Iowa Public Television


Reporters Roundtable

posted on July 3, 2014

Defining time. Candidates for Iowa political offices now spending time and resources communicating their opponents' resume to voters, whether or not it's true. We're getting perspective from political journalists on this edition of Iowa Press. 

Borg: Iowa's somewhat unique election year is gathering momentum now. It's something special because there are two open congressional seats, a U.S. Senate seat and a Governor seeking an unprecedented sixth term. The political party nominees are now in place, they're selected and now that each candidate knows for certain who they're running against, they're explicitly, somewhat gratuitously, helping voters understand their opponents. But they're often less definitive about their own views on certain issues. We're seeking perspective today from Des Moines Register Political Writer Jennifer Jacobs, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids, Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Borg: Jennifer, take us to the U.S. Senate race. The field is set there and we know some of the views. So, tell us what's going on there.

Jacobs: Well, what's interesting is that this time two years ago no one thought that Tom Harkin wouldn't be our Senator, no one predicted that he would be retiring. A year ago at this point we had no idea who the republicans were going to choose and now we're locked in. We've got republican Joni Ernst and democrat Bruce Braley in a very, very close race. And national democrats know that if they lose Iowa, they could very well lose the U.S. Senate, which is why we're seeing all these negative advertising. We just had a million dollars in negative ads against Joni Ernst in the last few weeks and in the last two weeks alone the pro-Braley forces have outspent the pro-Ernst forces nearly two to one.

Borg: I'm intrigued what you said that nationally democrats say if they lose Iowa, they may lose the Senate. Why is Iowa the focus? Are we that prominent nationally? Or this is such a politically divisive state or what?

Jacobs: Right, Iowa is very much a purple state but there are about ten key races throughout the country that are close enough that it could swing either way and Iowa is one of the very closest.

Lynch: And I think as democrats' chances appear to be improving in North Carolina and Arkansas this becomes more important in that equation of control of the Senate. So, focus for both republicans and democrats will be on Iowa.

Obradovich: And one of the things we're going to see in this campaign, Dean, is Joni Ernst to win the republican primary over a strong field had to articulate some pretty conservative views, especially on social issues. I think that what we're going to be seeing from the Bruce Braley campaign, especially now as the Hobby Lobby ruling has put women's reproductive issues back into the forefront, we're going to see him really trying to emphasize those most conservative positions that she took and we'll have to see how far she is able or willing to try to move to the middle on some of those issues.

Borg: And is that going to be tough for her and dangerous for her?

Obradovich: Well, yeah, it's tough. It is tough, first of all, because there was a camera recording everything she said on the campaign trail and trying to move away from any of those positions is hazardous because it gives you either a flip-flopper label or the impression to voters that somebody doesn't know what they stand for and they're just desperate to be elected. So, that is the kind of thing that is hazardous I think for Joni Ernst.

Henderson: The other thing about this race is that you hear nationally that the phrases, the war on women. I think in this particular race the key phrase is, the war for women. I think women voters are going to be the key to whoever wins this race. You have the BO data, the Barack Obama data people, who are reaching out and seeking out single voters, single women voters because they think that's key to the Braley candidacy. You have Carly Fiorina, who is the former CEO of Hewlett-Packard who has a new PAC that is going after women voters who have conservative views for things called The Up Project. So, you have both sides really targeting female voters. And so, if you are a female voter your mailbox is going to be full and you are going to be getting a lot of calls between now and November.

Borg: Well, Jennifer, does that mean that independent voters are key to this? Or are there other specific demographic groups such as gender?

Jacobs: Oh definitely. Independents are definitely going to be key to this. But, women dominated the last handful of general election cycles in Iowa, women outnumbered men in the last five or six election cycles. So, women are going to dominate.

Borg: What are the polls showing, Jim?

Lynch: That it's very close. I think most of the polls have this within one or two percentage points, some with Braley up, some with Ernst up. What is interesting is right after the primary I think we were somewhat surprised to see how close Ernst was, in fact, leading in a couple of polls right after the primary. It'll be interesting to watch through the summer how that changes. I imagine one will be up and then the next month the other will be up as we get closer to the election.

