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The primary ballots are set and the campaigns are picking up steam. Who has the upper hand? We get analysis from two gentlemen who know the parties and candidates well, republican Craig Robinson and democrat Pat Rynard 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 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: We're just over a month and a half away from the June primaries. Democrats are trying to take advantage of energy from the anti-Trump, gun control and Me Too movements as well as issues like Medicaid and the budget here in Iowa. Meanwhile, republicans who currently control the legislative and executive branches at both the state and federal levels are touting what they consider major accomplishments under unified government. Here to help us analyze the campaign battles ahead, republican Craig Robinson, founder and editor of TheIowaRepublican.com and democrat Pat Rynard, founder and editor of IowaStartingLine.com. Gentlemen, welcome to the Iowa Press table.

Robinson: Glad to be here.

Rynard: Thanks for having me.

Yepsen: Good to have you here. Across the table, Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Pat, let's start with you. Real quickly tell us what exactly is motivating the democratic base that will turn out at the primary.

Rynard: Well, there's a lot of different things. For one, it's anti-Trump fervor, just sick and tired of everything that has happened, some of it is regret over the 2016 election, people who didn't come out to vote then and then they kind of saw what happened. So it's a number of those things. Obviously there's a lot of talk that democrats can't just hope on anti-Trump sentiment to win and there's definitely some truth in that. But I think we've seen through a number of different special elections, we've seen through marches and rallies, that the base is really riled up this year and I think we're going to see much better turnout this time for democrats.

Henderson: Craig, on the republican side, you don't have a statewide contest in the primary this time around.

Robinson: Well, we do. It's for Secretary of Agriculture.

Henderson: We can talk about that --a top of the ticket contest. What is motivating republican voters who will be casting a ballot in June?

Robinson: Yeah, I think this is a concern. The one advantage republicans have is you have Governor Reynolds who doesn't have a primary challenge now, who is new, likeable, the party likes her, the activists I think are supportive of her. And so she's someone kind of new, even though she has been on the scene they get to know her at a more deeper level and I think she is the type of candidate that people get excited about. So I do think that even though she is an unconventional, not your typical incumbent running for re-election, I do think that she does have some power of incumbency that will help turn out republicans.

Henderson: How is the Trump trade situation playing in republican circles?

Robinson: Yeah, I think that -- I think there's a lot of caution out there and some fear and I think that republicans give Trump a lot of slack and room to operate a little bit and I think they understand that these are negotiations we're having with China, much like we had with North Korea. Let's not forget people thought we were going to go to war against North Korea, that something was going to happen and what came out of this was actually talks between South Korea and North Korea and now the United States probably. And so while there is a lot of noise going on between both sides I think we kind of have to have some patience to see at the end of the day what actually comes of this. Do we have tariffs in place that are going to hurt our markets or not? I think it's a tough time to be an Iowa famer with all this going on.

Henderson: Pat, part of the Democratic Party coalition likes this.

Rynard: Right. In terms of the political fallout of it. One of the big, open questions that we have for democrats' prospects in 2018 is how frustrated are a lot of these rural republicans and farmers going to be with the Trump administration? And are they going to link that frustration with down ballot republican candidates? Annette Sweeney ended up winning that special election rather handily in some of those more rural counties. So it's not clear yet if aggravation with Trump actually means that some of these folks who, for various cultural reasons, are going to switch over to democrats or if they're just going to have less enthusiasm for republicans.

Murphy: Let's talk about some of those down ballot races. Craig, are David Young and Rod Blum vulnerable in this election?

Robinson: Well they're always vulnerable. They've been vulnerable since they were first elected. And so I think that Rod Blum is always at a little more risk than David Young is but I think both will have significant challenges this fall and have their hands full. So these are tough districts to run in an environment where it's not going to favor the republicans. They really got an advantage in the last general election with Trump running so strong in Iowa and all these congressional districts. Now there's no one at the top of the ballot, there's no one to help them out, so they're really on their own. So we'll see if they can withstand these challenges.

Murphy: And how about Speaker Ryan's exit, his decision not to run creates a little bit of a leadership vacuum here for House republicans. Does that impact those races at all?

