Voter insurgency. Political parties, republican and democratic, assessing populist forces affecting the current presidential campaign. Insight from political activists, democrat Jeff Link and republican Doug Gross, on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, April 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Dean Borg.

Borg: The current presidential campaign is bewildering some political observers. Others are finding it entertaining and some say scary. But voters are speaking through presidential nominating primaries and caucuses. Iowa has its own political carnival, if you can call it that. Six-term incumbent Senator Charles Grassley has four democrats vying to take his seat after 36 years. And seven-term republican Congressman Steve King, after 14 years, being challenged by another republican to even be on November's ballot for re-election. Many are asking what's going on. So, we're looking for analysis from democratic strategist Jeff Link, beginning with former President Bill Clinton in the '90s, Jeff's campaign experience includes former Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and President Barack Obama. And republican Doug Gross, now a Des Moines attorney, is a Statehouse veteran, chief of staff during the early Branstad administrations, ran unsuccessfully for Governor against Tom Vilsack. Gentlemen, good to have you back in the Iowa Press chairs.

Gross: Good to be with you.

Borg: And, Jeff, I've referenced the Clinton campaign. Are you committed to Hillary in this election cycle?

Link: Yes, I'm supporting Secretary Clinton. I'm not working on the campaign, but I'm a volunteer and supporter.

Borg: And, Doug, we've whittled down from 16 or 17 in the republican, do you have a favorite now?

Gross: I have a lot of non-favorites, Dean, which we'll probably talk about.

Obradovich: There's a lot of non-favorites to choose from isn't there, Doug?

Gross: There are.

Borg: Let me get the roundtable started here and introduce Des Moines Register Political Columnist Kathie Obradovich and Radio Iowa's News Director. Kathie -- did I say Kay Henderson? I'm sorry if I didn't. Radio Iowa's News Director Kay Henderson. Welcome, Kay. Kathie, I was so anxious to ask the question that I forgot to mention her name. Do we have essentially the nominees?

Obradovich: Pretty close. Donald Trump has California. He is doing well in the polls. He doesn't have to win all of the delegates that are left, he has to win less than half of the delegates to get to that magic number of 1,237, which will make him the nominee on the first ballot in Cleveland. If he does not go into Cleveland with enough delegates to win on the first ballot then things I think are up in the air. And then on the democratic side, Hillary Clinton is very close as well.

Henderson: I think the chit-chatter among folks will shift from can they win the nomination now to who else might run as a third party? This past week you had Donald Trump start to tweak Bernie Sanders and say, oh I think he should run as a third-party candidate, number one, so you have Donald trying to get Bernie to commit to running as an independent. And then you have a group of republicans who are in the never Trump category who are sort of searching around is there someone who runs as a constitutionalist or a libertarian? They're trying to decide whether they can all settle on a third-party candidate.

Borg: Is that what we see in Doug Gross?

Henderson: Well, I don't know --

Gross: I'm going to announce today, yeah.

Henderson: Are you solidly never Trump?

Gross: I don't know how I could vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton and I think there's a lot of republicans that are sort of in that basket. It's really an odd position to be in for someone who has been involved in politics pretty much my whole life. I don't know how we've got 315 million people and we end up with these candidates, it's just hard to figure out.

Obradovich: Is there somebody out there that you might consider for a third-party or independent?

Gross: Oh, a guy like Paul Ryan would be awesome. But he has pretty much put himself in a position where he's not going to be considered for that and I think wisely so because normally when you see a car accident happen you don't run to it, you try to avoid it. And for republicans we see this year as a car accident waiting to happen. A lot of us are just waiting for it to happen so we can try to pick up the pieces and see what happens --

Borg: Well, I'm going to get to that in just a moment on party unity. Jeff, what do you think about the democratic side? Is there going to be -- is there essentially a nominee right now? And can the Sanders people be brought into the fold?

Link: Yes, I think we do essentially have a nominee. Secretary Clinton has a commanding lead in delegates, both the pledged delegates and the super delegates. I think Sanders would have to win 95% of all the remaining delegates to win. So it's not possible. He is losing by 20 in Indiana, he's losing in California. So our race is essentially set.

Obradovich: Is the bigger question whether Hillary Clinton can hold onto his supporters? I saw a poll in California where 45% of Sanders supporters said they just won't vote.

Link: Yeah, and that moment just before your candidate drops out is when you have the hardest feelings for the other candidate. So I think let's see what that poll says a month after Clinton secures the nomination. Sanders has already taken steps this week, he has laid off over 200 staffers. They're starting to wind down this campaign and I think that's when the tensions start to drop as well.