Borg: And will debates at all, Kathie, play a role in this? You said there was a camera recording all of Ernst's campaigns and you can expect to see excerpts of those in television commercials now. But, when they are answering questions in a debate, that might be key.

Obradovich: I think that voters are paying attention to debates. I think that they were conditioned during the last presidential campaign that debates were important. And I think that we have seen the candidates now, big fields of candidates in primaries running in debates. But you get a whole different level of understanding about where a candidate comes from when there's just two on the stage. So, I do think that debates will be part of it. I think that advertising, both from the candidates and from outside groups, are going to play a role as well. Although in Iowa TV ads I think don't sway voters as much as they maybe do elsewhere in the country. And then finally, to put those ads on TV, money is going to be key. Braley starts off with an advantage there.

Henderson: The one thing about debates is the last debate Bruce Braley had was on this network in 2012, late October. The last debate Joni Ernst had was in May of this year. She had a lot of joint appearances with her competitors for the republican nomination. And so she has been run through the ringer, if you will, in terms of answering questions. So, she doesn't enter this as the underdog I don't think because she has practiced, she has been at the legislature, she knows the vernacular of campaigning. And so I think this is going to be a fascinating thing to watch these two candidates going after each other.

Jacobs: Bruce Braley has had a year to ramp up. He has been -- we have known that he was going to be the likely democratic nominee for a year. She has had to pivot from the June 3rd primary into the general election mode and she is behind him on fundraising. I'm hearing that Bruce Braley is going to have his strongest quarterly fundraising report when those reports come out on July 15th. His previous record was $1.25 million. I'm hearing it could be $2 million for the quarter. Joni's strongest previous quarter was $275,000. I'm hearing she is fundraising very aggressively right after the primary. She flew to California. She flew to D.C. She is definitely out there trying to raise cash. But Bruce Braley is going to have an advantage, at least for the two campaigns.

Borg: As for geographic areas of the state, Bruce Braley has represented a good section, varying sections of eastern Iowa during his time in the House of Representatives. That is going to be an advantage for him I would guess, Jennifer?

Jacobs: Right. He is going to be strong in the Cedar Rapids area. I think that is where he's strongest. The internal polling shows that's part of his district and that is where he is doing the best in the polls right now. Not surprisingly, Joni Ernst is doing best in the west. She is doing well in Council Bluffs and Sioux City, but the polling also shows that she is leading by a slight bit in Des Moines and Davenport as well. But Braley picks up all those eastern Iowa voters that he has known for years and that helps balance it out.

Borg: And for issues, Kathie, what are issues in that campaign that you see will be key? Women's issues you've already enunciated.

Obradovich: One of the first issues that has gotten a lot of play out of the box is Social Security. And, again, Joni Ernst was asked many times during the primary, what are you going to do to fix Social Security? And she had indicated that she was interested in exploring private accounts, which is an idea that republicans have kicked around for a long time. Even during the Bush administration they gave it a try and it didn't happen. And that in democratic language is destroy Social Security. This is how they always portray it. So, I think that issue, of course, very important in Iowa because of the older demographic here, I think that issue is going to be something that we'll see throughout the campaign.

Borg: Kay, let's go to the third congressional district. What are you seeing there in the candidates and the campaign? We just recently found out who the candidates are.

Henderson: Exactly. If this was a sportscast we might call it a Cinderella story. The fifth place finisher in the primary winds up being the nominee at that special nominating convention a couple of weeks ago. Viewers of this program saw the nominee here on this program last weekend. He has the demeanor of the current congressman representing the third district, Tom Latham, sort of laid back, a little bit casual in approach to things, not in the words of some a bomb-thrower like perhaps the congressman who represents a far piece up north of Iowa --

Borg: Steve King.

Henderson: And he faces someone who had a cake walk in the primary, Staci Appel, a former state Senator, who has a proven record of fundraising. I think she has done a credible job of fundraising. And that is going to be a really key race for both parties because this is sort of one of those toss up districts in the country, not just in Iowa, but in the country.