Robinson: I think it impacts it significantly. Look, when you're the Speaker of the House you're the primary fundraiser for your party, you're the one who can show up in these districts and turn people out and say look, this is why you need to be involved. He is stuck on the side. So who fills that role? And is there anyone with big enough shoes to help these candidates? You've got to remember, John Boehner came and campaigned I think for both Blum and Young. Who is going to do that this time around?

Murphy: Pat, how about for the democrats in those two races? There's some competitive primaries in each. How are they feeling about it?

Rynard: There are and they're both rather interesting. I think most people figure that Abby Finkenauer is by far the front runner in the first congressional district. Thomas Heckroth has enough money to go up with TV ads during the primary and any time you have enough funds to do TV ads who knows, maybe you strike gold with a really creative ad as we've seen in the past with Iowa republicans and Joni Ernst. So you never know there. The third district is really interesting now that Theresa Greenfield is out of the mix. You have Pete D’Alessandro who has been endorsed by Bernie Sanders, is running a very left-leaning campaign, is trying to reactivate a lot of those Sanders voters who don't always pay attention to these congressional races. And then I think Cindy Axne has a good leg up now considering she is the only female candidate in a three-way primary in a year where democrats really want more female candidates.

Yepsen: But did the democrats lose their best candidate when Greenfield didn't make the ballot?

Rynard: Yeah, some people certainly think so. She was favored by a lot of folks, not just some national democratic organizations but a lot of activists in the district, she was doing great raising money, she had a wonderful compelling story that had some rural background in it and I think she would have been good.

Yepsen: But if you can't get your petitions right maybe you aren't the strongest candidate after all.

Rynard: Yeah.

Henderson: Speaking of petitions, you were involved in the Ron Corbett situation. Why?

Robinson: Why? Well I think that when you --

Yepsen: Let's specify the situation is --

Robinson: A challenge.

Yepsen: -- a challenge of his signatures in that he didn't have enough and was not allowed on the ballot.

Robinson: Right. So the challenge is really, this is the process you go through. So the candidates submit their petitions to the Secretary of State, they do a simple it looks right and then if they're challenged then they look at them a little bit closer. So yes, I challenged Ron Corbett's petitions because there weren't that many of them. And if you look across the state the last year and a half as a candidate he really hasn't motivated a base that you see turning out. When we were having a primary if Bob Vander Plaats is running or Steve Sukup was running you could see these campaigns and the people supporting them. He didn't have it and that's why we challenged.

Yepsen: We've got way too many questions and not enough time. Let's switch to the race for Governor. Mr. Robinson, is Governor Reynolds vulnerable at all? Her job approval is okay. She is unknown to a lot of voters. She has never won for Governor before. In a wave election year that is building up for democrats could she be vulnerable?

Robinson: Absolutely. I think this whole republican ticket is vulnerable. Look up and down these statewide, these are people who assumed the job, they didn't run for statewide office and win and build these coalitions. And so while I think that Kim Reynolds has a lot of natural attributes that make her a fantastic statewide candidate, she doesn't have the previous experience of going out there and winning something with a group of people that you can count on again.

Yepsen: Mr. Rynard, give me your handicap at the democratic primary. Six candidates. Crowded?

Rynard: Yeah. Most people think that Fred Hubbell and Nate Boulton are in the lead in the race and that they're the most likely to be able to break that 35%, which again, if no candidate has 35% then it goes to a state convention. Cathy Glasson has enough funds and enough support amongst the left-leaning folks in the party that she could be able to come up at the end and Andy McGuire has got enough money to go on TV. But it's largely seen as a race between Hubbell and Boulton in a situation where it doesn't go to convention. If it does go to convention Boulton has got a whole lot of delegates lined up for him, Glasson did well with that and Hubbell did as well.

Yepsen: What is your guess? Is somebody going to break 35% or will this thing go to convention?

Rynard: I'd say no. I think it will be really close but I think just barely we'll get there. And part of it is that they all have their internal polls, if they see anyone getting close to 35% then you think the other democratic candidates would start criticizing that person.

