Rynard and Robinson on election trends in Iowa

Nov 16, 2018  | 1 min  | Ep 4612

The aftermath of the 2018 midterms is still settling in for democrats who made gains and republicans who still have the Statehouse trifecta. To talk about it all we sit down with online political experts Pat Rynard and Craig Robinson 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, November 16 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: As the dust settles on a strong midterm election for democrats nationwide, the picture is also clear here in Iowa. By flipping two U.S. House seats, democrats have evened our federal delegation at 3-3. But republicans held key positions like the Governorship and control of both Statehouse chambers. It leaves plenty of Iowans asking what's next in Des Moines and in Washington. For answers we have gathered a pair of guests who follow the post-election developments here in Iowa. Pat Rynard operates the progressive website, IowaStartingLing.com and Craig Robinson is the founder of TheIowaRepublican.com. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Thanks for having us.

Glad to be here.

Yepsen: Good to have you again. Across the table, James Lynch writes for the Gazette and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Craig, let's start with you. Red, blue or purple? How would you describe the state following the results of this election?

Robinson: Light red.

Henderson: I think that's pink, right?

Robinson: Pinkish, yes. It's not a solid color. If you look at congressionally obviously democrats control three of the four but I think the fact that you still have a republican Governor, you have two republican U.S. Senators and you have both chambers of the legislature red, I think tends more red than blue.

Henderson: Pat, how do you see it?

Rynard: I'd say similar to that. On election night folks like myself and other democrats were rather frustrated when we realized that Iowa is going to be under another two years of full republican control. But after the last week or so I've been a lot more optimistic and I think you saw a lot of encouraging signs for the party in the future. To win three of the four congressional seats I think shows that there's still a bit of a split of where the state is going.

Henderson: Well, we'll talk more about this, but just real quickly, are things swinging back and forth so much, or do the results of 2018, Pat, have any bearing on 2020 whatsoever?

Rynard: Well, for that I think it's going to matter a whole lot on who the democrat's presidential nominee. And I think you're starting to see the increasing trend shifts in the state. There were essentially two waves on election night last Tuesday. There was a blue wave in the urban and suburban areas for democrats but there was a red wave out in the rural areas and to a certain extent in the blue collar places. And until especially democrats are able to win back some of those Mississippi River counties or come out of them with larger margins it's going to be hard to win a statewide race either on the state or presidential level.

Henderson: Craig, you're shaking your head.

Robinson: I agree. I think what we're seeing is shifting where if you look across the state there were areas that traditionally have been pretty democratic, Fort Dodge, Ottumwa, Clinton, Jackson County, Dubuque County, those are shifting more red. They elected republican State Senators, they elected republican House members and Governor Reynolds carried those areas. So we've seen this tracking this way for even before 2018, so I don't think that with Trump, if Trump is on the ballot again I think he could be strong again in these blue collar areas that we've seen trending right.

Lynch: Well, before we get to 2022, let's talk about 2020 and what this election means. There is a big Senate race coming up in 2020. Joni Ernst will be on the ballot seeking a second term. It appears the old guard democrats would like to see Tom Vilsack run. Then there's also talk about new state auditor Rob Sand as a possible candidate. J.D. Scholten, where does he go? Does a woman need to run against Joni Ernst? Pat, what do you see happening in this 2020 race?

Rynard: Well, I think after how we saw Fred Hubbell coming within just three points of Kim Reynolds and winning on the federal races I think there is going to be a lot of excitement for this race and people aren't going to think that Joni Ernst is unbeatable, which some of us thought a few years back. It will be interesting, there's a lot of chatter out there with Tom Vilsack, he was a great Governor, he remains pretty popular in the state, but he also hasn't won a race in this state since 2002 and a lot of things have changed. So I think he would have to really convince folks how this isn't just going to be like another Phil Bredesen or Ted Strickland or Evan Bayh type of situation where a popular former elected official comes back.

Lynch: Would you expect a wide open primary like republicans had in 2014?

Rynard: If Vilsack gets in it I think probably not so much or maybe just one challenger. But if not, then yeah I could see quite a few people getting in including Theresa Greenfield, who came up short in the congressional race, or J.D. Scholten who put together a really exciting campaign and I think could do a great job of raising money online for this and I also think Amber Gustafson, who came up just short against Jack Whitver would be kind of an interesting choice there too.

Lynch: Craig, on the republican side Joni Ernst is now Vice Chairwoman of the Republican Senate Caucus, a leadership role. Is that going to make it harder for her to run in Iowa if she's carrying water for Mitch McConnell and President Trump?