Obradovich: You know, David Young, a very nice guy, he won the nomination by being the inoffensive second choice for republicans who were delegates at the convention. Republicans have tried to argue that they went out of that convention unified and I don't doubt that the delegates themselves might have been but that's 500 people and I still think that David Young has work to do to introduce himself to his own party broadly as the nominee and then to start working on some of those independent and swing voters who he has a chance of getting based in part I think on Chuck Grassley's tutelage and mentorship of him. I think that he will need to have Chuck Grassley out on the campaign trail with him.

Jacobs: I think there is a little bit of bitterness in that arena as well. Watch for the one who finished first on primary night, Brad Zaun, to file some legislation. He's a state Senator, very popular in the Urbandale area. Watch for him to file some legislation to introduce the run off system in Iowa. That means if no candidate on that primary night gets a majority just the top two advance and everyone else is excluded. A lot of people --

Obradovich: People will think that is sour grapes but I actually think that a lot of states have gone to that system. The Governor has said before that he's open to that. I do, I would like to see a larger debate in the legislature about that. And there are ways to do it so that you wouldn't necessarily have to spend a lot more money.

Lynch: You could go to instant run off voting, for example, where at the primary you would list your first, second and third choices and if no one got a majority then you would go to second choices and that sort of thing. It would have been fascinating to see how that would have worked out in that district where the number five person jumped to number one in the end.

Henderson: Or we could set up what they did in Mississippi, the Thad Cochran race, and have another vote two weeks hence.

Borg: Right. Coming back to Iowa, to Bruce Braley's district, where he is representing the first district, Jim, tell us about the race over there.

Lynch: Well, we've got an interesting matchup with former Speaker of the Iowa House Pat Murphy, who is, can't stop saying he's a progressive liberal often enough. He is very proud of the fact that he is a progressive liberal and at the state convention he gave this stem-winder speech that might have been one of the best of the democratic state convention that sounded a bit like Hubert Humphrey or a Paul Wellstone speech, somebody like that. And then you have Rod Blum, a Dubuque businessman, who these guys interestingly were co-workers several years ago.

Borg: You mean the two candidates were co-workers?

Lynch: Yep, they worked for the same company briefly back in I don't know if it was, the '80s I think it was. But both have moved on and Blum is a very conservative businessman, he has one of his advantages I suppose is that he can do some self-funding. But I think both of them will probably have adequate resources. It's very much a democratic district so Blum is facing quite a challenge there.

Borg: And also Pat Murphy, legislative experience, and is quite well known throughout the district and also I think would carry the labor vote.

Lynch: Oh yeah, easily, yeah. And I don't think Blum will get any of the labor vote.

Borg: Move a little bit south then to Dave Loebsack, who was in Mount Vernon as a Cornell professor at Cornell College, moved now to Iowa City because the district was re-districted and he has moved to Iowa City. He has Mariannette Miller-Meeks and he knows her well.

Lynch: Yeah, this is the third time they have faced off and obviously Loebsack has won the first two. She is hoping the third time is a charm. I guess when you look at these congressional races like this the only thing that is more certain than incumbent re-elections is death and taxes. And, you know, Loebsack won rather handily in both of these races and I think he is probably on track here --

Borg: The district has changed.

Lynch: The district has changed, it's much larger than it was in the past, but it still leans democratic. Miller-Meeks hopes that the addition of Scott County works in her advantage, although she didn't carry Scott County in the primary. So, I'm not sure how that's going to play out in the general.

Henderson: One of the interesting things about this race to me is that among the four I think this is the fourth most important to the two political parties. It is sort of coming up on some of the radar because Iowa has these sort of closely aligned districts compared to the gerrymandering that goes on in a lot of other states. But this race is really kind of a sleeper race because so much attention is paid to the two open seats in Iowa and attention is being paid to the fourth district.

Borg: Well, tell us about -- go ahead, Kathie.