Yepsen: And do you expect anybody to fold their tent? They're on the ballot now --

Rynard: Well, no, not at this point because it's getting almost too late to pull your name off the ballot. But if there is a contested convention who knows. Everything is on the table at that point, you could see all kinds of interesting deals between the candidates and anybody could come out of it.

Henderson: Pat, you previously mentioned the Joni Ernst ad in 2014 that really cut through, the make them squeal ad. Isn't Kim Reynolds sort of running an Ernst-like campaign? And doesn't that worry democrats?

Rynard: Yes, it should. I don't know if it does with all of them. A lot of times democrats are so focused in on a lot of the policy issues, as they should because real people are hurting out there and we hit on Medicaid privatization and education funding and that type of thing. But at the end of the day, first voters care about the issues, but they first have to like you as a person and trust you as a person so that you can then get to that point. So my concern is, as it always is, is that if you run to polling heavy, message tested type of campaign and don't really introduce yourself as a human being first then you've got problems and Reynolds has been doing a great job on building up her character.

Henderson: I remember in 2007 Mike Huckabee was the first candidate among the pack to sort of divorce himself from George W. Bush. Is Kim Reynolds in danger of being tied too closely to not only Donald Trump but to her predecessor and she hasn't made a name for herself yet?

Robinson: Look, I don't think, whatever you do I don't think that the Democratic Party is going to let herself distance herself one inch from the incumbent President. I think that your question is a little bit more interesting on her closeness to Branstad, that this is really the Branstad administration continuing on. And I think that if it were me advising, which it's not, if it were me I would want a little bit more separation, a little bit different track down the road so you can distance, so if there are things in the past maybe you disagreed with --

Henderson: But can you name one thing that she has done that has really struck a different path?

Robinson: No, not really. This has been a continuation type of government. Everything is fine, we've got it under control in terms of the budget and all that stuff. So I think she has just kind of kept everything on the rails, which maybe that is the right decision, I don't know. I think she is interesting enough and I think her, she is a very likable person that I think she has the ability if she chooses to, to really blaze her own path and take things in her own direction if she wants to.

Murphy: Well, one place she doesn't have an opportunity to do that now because of the Ron Corbett situation is a primary election. The ever-evolving question every election we go through this is, is it better to have a primary or better to skate through? Does not having a primary, especially given that Governor Reynolds, as David said earlier she hasn't run as the top of the ticket before in the statewide election, is that maybe a detriment to her where she could have sharpened her tools for the general election?

Robinson: I don't think so. Look, I understand that she probably would be better prepared on a debate stage had she had a primary. But the type of campaign that Ron Corbett was going to run was already very negative. It was going to challenge her on everything. This was going to be a negative campaign and at the end of the day Ron Corbett was going to get, what, 20% of the vote max? So I don't think it would have been a healthy exercise to go through. This allows her to roll out her campaign, as she is doing now on TV, about talking about her story, her background and it gives her the space to do it.

Yepsen: Mr. Rynard, same question to you. Is Kim Reynolds helped or hurt by the fact she doesn't have a primary?

Rynard: I think probably helped because the messaging that Corbett was running which was a lot of fiscal mismanagement type stuff, those are the same kind of arguments that democrats are making. So it wasn't too much like I'm more conservative or that kind of thing. Really he's not. But I think it's helpful that she doesn't have to deal with that.

Henderson: Lots of interesting legislative races. Let's switch to that topic. Pat, in the Senate was the resignation of Senate republican leader Bill Dix actually a gift to republicans? So that issue of sexual harassment is sort of off the table?

Rynard: I could see you could argue that it's a lot harder obviously to run ads against republicans saying that candidates, tying them to Bill Dix. But I think you still can and even if you don't it's obvious that there's still kind of lingering issues there. The culture has not completely changed I don't believe in the Senate. and then in general you have a leader like that leave, all of his fundraising connections leave, not all of them, the other folks will pick it up to some, but it's more chaos and it just develops this idea of chaos around the Republican Party.

Henderson: But isn't the House the more focused attention place for democrats?