Robinson: I don't think so. I think if anything a leadership spot should help her raise money, bring in money from outside of Iowa into this race. She is a rising star in the United States Senate. I think she has done an exceptionally well job of being a United States Senator. I think she is going to be incredibly difficult to defeat and going to run strong statewide.

Yepsen: So you think when she has to defend tariffs that that's going to sell in Iowa?

Robinson: I don't necessarily know if she'll have to defend tariffs.

Yepsen: Doesn't she have to carry the President's water --

Robinson: I don't think she has to -- look, the President is going to be on the ballot, he'll have to carry his own water. And I think, again, I think that we see in the media where there's like, if we're on the same team we have to carry, we can't have any disagreements as republicans. There is a disagreement, especially when it comes to trade. I think Governor Reynolds has found a way to kind of straddle that line. It's difficult. I'm not saying it's not. But I think Kim Reynolds will be able to run her own campaign and there might be some areas of disagreement with the President, she'll get through that.

Yepsen: Let's move to the congressional race in Western Iowa, Congressman Steve King, had a near death experience on election night, ran thousands of votes behind Kim Reynolds in that district, was later rebuked by the Governor right after the election. What is his future, Craig?

Robinson:  Well, I think it's cloudy to say the best. I think that you have a Congressman who in his history has created quite a bit of controversy wherever he goes. And for the longest time it was kind of, well that's just Steve King. Now I think if you're a republican you're watching this and he's not helping you, he's hurting you. The fact that you can look at the results on Tuesday and say there's, across the state these congressional candidates are the top vote-getters in their congressional districts. Steve King was 30,000 votes short of Kim Reynolds. That could have an impact on two State Senate seats where Rick Bertrand lost in Sioux City and Shannon Latham lost just south of, in that Clear Lake district.

Rynard: And I think all the focus on Steve King was not helpful at all to republicans in the suburbs even if he wasn't in that district.

Robinson: If you're Kim Reynolds you're asked questions about Steve King. If you're Ted Cruz in Texas you're asked questions about what Steve King is doing. He is a distraction to our party and if nothing changes he is going to continue to hurt us on Election Day.

Yepsen: Quickly, does he get a primary?

Robinson: I think he does get a primary, especially because of Kim Reynolds' numbers in that district.

Yepsen: Any names being mentioned at this point?

Robinson: I have none so far.

Yepsen: Pat, what do you make of Steve King?

Rynard: Well, you would think that coming within three points, this near death experience as you mentioned, would kind of make him realize that oh, perhaps instead of taking trips to Austria maybe I should travel the district a little more. But everything we know about Steve King, does anyone think he's actually going to change? He's going to continue to make outrageous comments and the voters in that district, which finally this year were like all right, enough already, I think are going to be even more sensitive to that as it continues.

Yepsen: Do you think J.D. Scholten will make another run? He is fond of saying and we all know there are lots of Iowa politicians who get there on their second go, Harold Hughes, Tom Harkin, Berkeley Bedell. Does J.D. Scholten run again?

Rynard: I saw him up in Ames the other night, the way he was talking then it kind of sounded like he was looking at other stuff. I think he needs a job for income at some point as a lot of these candidates sometimes do. But I think he should. I think he should run for that or for the Senate. He showed a really smart political mind of doing his big RV tour, doing retail politicking.

Yepsen: Is Steve King beatable in 2020 given the way an electorate changes in a presidential year?

Rynard: In a presidential year I think it would be tough again, but again I just think King is going to keep stepping in it and people are going to eventually say enough. And I've been hearing some interesting chatter that is little bit more than usual behind-the-scenes on republican sides that they've had enough of him and you might want to watch out for what happens if there is a primary.

Robinson: Look, he's more vulnerable in a primary setting than in the general election. Republicans know that and at the end of the day that's why I think you'll probably see a primary challenge.

Yepsen: Right, and he could have several people who want to take him on and then it goes to convention, which is how he got the nomination -- Kay?

Henderson: Turning to other congressional races of note, Iowa sent two women to Congress for the first time, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer in the first and the third. Craig, when you look at those results do you see the suburbs snapping in a way that is permanent?

Robinson: Well, I think where the concern is, is more in the third district with Cindy Axne where you saw Polk County generate a 30,000 vote margin for the democrat candidate there, who won no other counties in the district. Can you do that again? I'm not sure. I think that you have a, at the congressional level until redistricting Polk County, if it doesn't have any more territory, and it's probably going to lose territory, that third congressional district, is probably going to trend probably a little more to the democrat side. It's going to be much more difficult whereas if you look at the second district and you look at the first district, those are districts where we've all said those are the more blue districts. Well now if you actually look at how they're performing, republicans have a better shot at winning those two districts than they do in the third.