Henderson: Last weekend ABC did an interview with I believe it was Charles Koch, who said, I might vote for Hillary. You're not in that --

Gross: I can't handle Hillary, it's like back to the future with the Clinton's. We had that once, we really don't need it as a country again. And the rules never apply to them. And I don't want to go through another cycle in this country where we have a Clinton in the White House and the rules never apply.

Borg: But when you saw Koch say that, Charles Koch, what did you think?

Gross: Well, I thought the way I think, which is where is the candidate that represents the interests that I think the Republican Party stands for, which is a loose coalition since the Reagan years of Christian conservatives, the business community and working class folks. And it has been an unholy alliance in some cases but it has usually held together. And that has just totally splintered. And now what we have is probably our candidate is a misogynist who could represent the know-nothing party in the 1800s, who also happens to be a Mercantilist on economic issues. That doesn't represent the Republican Party that I know. So where do we go? That's what the Koch's are saying, where do we go?

Borg: What are you thinking, Kathie, about what you're hearing here?

Obradovich: Well, so the question has been raised, can the Republican Party survive this? Can the Republican Party survive this? And what will it look like at the end? And I honestly don't know. I think that we have certainly predicted the demise of both parties many, many times in the past and they somehow manage to rise out of the ashes, maybe it takes them a cycle or two. But what is left to pull together here for the Republican Party?

Borg: Well, look at what happened this week, comments of John Boehner against Ted Cruz.

Gross: We can't even talk about those here. Well, Lucifer I guess we can but some of the other miserable stuff we can't talk about. He certainly as statesman, as a former politician --

Borg: But he knew, Doug, he knew what he was saying there.

Gross: Absolutely, he feels that way strongly and has felt that way for a long time. I don't know if you saw Dickerson's interview with him when he resigned the Speakership, he effectively said the same sort of things, that they didn't -- the problem for the Republican Party is we have been stitched together by this fealty toward some form of limited government. That is what has kept all these coalitions together. But some component of that coalition decided that limited government was no government and so as a result they didn't want to govern, didn't want to have the capability of governing, didn't want government to be effective really at anything. And as a result of that guys like John Boehner hit the sidelines, and as a result we have candidates now that represent interests that a lot of us don't think are good.

Borg: But are we evolving toward a third party?

Gross: I think the Republican Party will have to be put back together again. I do think we've got a car accident, we're headed toward each other and we've got a car accident and we've got to figure out what pieces are left and what can bring that group together again. Now, parties are great assimilators, what they tend to do and that's how they survive is they take from pieces that they understand that the electorate wants and they try to make a coalition out of it. The question now is what would that be. And that jury is still out.

Obradovich: Go back to Reince Priebus and his 2012 post-mortem of the party said, that you have to --

Gross: Some called it an autopsy.

Obradovich: Yeah, well, soft petal the social issues, lay off immigrants, go after -- finding ways to go after minorities. Do you think that could come back again as a possible way to --

Gross: I really see our country in many ways like our country was in the 1890s where you had tremendous growth in technology, tremendous growth in the economy and as a result some people benefited enormously, the JP Morgan's of the world, the Zuckerberg's of the world and other people are left behind. And the government didn't catch up to deal with the changes in society that were rapidly occurring. Today we have technology and globalization doing the same thing, causing tons of disaffection. But the parties, our party hasn't caught up. And the question is, I do think we need a reform agenda in the Republican Party if we're going to survive and we don't have it yet.

Henderson: Jeff, is Trump your worst nightmare because you don't know what's going to happen with him? Everyone has predicted his demise, he has currently received more votes than any other republican presidential candidate, is there an overconfidence that Hillary Clinton can prevail if she is running against Donald Trump?

Link: No, I don't think there's an overconfidence. I think that Donald Trump is going to be the gift that keeps on giving all the way through this election.

Henderson: So, with all due respect, 16 other republicans thought that too.

Link: Yeah, no it's true. He has had staying power, he has been able to make the most ridiculous comments ever, starting with the whopper on John McCain early in the campaign where he said essentially that he liked guys that didn't get caught during the war. That should have ended the career of anyone who would say that. But he was able to survive that. So I don't think anyone discounts his ability to sort of slip the sort of traditional problems of a campaign, but I think it has just been a cacophony of things that are starting to catch up with him.

