Iowa Public Television


Political Strategists David Kochel & Jeff Link

posted on July 18, 2014

Calling the race. Assessing a political campaign usually depends on one's viewpoint. We're balancing political perspectives of two men in the middle of Election 2014 campaign maneuvering, democrat Jeff Link and republican David Kochel, on this edition of Iowa Press.

Borg: Watching a race, whether it is horses, cars or cross-country runners, usually depends on perspective to accurately determine who is ahead. Well, same goes for determining strategy, who is doing what and why. Well, it takes extensive experience and intimate insight to do that. And so what is important in calling a horse race is infinitely more essential in analyzing political campaigns where humans are really involved in strategies. And that is why we have two of the best in the business at the Iowa Press table right now. Democratic strategist Jeff Link has experience in managing or consulting on political campaigns, Senator Tom Harkin's, Congressman Bruce Braley's, President Obama's 2008 and 2012 successes. And republican Dave Kochel's resume includes Governor Terry Branstad's and Mitt Romney's run for the presidency and add in there executive management of both Iowa and Michigan's republican state parties. Both Jeff and Dave have political consulting and public relations firms in Des Moines. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Link: Great, thank you.

Borg: We're anxious for your opinions and perspective. Across the table, James Lynch who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Gentlemen, let's first talk about the U.S. Senate race in Iowa. The polls suggest this is a dead heat. Will both of you be biting your nails to the nub on election night? Mr. Link?

Link: Well, I think it is a close race. Iowa, as you well know, has been a purple state in presidential years. Our Senate delegation is currently split between a republican and a democrat. Our House delegation is equally split. Our state legislature is equally divided, one controlled by the republicans, one controlled by the democrats. And so, you know, I think we expected from the get-go that this would be a close race. Joni Ernst really started the general election with wind at her back coming out of the primary but that seemed to have dissipated and it has settled into a tight race.

Henderson: Is this a dead heat? Do you see anything changing the outcome significantly? I mean, is this going to be a nail-biter on election night, Mr. Kochel?

Kochel: Well, it's a purple state, like Jeff says. I think that in 2014 the winds really favor republican candidates, not just in Iowa, but across the country. We're also benefiting from having an outstanding campaign at the top of the ticket with Governor Branstad who is, you know, 14 and 0 in his political career and is running a terrific campaign. So that's going to be helping our side as well. What has really happened though is the race started out as a likely democratic, to lean democratic and now all of the analysts in the country, including Stu Rothenberg and others, Charlie Cook, have moved it to a toss-up.

Henderson: Explain to viewers why.

Kochel: Well, for a lot of reasons. One, I think that Congressman Braley has really underperformed as a candidate. He has already spent $4.5 million and moved nowhere. I think Joni Ernst has had a good introduction to Iowans. I think she came out of the general -- or she came out of the primary election with a lot of momentum. You know, we were trailing Congressman Braley in most early polls and she has surged over the last month and a half and as people have gotten to know her and taken a look at her message and her campaign I think they have found her to be a relatable, likeable, strong candidate and that's why I think we're moving.

Henderson: Mr. Link, there are polls that suggest that there is still a huge number of Iowans who know nothing about Bruce Braley and he has been campaigning for a year.

Link: Yes. There's -- those same people don't know anything about Joni Ernst. They know that she has castrated hogs, that she rides a Harley and that she shoots a gun --

Borg: But they know her then.

Link: They know those three things about her. But what they don't know is where she stands on the issues. And I think that's what is going to happen between the middle of July and November is people are going to take a closer look. They're going to say, where do you stand on Social Security? Federal minimum wage, other issues --

Borg: But on the other hand -- the democratic candidate, Dave, just said underperformed.

Link: Well, I don't know that that's a reasonable assessment. I mean, Congressman Braley has been working for a year. A lot of what he has been doing is traveling around the state meeting people. He did not have a primary like Joni Ernst did. She received a tremendous amount of visibility because of that primary. And our strategy all along was to prepare during that primary period for a very intense and difficult general election.

Lynch: Mr. Link, when this race started everybody assumed it was going to be about Obamacare and that Congressman Braley would be championing this wonderful reform and Senator Ernst would be trying to tie it to Congressman Braley and an unpopular president. But current events, an airliner being shot down yesterday, Israel invading Gaza, immigration seem to be overtaking the race. What is this race going to be about in October and November?

