.  I still get a chill every time I walk across the street in Washington and see Miss Liberty on top of the dome.  For a kid from Alexander, Iowa, 168 people to have that, that honor is really something.  So it's an emotional thing.  It's a job I love.  But it's the right time.

Borg: Well, Jim Lynch, just as in that video, Tom Harkin and Tom Latham book-ended the year.  Is there any significance in the timing?  A democrat U.S. open Senate seat, republican third district congressional seat open.  Any significance in timing there?  Not that the candidates confer with each other, I don't mean that, but advantage to either party?

Lynch: Well, I think the advantage, Dean, probably is with the democrats on this one in the Senate race because Bruce Braley quickly cleared the field and he has had time to organize and raise money all year to prepare for what probably will be a stiff challenge from republicans once they nominate a candidate.  Still, in the third district with Latham's retirement republicans have time.  There's still time to mount a campaign.  And I don't think they're so far behind Staci Appel in that race, democrat Staci Appel, that they can't catch up whoever emerges as the nominee.

Borg: But it caused some realignment, Kathie, of candidates who thought they were going for a U.S. Senate seat and suddenly, well I might reconsider this.

Obradovich: Yeah, we had sort of a stampede of republicans into the Senate race at the beginning of the year because when was the last time they've had this opportunity.  And so a huge number of people got in, way too many probably.  And now with Latham retiring some of those candidates in central and southwest Iowa now have a chance to say, well, maybe this is a more doable case.  And we did have this week David Young, a former Grassley staffer, former chief of staff, saying he is interested in looking at the third district race instead of Senate.  So I think that we will have some shuffling between those races.  The other thing, just adding to what James said, Staci Appel seems to have the advantage because she has been raising money in the third district, she has one challenger in the primary already.  I think that the disadvantage to her will be if suddenly Latham's retirement brings a stampede of other people into that race.

Borg: What is the significance do you think, Jennifer, of so many -- many implications you can read into these open seats, U.S. Senate, two open congressional seats and so on -- but what is the significance do you think across the Iowa political spectrum?  Have you been thinking about that?  And will you share it with us?

Jacobs: Oh sure.  We all have.  I think one thing for certain is that there's a really big window right now for a woman to be elected to Congress as we all know that Iowa has never sent a female candidate, a female representative to either the U.S. House or U.S. Senate.  And with so many open seats there's just no other time that a woman has a better chance than right now.

Borg: The window is open but is there a real strong possibility that's going to happen?

Obradovich: I mean, it depends, Kay, on who was the primary.  We've got three women running in the first district, Staci Appel in the third district, Joni Ernst running for the Senate nomination.  But they have all got to get past their party primaries first.  I don't know what you think about the chances of that.

Henderson: Time will tell.  What has been interesting thus far in the U.S. Senate race and in these congressional races is that so far it has really been about their biographies.  It hasn't been about issues.  And if people are willing to vote for a biography then you may have a woman rise to the fore.  But if people are more interested in issues I think that gives a little bit more credence to the candidacy of someone like a Pat Murphy who appeals to particularly union activists in the first congressional district.  So the other thing that occurs to me as you talk about Harkin and Latham making these announcements, they were surprise announcements.  A lot of times when you see stories about people hanging it up, if you will, in Congress it has been rumored for weeks.  Harkin's was a surprise, Latham's was even more of a surprise because Latham's staff had begun to send out the petition documents for people to collect petition signatures for his name to be on the ballot.  So if we look back at 2013 I think the fact that these people made the decision and they quickly announced it will be something that will have resonance as others make those kinds of decisions as well.

Borg: Before I go to Mike Wiser, I want to bring you in here, Mike, but I want to stay with the female gender here in this question, Jennifer.  You heard what she said about female candidates maybe having a disadvantage on the issues.  Is that what you meant to say?

Henderson: Well, the reason they have a disadvantage is because they have not been -- Monica Vernon who is running, she's a Cedar Rapids city councilwoman, she doesn't have the kind of record with union activists that Pat Murphy had being the Speaker of the House, keeping the voting machine open for hours over a weekend just to please his union activists.  And I think you have Joni Ernst who is a member of the state Senate, she is a relatively new lawmaker so she hasn't amassed this huge long legislative record with action on issues and she is at a disadvantage because she's in the minority in the Senate so she doesn't have specific pieces of legislation that she can say, this has my thumb print on it because this was my idea and I pushed it through the legislature.

Jacobs: What's clear is that no single woman has an advantage in her race right now.  It doesn't appear that anyone has an edge.

Lynch: I would say in the first district that if a woman wins the primary she probably has a pretty good opportunity to get elected to Congress because it's a very -- democrats have a voter registration advantage there.  So I think that might be their best opportunity.

Borg: Go ahead.