Gross: I think he could win. I think he could win. And you've got to watch it. For one reason is Hillary could lose. And if you look at Hillary's numbers they're not great. Her disapprovals are very high. People are tired of the Clinton's, it's not just me, lots of folks are tired of the Clinton's and they don't really want that to come back again. And there are portion of her party that is the flip of the coin of the Trump side on the populist side that are very disaffected and don't want an establishment person like Hillary Clinton to be president.

Borg: Except he has to bring women into the fold.

Gross: Particularly suburban women and he has done everything he can to make sure they're driven the other way.

Link: And is doubling down on that this week and it is just absolutely making it worse.

Gross: But, the reason why I think he can win is because he has fundamentally changed our politics. The reason why people like us haven't been able to predict this is because he has fundamentally changed our politics. It's a performance like it has never been before. It's a reality TV show where you decide which survivor stays on the political stage and he's the last one standing, he may well be the last one in November as well.

Borg: I want to change the subject just a bit, Jeff. Back to the Iowa Democratic Party, you have some problems in the caucuses and some assessment right now about four years from now. Do you think that the Iowa Caucuses, as a result of what happened, republican eight years ago, democratic this time, and you're trying to make some repairs and adjustments in that party, is Iowa likely to have the same reputation and role four years from now?

Link: I think we will. I think what the Commission will do is look at the caucus process, they're going to probably offer some tweaks to try and make it better. But essentially the biggest challenge we had was we didn't have rooms that were big enough to hold all the attenders. I was at Lincoln High School and it was supposed to be in the show choir room, we ended up in the cafeteria. We had to file out of the room and back in so people could be counted through the doorway. We had 600 people. So that's a good problem to have and that's manageable. The other thing is thank God Hillary Clinton won the Iowa Caucuses because if she is elected president Iowa will remain first, we're going to be in a good place. That's why when Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucuses there has never been a question about the democrat's calendar since Obama has been in the White House.

Henderson: But you also have this drum beat from the Donald, this system is rigged on both sides. How do you sustain a continued drum beat, especially if we get President Trump, that both parties need to dramatically redo the way that they select their presidential nominees?

Obradovich: Bernie Sanders has said it too --

Link: Well, I'm smiling because he's talking about this rigged system that he's winning. He has triumphed at every stage of this system that he hates and thinks is so terrible. So I don't know that he's going to want to change it.

Gross: I think there has been something going on here beneath this comment about the system being rigged. What people don't understand is Bernie Sanders may well have had more people and probably did at the Iowa Caucuses than Hillary Clinton did, yet he didn't win. And people don't understand why. They don't understand the fact that what your votes are weighted by the turnout in the general, previous general election in your precinct. They'll say, what does that have to do with democracy? What does that have to do with my vote being equal to everybody else's? I think there's really something to that and I think the democrats are going to have to take a look at that.

Obradovich: Jeff, are there specific things you can do with how you apportion delegates that will make more sense to people looking ahead in the future? You can't refight the last caucus, it doesn't work. But looking ahead to the future, are there ways that you can stay first-in-the-nation vis-a-vis New Hampshire without confusing the heck out of people on how these votes are counted?

Link: Yes, the big challenge of course is that we have had a symbiotic relationship with New Hampshire for all these years because they are the first primary and we're something other than a primary. And that is why they allow us to go first. And so the more we look like a primary the more it challenges our relationship with New Hampshire, which has served us well in terms of keeping our place in the calendar. And so I think we can look at things and try and make it simpler and clearer. My good friend, who also used to work for Senator Harkin, Richard Bender, is the person who created this system --

Gross: The architect.

Link: -- for those who know Richard, this is simple in Richard's mind, but it's not a simple process.

Obradovich: Well, republicans can have a statewide straw vote --

Gross: And we can tie delegates to it and we're still okay. I don't know why the democrats can't do that.

Obradovich: I still haven't gotten a good answer about why democrats can't do that also.

Borg: As we approach the November election, what will be the effect of what we've been talking about right now, I'll start with you, Doug, on the ticket as it goes down, we've got Chuck Grassley and other republicans depending on the little coattail effect. Is it going to be there?

Gross: It all depends upon what happens to turnout. If a lot of republicans are disaffected by their nominee and don't turn out because they don't know who to vote for, they don't have anybody to vote for, there will be a landslide down ticket for the democrats. On the flip side, if a lot of democrats, Bernie voters decide I can't vote for Hillary Clinton, there's no way, that's the past, I want the future, they don't turn out, the republicans down ticket could do very, very well. So it all depends on what ends up happening to turnout. It's very difficult to predict right now. Likely I think Trump is going to get people to turn out that haven't turned out before because the performance is going to be so loud, there's going to be so much awareness of what's going on. So I think he'll -- it's not likely I don't think that republicans will have a down ticket loss.