Henderson: I hear affirmation from you, Pat, on those remarks.

Rynard: Yeah, if you're republicans and Dallas County is getting to a point where democrats are almost winning it you've got serious problems of whether or not you're ever going to win a congressional seat around the Des Moines Metro area.

Robinson: And Dallas County is an issue here, it severely underperformed for republicans. Four years ago David Young got an 8,000 vote margin out of that county, he got 2,500 vote margin on Tuesday. That has to be fixed from republicans and I think that there is a, you can't sit back and say when you're Dallas County that we're a republican county, yet all these new people moving in, building houses and growing, you've got to stay in front of your constituents more I think.

Henderson: James had some interesting figures in regards to the first district and Blum.

Lynch: Looking at those numbers in the first district I was struck by the fact that Rod Blum outperformed President Trump two years ago. This year his vote total dropped off by about 54,000, while democrat Abby Finkenauer came within about 8,000 votes of matching the presidential election year total of Monica Vernon. What do republicans have to do to get those numbers back up? If Trump is on the ticket will they bounce back up, Craig?

Robinson: This is the big question. I noted right before coming in today that this is the second election cycle now I think we went into in election night and you really didn't know what was going to happen. You had a really close race, which unlike in 2018 where you had, or in 2016, where you didn't think Trump could win, it was really a toss-up on the gubernatorial race. Now, I think that those Trump voters that turned out for the President in 2016, I don't think you can count on them to turn out in the midterm. But if he runs again and runs on the same type of message I expect that he will still appeal to these blue collar workers in those districts.

Lynch: Pat, has Abby Finkenauer hit her ceiling with this election or can she turn out more democrats in the presidential election year?

Rynard: I think she could turn out even more. I think Blackhawk could have been even larger and I Think it will be for the presidential election and of course incumbency helps because she is going to over the next two years here be traveling the district as the Congresswoman so you get to be in front of different people because of that. But I think best thing for Finkenauer is she really solved the problem of the messaging issue for democrats. Her first ad was about the sweatshirt from her dad that has the holes in it -- she ran on this blue collar image that appealed to all of those type of blue collar voters who abandoned the party for Trump and I think she figured out that some of this is a cultural issue.

Henderson: Axne in particular faced a lot of adverts from GOP, the GOP side about Nancy Pelosi. Do either one of these female candidates face any problem down the road if they support Nancy Pelosi as Speaker?

Robinson: Well, look, this is kind of the republican playbook and it has been this way for over a decade. So whether they vote for her or not, I think if Nancy Pelosi is Speaker of the House, I think they're going to have to deal with that come Election Day.

Henderson: So how effective, Pat, do you think the Nancy Pelosi cudgel is?

Rynard: It wasn't this time. Will it be next time? I guess the difference would be that she's actually Speaker and so they're actually pushing those so they'll have some more substantive stuff to hit them on.

Yepsen: I want to move on. Pat, let's talk about the race for Governor. Why did Fred Hubbell lose? Why did Kim Reynolds win?

Rynard: That's a good question. For one I think Reynolds was, did a better job of connecting with people on a personal level, the small town girl, a checker at Hy-Vee type of thing. Hubbell I thought it was interesting how they kind of framed him as a person, which I should also say they did a lot of things right, they did a great job on the Medicaid issue, but obviously they still lost. So I think part of it I thought was interesting that they kind of ended up framing him as this liberal philanthropist as opposed to kind of a successful businessman type. And then some of it I think just was a little too poll tested and he just didn't connect in a certain way in these rural areas. And I went along with him on some of his trips through rural towns and there was a lot of roundtables, a lot of policy heavy discussion. He was talking about the right stuff, it just wasn't getting through to folks.

Yepsen: But his biography, you have a wealthy, Des Moines liberal who has never run for public office before. Now your party has tried to run other candidates like that for Governor and come up short. Do you think the democrats have learned a lesson about the next few statewide elections and the kind of candidate you nominate?

Rynard: Well, it's looking like the House democrats if our report is right is going to choose Todd Pritchard, a rural legislator, so I think that's helpful. But yeah, I think one of the biggest issues that democrats need to get is that there is a cultural problem out there. Folks in small town and folks also in blue collar areas don't really trust the Democratic Party because of the type of social networks that they're in and so you've got to be out there and also appeal to them on some personal level.

Yepsen: Craig, what happened in the race for Governor?