Link: I think ultimately this race, just like every race, is going to be about the economy. I think people are going to ask a question, which of these candidates is really on my side in terms of economics? What are they going to do to help people in my situation financially? And so I think that is ultimately where it boils down to. I don't think it will end up being about foreign policy. I think Obamacare plays into that discussion. I think some of the things that have been really positive about Obamacare impact people's pocketbook, keeping your kids on your own health insurance until they're 26, not being denied coverage for pre-existing conditions. Those are things that have a positive impact on people's pocketbooks. We have also seen the cost curve starting to bend and health care costs are starting to come down in part due to Obamacare.

Lynch: Mr. Kochel, Jeff said it's not going to be about foreign affairs. But events in the Ukraine, in the Middle East, do they benefit Senator Ernst because of her military background, her experience in the Iowa Guard and Reserve?

Kochel: Yeah, I think they do. She actually was inspired to join the Guard and to join the ROTC based on a trip she took to the Ukraine and talking with families there and seeing the contrast of life in the then Soviet Union and life here. And that is one of the things that brought her into public service. You know, she served in Iraq, she is actually currently on active duty up at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. So she follows those issues, cares about those issues. But I really think what the race is going to be about is things in Washington are not working. People understand that. People feel that the country is off in the wrong direction. President Obama's favorable numbers are down at 37. Bruce Braley has been a part of Washington for eight years. A lot of these problems haven't been solved whether it is the border crisis, whether, I mean, health care they've made a bigger mess. And you contrast what is happening in Washington with what has been happening in Iowa where Joni Ernst has been in the state Senate. You see that unemployment is down. We have reduced unemployment by 30%. We fixed a $900 billion dollar whole in the budget and replaced it with a $900 million dollar, excuse me, surplus. She is working with Governor Branstad to create jobs and try to create an environment where families and people can get back to work and that is working.

Borg: I'm remembering that in our conversation here already both of you are asserting the other candidate, republican or democrat, isn't widely known statewide. And television advertising is a cornerstone of democrat Bruce Braley and republican Joni Ernst's campaigns for the U.S. Senate, most of it negatively defining the other candidate. And we have a couple of examples. First a spot criticizing Joni Ernst that includes comments that she made in Iowa Public Television's debate among candidates for the republican nomination.

Political Ad - I have Iowa values.

Political Ad - What is really behind Joni Ernst's values?

Political Ad - Closing the doors to the Department of Education --

Political Ad - Ernst's plan would threaten Pell Grants for 213,000 Iowa students.

Political Ad - Let's shut down the federal EPA --

Political Ad - And Ernst would cut clean air and water protections.

Political Ad - I have Iowa values.

Political Ad - Joni Ernst's values aren't for Iowa. Environmental Defense Action Fund and the Sierra Club Political Committee are responsible for the content of this advertising.

Borg: Dave Kochel, those comments that she made in getting the republican nomination, coming back to haunt her. And will it cost her votes among the independents that she has to get?

Kochel: I don't think so. I think they see through the cynical distortion of this. She's not for cutting education. I mean, for goodness sakes, she was supported by a Pell Grant when she went to college. Her daughter goes to public school. The thing is that democrats think that all problems are solved in Washington. The Department of Education should just block grant money out to the states where they know how to spend it better. I trust Governor Branstad, our legislature, parents, teachers and administrators to spend money on education. So these are pretty cynical attacks and I think they're false.

Henderson: Mr. Link, what was your editorial chuckle there?

Link: Well, I mean, it's so cynical that we would use video of Joni Ernst talking about issues. It's not cynical, it's the position she took in the primary election. She has had to walk back several of her policy positions. She doesn't support a federal minimum wage. She has walked that back. She supports privatization of Social Security. She has walked that back, sort of. She had to walk back her statement on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. She has had to walk back her statement on impeaching President Obama. And she walked back her statement on calling President Obama a dictator --

Borg: I see Dave Kochel rolling his eyes. And Dave, that was basically my question to you. Is she going to have to live down those things?

Kochel: First of all, she supports the minimum wage. She worked for the minimum wage when she was in high school and college. She does believe that the minimum wage ought to be set by states individually. Iowa and California and New York and New Jersey are different, their economies are different. There's no reason we should -- I mean, Washington doesn't possess all of the knowledge in the country. They shouldn't --

Link: So we should eliminate the federal minimum wage.