Rynard: Yeah, the House is where democrats have a much better shot just because all the seats are up whereas in the Senate only half of them are up and there's only maybe about three real good pick up opportunities in the Senate. And in the House there's a lot of suburban districts that are on the ballot where we have been seeing this big shift towards democrats under Trump that looks good.

Henderson: Craig, on the republican side you had a lot of incumbents in the House say, gosh, I don't want to run again. What does that tell you?

Robinson: I think it tells you that there is going to be a difficult election year coming up. And they have been in power. They have had the majority now for a while and so a lot of these people have been there for quite a while. And so I do think that the House is where you're going to see the most change go on. I actually think the Senate surprisingly for republicans, you could pick up seats, you could lose control of the Iowa House if you're a republican, but you could gain seats in the State Senate with just the districts that are up and the candidates that they have recruited. The Senate has actually done a lot of good work despite all the chaos that has gone on, they're well prepared. But the House is where you have so many retirements. And how many of these campaigns do you have the money to plan to hold those seats?

Yepsen: One thing I wanted to ask, we hear a lot of talk about Congress and the fact that in an off year presidential election seats in the U.S. House will often be picked up by the party that does not hold the White House. What is the take on the Iowa legislature? Is there any correlation between victories or defeats in the Iowa legislature in a year when the party holds the White House?

Robinson: Well, it's not as turbulent as I think Congress is. If you go back in 2008 when Christopher Rants was Speaker, trying to regain control of the House, I think they lost winning back the majority by only 800 votes statewide. These are smaller districts where you can really, if you recruit well and turn out your people you can make a big --

Yepsen: So it's the quality of the candidate --

Robinson: Yeah.

Murphy: So who are republicans worried about in the House, Craig, if they're going to keep their majority whether it's candidates or kinds of districts? Who are they worried about protecting?

Robinson: I think the districts you worry about are urban. When you have these Windsor Heights, West Des Moines districts where the districts are already kind of trending away from you in terms of voter registration and I think you have this kind of anti-Trump movement is a little bit easier to tap into in these more urban centers, where I think the rural seats I think you can still go out there, do your work and win them.

Murphy: So, for example, the kind of district that Chris Hagenow is moving out of?

Robinson: Exactly.

Rynard: It's just coincidental, you know.

Henderson: There are teacher protests in states like West Virginia and Oklahoma which are overwhelmingly led by republican legislators. Last year the republican-led legislature here passed a rollback of collective bargaining rights. Pat, the legislators in the Senate and the House, Jason Schultz in the Senate and Steven Holt in the House, who managed those bills, do not have democratic opponents. How much of an animating issue is it if you can't get somebody to step forward as a democrat to challenge them?

Rynard: Those are kind of unique circumstances because at least with Schultz is deep western Iowa and democrats have filled more seats than almost ever. But you are right, there's a lot of backlash still happening with the collective bargaining issue, there's a lot of teachers who are much more excited and ready to go vote and I think you're going to see a big shift in how they vote to pretty much unanimously democrats in some of these races.

Yepsen: Let's look at the big picture a little bit. Is Iowa, I'll start with you Mr. Rynard, is Iowa becoming a more republican state? And I ask that question because if you look at the size of Trump's margin he ran better here than he did in Texas. You look at the Iowa electorate, older, rural, white, only 28% of Iowans have college degrees. I've just given you the profile of a Trump voter. So my question is, demographically isn't Iowa becoming a more republican state?

Rynard: Well, and this was a very big concern for the party immediately after 2016. There was a lot of folks, and me to a certain extent included, are we just a red state now? Have we moved into kind of a Kansas type situation? But I think the encouraging thing for democrats is a lot of the special elections during this last year and a half since Trump was elected and democrats are improving on the margins by 30 points, in this last one it was 14 points. And that is encouraging. We'd just be happy if we'd get back to a place where the state is competitive statewide and we have a fair chance.

Murphy: I want to ask about that, Pat. The democrats are excited by the special elections that you have noted. The margins are changing. They're performing better in districts compared to 2016. But at the same time they have not flipped any of those seats yet. And it is also setting a baseline of 2016 and Hillary Clinton's performance here where she did not do well compared to other candidates here in Iowa. Are the democrats kind of in danger in creating some false hope here by using those margins?