Wiser: I was just going to key off of what James said, the voter advantage in that district definitely favors the democrats by thousands, tens of thousands I believe.  And all the women, Swati Dandekar, oh boy -- Anesa Kajtazovic, yes, from Waterloo, sorry Anesa and Monica Vernon, if they can pull out this it does set the stage for congressional --

Henderson: The other thing for all those women candidates, Dean, is that there is a high likelihood that the nominee of the first congressional district and the U.S. Senate will be chosen at convention.  And if that is the case the male candidates in those races have an advantage at this point.

Obradovich: That's exactly what I was going to say is the convention rule, Iowa's law is that if you, if no one gets 35% in the primary essentially the nomination is chosen at convention.  And those conventions typically would choose perhaps a different kind of candidate.  Sometimes it's just the top vote getter.  But we have had history where different candidates can emerge and maybe even someone who did not run in the primary.  That would be very rare.  And the fact that Iowa has these open seats and the fact that possibly a couple of them could go to convention is causing some lawmakers to say we should revisit that law and see if there is a better way.

Borg: And what you're saying by convention is that those tend to be the party activists at convention, delegates to that convention and so you don't have the rank and file cross-section of the electorate.

Obradovich: Right, for example in the first district, union people would be a core constituency of the Democratic Party.  Chances are Pat Murphy, if he doesn't win the nomination outright, would be a very strong contender at convention.

Borg: What, Mike, are the fundraising implications with all these open seats and the candidates running?  Is there enough of a supply of money?

Wiser: Well, you know, we mentioned just a little before on New Year's Eve at the end of the fundraising position all of our inboxes filled up with people asking us, here's last chance, fundraising period is over.  There's a real race for particularly with the Senate republican field because you have so many candidates.  It's important for them to get out and show that they have the support and to post big numbers.  Not so much for Bruce Braley who is the presumptive democratic nominee because he doesn't have a primary challenger in the U.S. Senate race right now.  Same thing over in the first district among these democrats.  They're going to have to come out and show that they have the support not only -- money is the best way to really do that sometimes because when you post up these big figures you can do it -- so the people who have vested interests in this are looking to see who they can put their money behind and money begets money in this game.

Borg: Chuck Grassley, we saw him on the video, on this very program surprising us I think, Kay, with the announcement yep, I'm going to run again, even though it wasn't nearly time to announce.

Henderson: Right.  He said he was going to run for re-election in 2016.  If he serves out that next term he would be 89 at the end of the term.  He's still not the oldest senator in the United States Senate.  Dianne Feinstein from California is older.  The one thing if you step back and look at the Harkin announcement and the Latham decision and the Grassley decision, collectively they have more, way more than 100 years of service.  And with two of those people exiting you have a real sea change in terms of the glass ceiling that has existed in Iowa politics.  IT has really been cracked for a lot of people.  And as Harkin said when he made his announcement, there was a real ripple effect.  There was also a whiplash effect when Grassley made his announcement because there were republicans who were thinking, okay I'm not going to run for Harkin's seat but gosh when Grassley makes that decision not to seek re-election I'm going to run for that, people like Steve King who held off and didn't run for the U.S. Senate and was maybe thinking about running for the U.S. Senate in 2016 if Grassley didn't seek re-election.  So there's been a whiplash effect where people have had to re-evaluate what's happening.

Obradovich: One of the things that Grassley, one of the reasons he gave for wanting to run again in 2016 was the seniority factor.  Iowa right now, two of the most senior senators in the U.S. Senate and Tom Latham with 20 years is our dean of the U.S. House delegation -- Iowa is losing, will be losing with just the two of them a lot of seniority.  Grassley said he did not want to have Iowa lose all of its seniority.

Borg: The Republican Party division, we also saw on that video, Jennifer, how is that going to -- there's a lot of opportunity here right now.  You mentioned, we already talked about the female gender opportunity.  But are republicans divided so that they're not in place to be ready to seize the opportunities that are available?

Jacobs: I don't know if it's that severe.  Some might argue that.  We've all written a lot of stories this past year about the problems and the conflicts in the GOP.  We've had everything from a state senator accused of ethics violations to our U.S. representative accused of making insensitive comments about immigrants and another GOP activist saying he better watch it or he might get a republican challenger in 2016.  You've had just debates about -- well we also had that Polk County chairman who resigned saying that the rhetoric in the party is hateful.  Then you've got the complaints about incompetence at the party headquarters.  So you've got a disconnect between a lot of your elected GOP officials in the state saying that they don't have faith in the people who are running the party headquarters.  So there's been a lot of conflict, there's no doubt about that, and there are some people who might argue that will affect races.