Kochel: Look, in Iowa we trust our leaders to make better decisions that work for our economy and for our businesses and for our families. Washington doesn't have all the answers. I know that Bruce thinks that they do and I know that he likes to sort of push policies from Washington that are often very harmful to Iowa businesses and Iowa families, but we trust people to do things, make the right decisions in Iowa, closer to home.

Borg: We're an equal opportunity show so we're going to show now a commercial criticizing Congressman Bruce Braley.

Political Ad - Bruce Braley is fighting for you, if you're Washington special interests. Braley claims he is for Iowans, like when he was for the Keystone Pipeline he said would create thousands of jobs, but a month later he voted against it. Maybe those jobs are the type Braley respects. We all know what he said about farmers.

Political Ad - You might have a farmer from Iowa who never went to law school serving as the next chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Political Ad - Tell Bruce Braley to fight for Iowa and support the Keystone Pipeline, not special interests.

Borg: Well, Jeff Link, what is the strategy for neutralizing those comments Bruce Braley made in Texas?

Link: Well, he apologized for those comments. He apologized directly to Senator Grassley and he apologized --

Borg: But are we going to see the comments that were made down there over and over again?

Link: Oh yeah, I think the current count is there have been eight or nine commercials with that clip in it. I'd expect that we'll see another 15 or 20. But -- and so everyone is going to know about it and everyone is going to know that he has apologized for it. But what we're going to try and do is to talk about issues. And, you know, you talk about Bruce Braley thinking there's Washington solutions to everything. I'll give you one specific example. And James, you wrote about this yesterday. The Washington Social Security Administration came up with a great idea, they were going to save money by cutting 19 offices in Iowa, shuttering these offices and having seniors go online to do the processing of cards and other things. Bruce Braley said, that's ridiculous, we have to keep these offices open. In fact, he worked with Senator Grassley on this. And just yesterday the Social Security Administration sent a letter to Congressman Braley and said, thanks for your input on this, we have decided to change our mind and we're going to keep these offices open. That is taking an Iowa sensibility and making a Washington bureaucracy respond to the needs of Iowa voters and that is what Bruce tries to do.

Henderson: Mr. Kochel?

Kochel: Well, first of all, he knew about this in December of last year. He waited until July in the middle of a political campaign. It was obviously a political calculation that they made and good for him for keeping the offices open. You know, it goes back to a lot of distortions coming out of their campaign, though. Bruce Braley has said on Social Security that all options are on the table in the past. And now, the only option that he has come up with for saving Social Security in the future is to raise taxes. We're going to have a debate about Social Security. The plan that Bruce Braley seems to have is to let it go broke. Everyone knows that these programs aren't sustainable and yet he does what democrats do every two years, which is try to scare seniors about losing benefits. Joni Ernst is going to protect current retirees and she is going to protect near-retirees and then she is going to look for options, working with democrats across the aisle, to try to find solutions so that we can make these programs solvent in the future.

Henderson: I'm curious how you both are advising your candidates to play this election out. Are Iowans actually going to get to meet these candidates in public forums and ask them questions? Or is this campaign solely going to be prosecuted with these ads that are produced and then the candidates can claim they don't have any fingerprints on them? Mr. Link? 

Link: Well, I hope there is a series of debates. I think it would benefit all the Iowa voters, I think it would benefit the press corp to see the two candidates side-by-side talking about the issues and get away from these third party groups coming in. I think --

Borg: You're hoping for a debate so let me just say that they aren't confirming any debates yet. In fact, Iowa Public Television has invited them, hasn't received the confirmation.

Link: Yeah, well, hopefully the campaigns will get together soon and decide on which of those debates they do and I hope they do this one.

Borg: Is there a downside to debating?

Link: No. I think it would be great.

Henderson: Mr. Kochel, the only opportunity I have had to see Joni Ernst in public was a semi-public setting since the primary and that was at the Republican Party’s state convention. Why isn't she doing more public events where Iowans can meet and learn about her?

Kochel: Well, right now by law she is not allowed to do public events. She has been --

Henderson: But there were seven weeks after she won the nomination where she could have done that.

Kochel: Sure. And she has had events and she'll have more events. There will be a public event when she gets back off of duty. For this two week period she can't make even a phone call to raise money or to respond to an attack --

Borg: Because of the National Guard.

Kochel: Sure. She is training to defend the country but she's unable to defend herself from these third party attacks.