Rynard: Look, there's always a number of things that go into special election results that aren't exactly transferrable. But part of the thing is just that it has been, all the special elections just happened to be held in largely safe seats for other parties. So there just wasn't really a great chance to actually flip one. But we'd much rather have 30, 40 point shifts to a democrat than the opposite so it's still encouraging.

Yepsen: But it's also true that close only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes, right? Okay. So I want to go back to the question. Is Iowa becoming more republican?

Robinson: I think it is becoming more republican but I think we have to have some caution here. I think that when you look at Trump and his kind of populous nature and his message to those blue collar workers I think that is how you make this a red state. The problem is, is I'm not seeing the policies from the legislature to really mirror that. And so if republicans really want to control the state I think some of their decisions on what they went after is kind of the core old republican issues, noting that really mirrored what Trump's message was to play off of that and to kind of hold those people.

Yepsen: Democrats have run well with millennials around the country. But don't the democrats hurt in this state because so many college educated young people, who would be voting democratic if they stayed, are leaving the state? So it's like you're washing out the democratic electorate.

Robinson: It's not just that, it's we consolidate those people too. I grew up in rural Iowa. Where do I live today? I live in Ankeny. That is what is happening. There is a shift where you go to college and then you go get a job and you're living in a metro area. My brother lives in Sacramento. It's one of those things that it's this rural Iowa is a big issue I think for both parties coming forward. But you've got to have a message that applies not only in metropolitan areas but also rural Iowa.

Henderson: Speaking of rural Iowa you have an unusual circumstance where the only statewide primary for republicans is among a huge group that want to be the next Ag Secretary, one of whom was appointed. Is that thing going to get decided in the June primary or will there be a convention?

Robinson: Yeah, I think that we're kind of steering at a convention if you had to look at it today. This is a race that I think ag interest groups are interested and involved in but I don't think any of the candidates have kind of raised the bar to make people regular voters and this is going to be the primary driver of primary turnout.

Henderson: So why are these people running? Do they consider this a stepping stone?

Robinson: Look, I think the Ag Secretary job in Iowa is a great job. And obviously there are four really good people running for it. And I think this is where for me personally I look at I want someone in that spot who I think can help the republican ticket statewide. Who can go out there in a general election and talk to these rural people --

Yepsen: Mr. Rynard, does it really matter who the Secretary of Agriculture is politically?

Rynard: I don't know, politically not too much as opposed to folks who may end up raising up.

Yepsen: I'm going to go back to this question of Iowa is it becoming more democratic or republican. What do you make of, what do the democrats have to do to their message to start reaching out to the electorate that is there, older, whiter? What do they do?

Rynard: I think it's a return to more economic based messaging and trying to distance yourself from some of the national movements that we see and some of the national problems that democrats have. It's largely winning back those type of blue collar voters who voted for democrats because they thought they would have a good wage out of it.

Yepsen: Less than a minute.

Murphy: Yeah we've got about 30 seconds left. Real quick, Pat, let's look ahead to 2020 in the little time we have left. What democrats are you already seeing or looking forward to seeing coming?

Rynard: There's a lot of them. There's a whole lot of them.

Murphy: More than 30 seconds worth I'm sure.

Rynard: Yeah, sorry. One thing I had mentioned earlier before here is that there's a lot of these kind of middle aged white democrats coming out to the state, we had Steve Bullock and Rick Swalwell and John Delaney come in. It's going to be interesting to see how they differentiate themselves to actually stand out in what could be a field of 15, 20 democrats.

Murphy: Craig, are we going to see a republican challenger to President Trump?

Robinson: I don't think so.

Yepsen: And I have to leave it there. A lot of time in the next three years to talk about the President. We'll have you back to talk about that. Thanks for being here.

Thank you.

Yepsen: We'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our usual times, 7:30 Friday night and Sunday at Noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast at 8:30 Saturday morning on our .3 World channel. So for all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. 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.