Obradovich: I was just going to say that there's two other things -- Miller-Meeks I think is a different candidate than she was the last two times. She really got the attention of republican audiences when she was out on the stump, much more dynamic speaker than we had seen the last two times and secondly, she is now one of three opportunities for Iowa to send a woman to Congress. And people start to feel like this could really be the year. That could add some interest to her candidacy that might not have been there the last two times.

Borg: Two males in the fourth district.

Henderson: No chance of sending a woman to Congress from the fourth district. You have Steve King seeking another term and you have a very well financed challenger in Jim Mowrer. He has an interesting personal story, a former Pentagon employee, served time in the conflict for the military. He has raised money from the likes of the Biden's. He has amassed a campaign war chest, if you will. And a few weeks ago when Congressman King was on this program, he said he has basically decided to be a congressman for a year and had set aside any effort at raising money for his re-election. So, there are republicans, I have heard, express concern that King is not taking seriously enough Jim Mowrer as an opponent thinking that maybe his biggest challenge was in 2012 when he faced off against First Lady Christie Vilsack and defeated her.

Obradovich: Yeah. And Jim Mowrer I think will be a progressive democrat on most of the issues but his military background adds I think interest to his candidacy that somebody like Christie Vilsack might not have. In a very conservative district he may have a way to talk to those conservative voters who perhaps aren't, for some reason, wedded to Steve King being re-elected.

Borg: And the suspense there is whether or not Steve King will allow Jim Mowrer to speak to voters in a debate.

Obradovich: Yeah, I think that that's a question -- King has historically been reluctant to debate. He did debate Christie Vilsack a number of times during that election and he said that he wasn't particularly happy with the way the media portrayed his performance. So, before that he would say that his opponents didn't deserve it, didn't deserve the attention, they weren't running a good enough campaign. In this case it's hard to say that about an Iraq war veteran and so now it's the media who apparently doesn't deserve to see Steve King debate.

Borg: Kay, I'm coming back to you to give us an overview now of the Governor's race.

Henderson: The fascinating thing about the Governor's race is that it is a third tier race, we have already talked about the marquee race in Iowa, the Senate race. We have talked about some very competitive congressional races in Iowa. And then we come to the Governor's race, which is a statewide campaign. You have Jack Hatch having recently selected Cedar Rapids City Councilwoman Monica Vernon to round out the ticket, intentionally portraying the two of them as businesspeople. She started her own business, although she does have a background in journalism, we must disclose. And I covered a Hatch-Vernon campaign event on Friday morning. What was fascinating was that he has started to articulate an attack against Branstad in a more cogent way in terms of the job creation record of Terry Branstad over the past three years, arguing that Terry Branstad has picked winners and losers and that is a complaint that you hear from some of the conservatives in Branstad's own party. And so I don’t know whether Jack Hatch will be able to carry this complaint statewide. But that was interesting to me that he has started to frame the debate in a different way than he had before.

Borg: Jennifer -- Jim --

Lynch: I was going to say I think that's going to be a key for Jack Hatch is framing the debate very succinctly and very cogently because he's not going to have the same resources that Governor Branstad has, we're already seeing that just watching the ads on TV. And so he is really going to have to bring his argument very pointedly to voters so that they catch on quickly and understand the differences.

Obradovich: The biggest thing Jack Hatch has going for him is not that people don’t' like Terry Branstad, because they do. Branstad's approval ratings are consistently high. People think he is doing a good job. And Iowa is doing pretty well when you compare it to the rest of the country. The thing that he has going for him is that people also say when you ask them, he has served long enough, not that he has been there too long necessarily, but that he has served long enough. And so they have to keep pounding that argument that there might be something better out there.

Borg: I'm going to stay with you and transition then into Terry Branstad's engineering of a change in the Republican Party leadership.

Obradovich: Yes, well, so this started back in January when we had the midterm caucuses. And I know nobody pays attention to caucuses when it's not a presidential year but these ended up being very, very important. Branstad's campaign really worked hard to get their supporters out to those caucuses so that they could fill those party leadership positions trickling through the series of conventions that culminated in June with the state convention. And they were successful in doing that. A bunch of new members to the state central committee, they are the governing body of the party, got elected and they met last Saturday and ousted their chairman. He hadn't been chairman very long, Danny Carroll, who took over from A.J. Spiker when he resigned in March. So, just a total changeover of leadership. It's going to be a completely new republican party.