Henderson: So what prevented her from having public events during that period after the primary?

Kochel: Well, she has been out campaigning and working around the state. She hasn't had as many public events as we'd like but she will when she gets back off of the campaign. There are a lot of things after a primary, you've got to raise money, you've got to hire staff. You know, remember, she came out of a primary with really no money in the bank. You've got a lot of work to do to try to prepare for a campaign when you're facing someone who is funded with millions of dollars of trial lawyer money from all over the country. It takes a lot of time to get yourself on an equal footing.

Link: She is doing events but the one thing that's interesting is she is not really taking questions from reporters. I think the only interview she has done since the primary was with U.S. News and World Report and that is when she claimed that she was not for the elimination of the federal minimum wage. She walked back her statement from the primary. That's probably why you're not letting her talk to reporters.

Kochel: She talked to reporters.

Henderson: I want to go back to the video that you have mentioned that is being played over and over of what Congressman Braley said in Texas. Talk about eye rolling, there are a lot of democrats who have rolled their eyes about that and they're sort of incredulous that a candidate running for the United States Senate would even decide to utter that kind of a statement and it's an indictment of him as a legitimate candidate. How do you answer the concerns of democrats who think the reason this race is tied is because Bruce Braley hasn't performed up to expectations?

Link: Well, I think all of the criticisms of Congressman Braley really are encapsulated in just that one statement. Now, we have heard it over and over again since it has been released in March but that's really the core of it. And as I said, he apologized for it, her apologized personally to Senate Grassley. He didn't say anything that wasn't true in that but he would never say it again and he apologized for it. So, I think that is what you can do is own up to it and move on.

Borg: Let me interrupt so we move on to the open seats that we have in Congress. Jim?

Lynch: In the first district, Mr. Kochel, we have State Representative Pat Murphy, a democrat, running against republican Rod Blum. It's a heavily democratic district based on voter registration. There's strong labor union support for Pat Murphy. Does Rod Blum stand a chance here?

Kochel: Absolutely he stands a chance.

Lynch: Why?

Kochel: Well, a lot of reasons. First of all, look at the primary. More republicans voted in that primary. We only had two candidates running in that seat. More republicans voted in that primary than in a spirited five-way primary among democrats. I think democrats are down in the dumps this year. I think there's -- they see the Obama numbers, they see the direction of the U.S. Senate campaign and how it's not going so well for Congressman Braley, they see sort of the national wind blowing against democrats and I think this seat is a great opportunity. Rod Blum has been a National Entrepreneur of the Year, he is also from Dubuque, he is talking about the issues, he's a great candidate. I saw him yesterday on the stump and he is a tremendous candidate and I think he's going to be successful in the first district.

Lynch: Jeff, we saw a similar situation in 2010 when a republican nearly won that race against Bruce Braley. Is this going to be a repeat where this is going to be a very tight race?

Link: I think that race will tighten just by the nature of the year. I actually agree with what Dave is saying. I mean, these off years benefit republicans and that’s why it is important for democrats to really encourage turnout and try and get democrats engaged in this election. But I think ultimately Pat Murphy wins that race. You know, he is well suited for the district. He has represented Dubuque for 25 years in the legislature. He is going to do a nice job up there.

Henderson: Iowa's other open U.S. congressional race is in the third district where you have Joni, I mean Staci Appel, a female candidate. In a year in which republicans are talking, Mr. Kochel, about breaking the glass ceiling in Iowa politics, is there any benefit for Staci Appel from having that be the campaign contribution -- discussion?

Kochel: I don't think so. I actually think these races take on a character of their own. I don't think that Staci Appel has been a very good candidate. I mean, she lost to Kent Sorenson in a state Senate race a couple of years ago. I don't think that she's a very effective campaigner. On the other hand, David Young, who you had on here a week or two ago, is a great guy, a relatable guy, did tremendous work with Senator Grassley as his chief of staff, understands the issues in Iowa. I think he is putting together a good campaign. He won that primary in a six-way convention by being someone that everyone liked, appreciate and wanted to help and I think he's going to be a great candidate.

Borg: Jim, quickly hit the second.

Lynch: The second district we have a similar situation with Marianette Miller-Meeks challenging the incumbent Dave Loebsack. Does the glass ceiling argument play in that? Are republican women and independent women going to come out for Marianette Miller-Meeks? Jeff?