Wiser: One of the things that's interesting about that too is it sets up, if you have people in the party who are upset with the republican party of Iowa -- whose main function historically has been to raise money and put these candidates before voters and forums -- if you have candidates who aren't going to the republican party of Iowa they then look for other establishments and you have, particularly in Governor Terry Branstad, who is well known throughout the state of Iowa, he becomes sort of a defacto republican party with his fundraising prowess, with his ability to pick people and put them out there and it will be interesting to see how that shapes up.

Henderson: There has been an evolution of political parties all over the country where they're losing their influence because you have the influence of outside groups that can raise tons of money and then you have candidates who are seizing control of their own campaign and they're not relying on the party apparatus.  The problem you have in Iowa is that Iowans, democrats and republicans, depend on the party apparatus to run the Iowa caucuses.  And so the problem will be if in 2014, in the 2014 caucuses, which are coming up later this month, if you have this dysfunction sort of come out of who participates in the 2014 caucuses that will have severe repercussions for 2016 and the way the Iowa caucuses are conducted on the republican side.

Obradovich: And that's why Governor Branstad is putting some campaign muscle into trying to organize his supporters to go to those caucuses and try to help guide how the party leadership is going to look.  This is not Governor Branstad's Republican Party right now.  He wants to steer the party through the caucuses to look more like his party.  And I'll tell you, you mentioned 2016, candidates who are thinking about running in Iowa in 2016 will be watching this process to see --

Borg: Presidential candidates.

Obradovich: -- yes, to see how warm or cold the water is going to be, especially republicans, to see how warm or cold the water is going to be in the republican party for a candidate of say a Chris Christie caliber or a Rand Paul.

Borg: Jim, you wanted to weigh in.

Lynch: Well, I was going to say, as Kathie was saying, Governor Branstad is making this effort to get his sort of people to the caucuses and regain control of the party and I think there's another part to that and that is to protect Kim Reynolds from a challenge from people who don't necessarily want to see her become governor sometime down the road.  So I think it's a two-pronged effort on his part to protect himself and make the party look more like he'd like it to look.

Borg: Jennifer, he mentioned Kim Reynolds and that brings up a question I have in my mind.  What is her future?  Is she going to be a running mate for Governor Branstad's expected candidacy?

Jacobs: I think there is a kind of a universal theory in the state that she is the heir apparent for the Branstad administration.

Borg: Alright, so she serves another four years as Lieutenant Governor?

Jacobs: Possibly.  I know there's been speculation that the Governor will serve another year or two and then step down and she would become the governor.  But others say they are confident that Branstad will run for four more years.

Lynch: I think whether she serves out -- or whether he serves out a four year term or not, Kim Reynolds may be the heir apparent in Terry Branstad's eyes but she'll face challenges from other parts of the party if she is the incumbent or just the Lieutenant Governor in the next go around.

Borg: We have talked about the possibility of Governor Branstad, and I think Kathie you say it's not a possibility, it's a slam dunk possibility -- but on the democratic side they're having trouble getting, at least it doesn't even look like a primary there now.

Obradovich: Well, there is still a primary.  But the story in the Democratic Party for governor has definitely been about who is not running as opposed to who is running.  Just in December State Representative Tyler Olsen, the former state party chair, who had seemed to be generating a lot of momentum, especially among democratic activists, decided to drop out of the race for personal reasons.  And frankly nobody else has jumped in at that point.  We this week had another primary opponent, Bob Krause, drop out.  That leaves State Senator Jack Hatch as the candidate who probably has the most opportunity to put together a campaign and raise money.  There are a couple of other minor candidates, a few other people exploring it.  I think right now the next story will be is anybody else going to get in on the democratic side?  Or is it going to be a Hatch versus Branstad race?

Jacobs: The stache clash, as one of our fellow reporters called it.

Borg: Why do you say that, stache clash?

Jacobs: They're both men in their 60s who have mustaches and their look, their persona is kind of based on their mustaches.

Lynch: Quite ominent mustaches too -- very well --

Borg: I thought you were referring to a stash of cash.

Lynch: Well they probably have that too.

Henderson: That is probably what is going to keep a lot of democrats who might consider running for governor from jumping into that race when they have this opportunity in the third district and you have this heightened interest in the race in the first district, there's a lot of stuff going on that is eclipsing and overshadowing the governor's race and I think that's why you may see Jack Hatch sort of cruise through the primary season.

Obradovich: Yeah, Hatch told you, Jennifer, that he is going to put $200,000 of his own money into his campaign.  I mean, that's definitely like putting up a billboard and saying, stay out of the race because I have it handled.

Jacobs: I will overwhelm you --

Lynch: He also was in Cedar Rapids this week and talked about the fact that with Olsen out of the race now he can fundraise in Linn County, which is the second largest population center and a real democratic stronghold.  So it's a really opportunity for him there.

Borg: Go ahead.

Henderson: Well, back to the biography angle, democrats are disappointed that they're not able to present a biographical contrast with Terry Branstad and there doesn't appear to be some mayor in the wings that is ready to jump in --

Borg: You mean a record to run on?