Obradovich: Can you count though on these people turning out for Donald Trump voting a straight ticket?

Gross: No, no. A lot of them have never voted before.

Link: And there was a statistic this week also talking about turnout that a million Hispanics have registered to vote this year and that the anticipated turnout of Hispanics nationwide will be about 13.1 million. It was only 11 million in 2012. That is where things could really get devastating for republicans, particularly there's a close Senate race in Arizona, John McCain is up. I think Hillary Clinton could win Arizona. There's a lot of particularly the Iowa Senate race, not because of Hispanic registration, but just this down ticket drag from Trump.

Borg: Kay, what are you seeing in the U.S. Senate race? Chuck Grassley seemingly democrats for years really waited a long time to even get a candidate to run against, now we have four democrats vying for a right to be on the ticket to take Chuck Grassley out. And he has said it's not a slam dunk.

Henderson: Right, he told Kathie and I a couple of weeks ago that this was not a slam dunk.  He said that this may be his toughest race yet. He is really feeling the heat about this Supreme Court nomination. But he is holding the line that there will be no vote in his committee, no hearing in his committee. He has injected a new little factoid in this debate, last week he was speaking to Des Moines Rotarians and he was talking about how much they would have to spend hiring lawyers on the Judiciary Committee to go over Merrick Garland's record if we were to have a hearing. So he's going to start arguing that he's saving taxpayers money.

Gross: Particularly lawyer fees if you want to put it like that.

Henderson: Says the two lawyers over there.

Obradovich: You don't have to pay a justice, you have only eight instead of nine.

Borg: You're a longtime observer of Chuck Grassley campaigns, Doug, what are you seeing?

Gross: I think he's going to win easily. Chuck always runs like he's 20 points behind, that's why he always wins, he's always scared and you have to be that way to earn the position.

Henderson: Jeff, you have someone who you have worked with a long time who is working for Patty Judge. Are you a Patty Judge supporter as well?

Link: I am, I am. I think Patty Judge is the toughest candidate that Chuck Grassley could face. It's the first candidate that he will have run against since winning in 1980 that has been elected to statewide office before. I think the fact that Patty is a woman and what Trump is going to do to damage the republican brand among women voters is going to be really troubling for Grassley and I actually don't think he's going to have an easy time of it, I think he's going to have a very difficult time. The interesting thing about this Supreme Court discussion is that he has attached himself to Donald Trump in a way that he cannot now back away from because he said, we're not going to have a hearing, we're going to let the voters speak and we're going to let the new president pick the next justice. So essentially -- and he certainly doesn't want Hillary Clinton to pick. So he is saying that he wants Donald Trump picking the next Supreme Court Justice. And just this week on Pella Radio he said that, well, I have to admit it is a real gamble letting Donald Trump pick. So he's tying himself to Trump, he is saying he wants Trump to pick the next Supreme Court Justice and then he's going to have to find a way to walk away from Trump in order to say I'm my own person --

Gross: I'm not suggesting the national trends benefit Chuck Grassley. I'm just saying Chuck Grassley has formed a bond with Iowans that allows him some immunity from these national trends. And it has always happened and I think it will happen again.

Henderson: Back to Patty Judge, she does face a primary. It is maybe not a slam dunk that she is going to win that. She has an opponent in Rob Hogue, a State Senator who has been running for quite some time, and people who are supporting him criticize her because of her ties to big agriculture and his advocacy they see for environmental issues is a plus, on her pro and con they list that as a minus. How does she address concerns among democrats that she has been too cozy to big ag?

Link: Well, I think, first of all, I think it takes a farmer to run against Chuck Grassley. Chuck Grassley has sort of made it his hallmark that he's just a farmer, he loves to talk about that. I don't think we can run a lawyer against Chuck Grassley and expect to have any success in the fall. I think her credentials in agriculture, having a cow-calf operation in Monroe County, serving as Secretary of Agriculture, serving as Lieutenant Governor is going to be a real benefit to her. I think being in touch with the rural economy, being in touch with rural Iowa is essential for the democratic message this fall.

Gross: I don't think it's certain that she's going to win at all because I think this is going to be like a surrogate race for Bernie versus Hillary. The establishment literally came in and plucked Patty out of her consultancy role for large agricultural interests and decided they were going to make her the nominee and that is what has been done.