Link: You know, it'll be interesting to see. You've got, you know, three women up for federal office this year in Iowa. So, that could be a factor. And I notice she has raised a little bit of money. But Dave Loebsack is a tougher opponent than I think Dave and other republicans like to give him credit for. He won a surprising race in 2006 and hasn't really had a difficult time getting re-elected since. 

Kochel: On the other hand, that district has gotten better after redistricting. And she has run before. She is well known. She's got a great biography for that, for that race. And I do think that district has improved after redistricting to the extent where she can be successful.

Henderson: Finally, in the fourth, you have a candidate in Jim Mowrer, who, on this program, said that he was a different kind of candidate than Christie Vilsack. Other than the fact that he's a man and she was a woman, what makes him a different kind of candidate? And what would be the path in a district that is just overwhelmingly republican?

Link: Well, I think, number one, he has been very aggressive. He has been taking the campaign to Steve King. He has been raising a significant amount of money. He is a veteran. He has an interesting story to tell and I think just by virtue of -- and he's not a doctrinaire democrat. And so I think because of that he is going to be able to relate to that district.

Henderson: Mr. Kochel, Congressman King sometimes gets a reprimand from a fellow republican for saying something about the immigration issue. Are you as a republican worried that now that immigration is this huge national issue that there may be some episode between now and the end of the campaign involving Congressman King?

Kochel: No, I think he takes care of his campaign pretty well. He is a very hard worker. He is going to run a good race. You know, he has very strong views on immigration, everyone knows that. Once in a while it might run him afoul with the leadership but I also think he embraces that persona and he is a very smart guy, he is a compassionate guy. I think the left likes to paint him as some kind of a bogeyman but the people of that district really know who he is and that is why he has been re-elected overwhelmingly for years.

Lynch: Let's shift quickly to the Governor's race. This week we saw some new numbers, 53-38% in favor of Governor Branstad over Senator Jack Hatch and the Governor has $4 million cash in hand to -- the latest numbers we have for Jack Hatch is he had raised less than $1 million. Let's start with you, Dave Kochel. Is this race over?

Kochel: I mean, Terry Branstad works harder than any public servant I've ever seen in my entire life. He would never say that this race is over. He is going to work for every vote, right up until November 4th. He takes nothing for granted. He runs like he's ten points behind. That said, he is in a very strong position for the reasons you mentioned, also because people look at his performance. The economy is good in Iowa. He turned the budget around. They trust him to make good decisions and to be a good, effective leader. And I think Jack Hatch is going to find it very difficult to really find votes in this race.

Lynch: Jeff Link, I want to ask you, if this race is the cake walk that it looks like right now, what is this race about? Is it about Kim Reynolds and Monica Vernon getting ready to run in 2018?

Link: Well, I wouldn't step over this race. I think back in 1998 Governor Lightfoot was probably up about 15 points at this point in the cycle as well. So we have a long time to go. You know, you would think that with incumbency and the financial advantage that Branstad is the prohibitive favorite but I'm not sure why then he feels compelled to be advertising as aggressively as he is in June and July and attacking his opponent who apparently can't put much of a fight together. So, the actions of the Branstad campaign speak a lot differently than the words that Dave just used.

Henderson: Finally, 2016, I want each of you to name a candidate that reporters and Iowans need to pay attention to on your side of the aisle for 2016.

Borg: And quickly.

Henderson: Mr. Kochel?

Kochel: One name, I would say Marco Rubio.

Borg: Jeff?

Link: Martin O'Malley.

Borg: We're going to have to leave it there and you'll come back next time and explain why you said that because we're out of time. Thanks so much. Well, during the next three weeks, Iowa Press is taking a brief, mid-summer break. We'll resume during the Iowa State Fair on August 14th. We kick off our 2014 fall debate series with Governor Terry Branstad and State Senator Jack Hatch in the Iowa Press Governor Debate. Plan to join our live coverage, if you can. We'll be set up in the state fairgrounds' cattle barn on Thursday afternoon, August 14th. If you can't be there, then plan to watch our television coverage on air and online. And be sure to stay tuned to Iowa Press this fall where we'll be diving deep into the issues and the candidates of 2014 with Iowa's most extensive, and we're not bragging there, it will be, most extensive statewide debate series, right here on Iowa Public Television. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today. 

Tags: campaign 2014 campaigns David Kochel Democrats elections government Iowa Jeff Link news politics Republicans U.S. Senate