Henderson: To run -- no, they want someone who is young because Branstad is experienced, they want someone who hasn't been in office for 20 years as governor, before that lieutenant governor, before that a state representative.  They wanted to have a contrast.  In Jack Hatch they do not have the contrast that they were hoping for.

Obradovich: That was the main appeal with Tyler Olsen.

Borg: Mike, what I was going to ask you is that there's another office at the statehouse kind of puzzling to me.  I can remember back when we had people in the secretary of state's office who ran year after year and camped there.  But Matt Schultz and Elaine Baxter, you can go back to Chet Culver, have used that as a stepping stone.  Is that what the secretary of state's office is now?  And what about Matt Schultz?

Wiser: Well, it's interesting, we had just mentioned the Latham seat and Matt Schultz this week came out with a Twitter announcement, he said I'm going to have an announcement next week about my political future.  The speculation is that he is getting into the third congressional district race.  And as of right now Matt Schultz had faced Brad Anderson, a democrat, who was instrumental in running the Obama campaign in Iowa.  Schultz had made the office very, I guess you would say divisive in some respects by his focus on voter registration, voter ID, investigations.  He got in a bit of a kerfuffle with an auditor's report that say that maybe he spent some money inappropriately.  But the office always has been I think, as we pointed out, has been sort of a stepping stone.  Chet Culver used it on the way to governor.  Other office holders have done the same thing.  But it will be interesting to see who gets in on the Schultz, if Schultz does go to the third.

Obradovich: I think that is a training ground for candidates.  They can build up a statewide presence, it's something where it doesn't have to be a divisive office although as you said Matt Schultz has made it that way.  Most of the time though what we see is republicans running as sort of a business promoter.  They focus on the business side of the office, as Matt Schultz did when he first ran for the office.  And then really though the main job of the secretary of state is to run elections.  And that is what democrats usually emphasize when they run.

Wiser: And that's interesting because that is what Brad Anderson's campaign has been about.  So far he has said that we need to increase access to voters, which is good for democrats in general, democrats generally tend to do better the more time, the wider the pool of voters that you have.

Henderson: The other thing that the Anderson candidacy does is it has a means of maybe getting the band back together for 2014 in that it motivates Obama activists to be involved in his campaign and maybe boost turnout among democratic voters who vote in presidential years but they're not inclined to vote in non-presidential years.

Obradovich: Republicans are afraid of the kind of money he can raise.

Borg: Speaking of presidential year, will the hot bed of activity, historic election year in Iowa, have an effect, Jennifer, on presidential candidates who also are looking to Iowa to sample their support?

Jacobs: I think it will be a lure here because there's always a power in Iowa that you're always on a platform, you get a lot of national media attention when you come here so I think these hot races for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House will lure in even more people who are willing to go stand up next to one of our candidates and get some attention for themselves.

Lynch: I think they'll also be watching to see who is ascending in both democratic and republican politics, especially on the republican side.  If the liberty wing of the party seems to be coming to power, even more power, that might tell Chris Christie, skip Iowa if you're going to run.

Henderson: And the thing, yeah, and the thing with Chris Christie is he is going to be the leader of the republican effort to elect governors all across the board and we're going to have to see whether Chris Christie dips his toe in here and campaigns heavily for Terry Branstad or if he employs an early skip Iowa strategy.

Obradovich: It gives candidates generally an excuse to come though without tipping their hand that they're running for president and that is often what these early visits are about.

Borg: Go ahead.

Lynch: I was going to say it also gives these folks that can campaign in the first district that is open, they can campaign in the third that is open, they can campaign for governor and senator.  So they can be all over the state raising their profile.

Borg: And they have got a ready made audience.  What effect though will the -- rollout, that's what I was looking for, rollout of the Affordable Care Act have on democrat's chances in Iowa?

Jacobs: I think the republicans have already shown that they're going to use that as a campaign strategy, they have been using it against Congressman Bruce Braley who is running for Senator Harkin's seat in the U.S. Senate.  They have been saying that the problems with Obamacare go to Congressman Braley's credibility and his competence.  So it has already become quite a strategy already.

Borg: Any comment?

Wiser: Well, I was just looking at some Gallup polls that came out Thursday, 59% of the people who have been on, have tried Obamacare through the website were disappointed with it.  Those are not good numbers for anybody who is identified with this program and that is what republicans will use to --

Borg: We have to go.  I'm sorry.  A lively discussion.  Thanks for your insights today.  And we'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week, same times, 7:30 Friday night, noon on Sunday.  Thanks to everyone around the table and thank you for joining us today.

Tags: election cycle elections Iowa James Q. Lynch Jennifer Jacobs Kathie Obradovich Kay Henderson Mike Wiser news politics reporters roundtable