Obradovich: I agree with Doug that the primary is not settled, that it is going to be an interesting race and secondly, also that Grassley is not as vulnerable as people would like to -- we focus on the things that are different in the media, but I remember back in 2009, my first year as a political columnist, and the Obamacare demonstrations were going on and the Tea Party demonstrations and everyone picked out Chuck Grassley talking about the republican, the Obamacare death panels and stuff like that, and people said oh he's vulnerable. No, not really.

Borg: Kay, in our final three minutes here we have three congressional districts that I want to talk about, the first district first of all.

Henderson: That's getting the most national attention --

Borg: Because we have a freshman Congressman there.

Henderson: There's a freshman republican in Rod Blum and you have a competitive race against two people who ran against one another last time around in Monica Vernon and Pat Murphy, Pat Murphy is very plugged into union interests in the neighborhood, if you will, and Monica Vernon is getting support from outside the district because people think that she would be the best foil. And this kind of --

Gross: -- which I found interesting --

Henderson: In this kind of a year when you have Hillary Clinton at the top of the ticket people think that Monica Vernon would be the better foil against Rod Blum.

Borg: Why did you find that endorsement by Tom Miller --

Gross: Because Tom is a very cautious politician and he has won every time and he usually doesn't get involved in primaries. He's from Dubuque where Larry is from so there clearly is an effort to try to make sure Monica wins that primary.

Borg: Kathie, background the third district for me.

Obradovich: Yes, so again another freshman republican Congressman in a district that is leaning republican but not, it has been a swing district in the past. Jim Mowrer who moved back to the district, he had run against Steve King before, so he is an experienced candidate. Mike Sherzan an interesting businessman --

Gross: That's who you should watch --

Obradovich: Very interesting, he's got some great ads out.

Gross: Those are really good ads.

Obradovich: And then Desmond Adams, who ran for State Senate, so again an experienced candidate who is building some interesting coalitions here, especially in Polk County. So I think that's going to be a really interesting primary to watch.

Gross: I agree with that.

Borg: Well, the primary to watch is Steve King up in the fourth district.

Gross: Absolutely, Bertrand and King, wow what have we got going here?

Henderson: What do you think is going to happen?

Gross: What do I think is going to -- I've been surprised that Bertrand, once you announce, if you're going to shoot the king you've got to kill him, literally and figuratively in this case, and he has not gotten out and done anything. And I suspect you walk into Ames in a cafe and ask them who Rick Bertrand was nobody would know. And so it has been surprising he hasn't done anything. Supposedly he's got a wad of money from the outside that is going to come in and make him famous but they better start making him famous quick.

Obradovich: We couldn't believe that he wasn't at the fourth district republican convention.

Gross: But Steve's not a very good candidate, never has been, he doesn't raise money, he doesn't campaign, he hasn't worked the east side of that district. He could be vulnerable easily. But so far I don't see it.

Henderson: But at an anti-establishment year, is he going to be vulnerable?

Gross: He has been there for 12 years, 14 years, he has become the establishment.

Obradovich: I want to hear what you have to say about the third district.

Link: Well, I think it's going to be an interesting race. I think Mowrer probably comes in with an advantage because he ran television commercials in the last cycle, was for another district but it still played heavily in the current district. But I think the Sherzan campaign has put up some good initial advertising and I think they're going to make it competitive.

Obradovich: He's self-funding. Does that matter do you think?

Link: Well, I think it's one of the things that has helped Trump. And similarly, Sanders' argument is reliant on the fact that he's not taking big money ---

Gross: I think Sherzan will win that primary.

Borg: I have to leave it there. Thank you, all of you, Kay, Kathie, Jeff, Doug, thanks for your insights. We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press. It will be at 7:30 Friday night and noon on Sunday. I'm Dean Borg. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. I'm a veteran. I am a builder. I'm a volunteer. I am a teacher. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks. Iowa Communications Network. ICN's Broadband Matters campaign advocates for access to high speed broadband in all corners of Iowa for education, public safety, health care, government and economic development. Information is available at broadbandmatters.com. Iowa Community Foundations, an initiative of the Iowa Council of Foundations, connecting donors to the causes and communities they care about for good, for Iowa, for ever. Details at iowacommunityfoundations.org. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. The Arlene McKeever Endowment Fund at the Iowa Public Television Foundation, a fund established to support local programming on Iowa Public Television.  

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