Borg: Now, Jennifer, is that a smooth and friendly transition?

Jacobs: It seems like there might have been a little bit of hijinks going on in that office. There has been a problem with some missing passwords. I'm not sure exactly what happened. It sounds like perhaps someone who was fired perhaps changed some of the passwords before he left. They had some trouble accessing their own website, their own Twitter account, their own Facebook page. Those are frozen in place. They have been a little bit hamstrung without these passwords. They have been trying to get a hold of them. I think they're going to work through it pretty quickly. But the other part of the transition is that watch for the comparisons on the fundraising. So, watch for the previous chairman's last 60 days of fundraising and then compare it to the new chairman, Jeff Kaufmann's 60 days and it's going to be pretty striking.

Henderson: The other striking thing to me was the way that Jeff Kaufmann spoke about the job. He used the phrase purity test when he spoke to reporters and he said he is not in the business, as the party chairman, of imposing a purity test. He is in the business of running the mechanics of electing republicans who have been chosen by local voters, which I think is the kind of sea change in Republican Party leadership that the Branstad folks were seeking.

Obradovich: And this, Jeff Kaufmann is close to Branstad. I've seen him speak as a surrogate for the Branstad campaign at party events, been very involved in the Branstad campaign so he'll be the first chairman out of the last three or last two previous chairmen who actually gets along really well with the Governor. And I think that going into an election that will help him even though the changeover right now is not good timing.

Lynch: I think Kaufmann brings two things that are really important to the Republican Party right now. One is stability. I don't think we're going to see him jump to a national campaign or take another job somewhere else. So I think there will be some stability there for the party. And I think he is also someone who can speak for the party. I don't think there was ever a sense that A.J. Spiker was speaking for the party, he was speaking for his faction of the party. And while Kaufmann will have some detractors, perhaps in the liberty wing of the party or elsewhere, I think people will see him as speaking for the Republican Party whether it's a policy position or just fundraising appeals, those sorts of things.

Henderson: The other thing was he acknowledged publicly that republicans are behind democrats in terms of identifying voters and going after those voters and getting them to cast ballots, which had not been fully acknowledged by previous republican leaders. He knows they're behind and he knows they have catch up to play.

Borg: Jennifer, we have only a minute remaining, but take what we have just said about the Republican Party into the presidential candidates who are eyeing Iowa and beginning to come here for visits.

Jacobs: August is going to be a hot month. We've got a whole bunch coming. We've got Ted Cruz and Rick Perry. We've also got Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee coming, Bobby Jindal. It has been interesting with Rand Paul. The evangelicals are watching him very closely right now. The last couple of times he has been here he has really embraced the Christian conservatives, met with some pastors, very much showed a friendliness in his speeches about God and religion. This time he has not RSVP'd for a big evangelical event in Cedar Rapids, even though we know he is going to be in town during that time period --

Borg: What does that mean?

Jacobs: Well, it's a renewal project event. But what does it mean as far as --

Borg: Yes.

Jacobs: Is he making a calculation to sidestep the evangelicals? Perhaps he thinks that because if Mike Huckabee gets into the race he wouldn't be able to win with the evangelical Christians so he is going to focus on a different faction of the state? There is also Bob Vander Plaats' event in Ames. He hasn't RSVP'd for that one. So it's interesting.

Borg: We'll leave it there. Thanks for your insights, all of you. Next week on Iowa Press, a man we've been talking about, democrat Jim Mowrer. He is seeking republican Steve King's seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. And you'll see fourth district democratic congressional candidate Jim Mowrer at the usual times next week, 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks to all of our panelists and thanks for joining us today. 

Tags: campaign 2014 campaigns Dean Borg Des Moines Register elections government Iowa James Lynch Jennifer Jacobs Kathie Obradovich Kay Henderson news politics primaries Radio Iowa The Gazette