Robinson: Look, I think that you had Kim Reynolds who was kind of ripe to be defeated here. And she righted her ship I thought in the last six weeks of this race where she went out and she campaigned aggressively, interacted with people on a personal one-on-one level and she shifted the focus of her ads. I think the problem with Hubbell is he was off message a little bit. I don't think his message, while the Medicaid stuff hit a chord, I think his message where in the general election he kept talking about Planned Parenthood and some of these things, primary is over and that stuff hurts you in rural Iowa, especially in some of these areas that we talked about earlier that have a strong Catholic makeup where he was still hitting that button and if you look at nationally Nancy Pelosi told her congressional candidates what, let's not make this campaign about abortion, let's talk about fiscal issues. Fred Hubbell kind of straddled both the lines and I think it hurt him.

Henderson: Pat?

Rynard: And that is one of the biggest problems with certain democratic campaigns. I'm sure Planned Parenthood poll tests very well but when it comes down to people who are actually voting on that issue the people are already either with you or against you and it kind of puts you in line with a certain side of the cultural stuff.

Yepsen: And most Iowans are not on Medicaid.

Rynard: Right. Democrats do not always have this all-encompassing view. Kim Reynolds made the last couple of weeks all about taxes. Well, everybody pays taxes to some extent.

Henderson: Pat, how does a democrat win in rural Iowa?

Rynard: Well, I think you look to a certain extent at what Scholten was able to do and you're never going to probably be able to win a lot of those places but if you keep the margins closer it's going to be a lot better. And Scholten, he was just out there nonstop. And I think one of the things is we've been talking about Vilsack had that quote about whether or not people are looking for rock star candidates or not. One thing that being a rock star, or just being a really exciting candidate, is that you can use that to raise a lot of money online, which means you spend less time dialing for dollars and it gives you more time to go out and campaign in some of these small towns.

Yepsen: The flip side of that question is, what do republicans have to do in the suburbs? You got creamed with under 35 voters and several republican legislators had near death experiences.

Robinson: And some of them flatlined, let's be honest. Look, I think what was lacking from both of these candidates was really a message of what are they going to accomplish if elected? We don't really know what the agenda is for Governor Reynolds moving forward. We have an idea based on what was done previously. But even for Hubbell there wasn't an agenda. And I think for both political parties that they have an opportunity, they need to seize on this moment. How are we going to govern? What are we going to do? What are our priorities? And they need to communicate this.

Yepsen: I understand that. But my specific question is about the suburbs. We always ask about what do democrats have to do in rural areas? I think it's a fair question now to ask what do republicans have to do in the suburbs? In Dallas County? In Ankeny?

Robinson: Look, I think candidate recruitment matters. I think the type of campaign you're running matters. I think on the republican side I think it's more strategic and more activities that you need to do that you can't -- look, I live in Ankeny, I was the fourth house built in my subdivision in 2010 right before redistricting. There are 350 new homes there and I see my legislator, he'll wait for me to leave my driveway to put a yard sign in my yard. But are you knocking on my neighbor's doors? They're from Wisconsin, they're from other states, they're from other parts of the state. They don't know who they are.

Lynch: One takeaway from the results of the 2018 election seems to be that the republicans can hold onto the Iowa House and Iowa Senate majorities in 2020 but the question is in 2022 after redistricting, Pat, do republicans become a minority party representing rural Iowa but not the metro areas?

Rynard: It's certainly going to improve in democrats' favors as to redistricting because you're going to have a lot, obviously you've had a lot of population move and increase into the Des Moines Metro area. There were nearly twice as many votes cast in the Ankeny State Senate race as there were in the Sioux City State Senate race.

Robinson: But let's be honest, that is basically two State Senate seats.

Rynard: Right, so you're going to have a lot more districts in the Des Moines Metro area and in some of these other suburban areas as well, which is going to be more beneficial to democrats, should help them in the Iowa House especially. But, again, if democrats still don't solve their problems out in the eastern part of the state you can't build a majority just through the major urban centers alone.

Yepsen: Quick follow-up?

Lynch: Well, I was going to ask Craig.

Robinson: I don't think it's as gloomy as that scenario is. When you redistrict you're going to add, we're going to add more State Senate seats and State House seats in the center here. I think the House has the ability than democrats in these smaller districts to probably gain a little bit of an advantage. But I don't think all of a sudden we're going to be losing places like Waukee and Ankeny, places where Jack Whitver carried all the new parts of his district, all the new growth. I think they, again, I think they have to campaign a little bit harder in there, I think they've got to get in front of these new people, but I don't think it's as gloomy as people suggest.

Yepsen: We've only got a few minutes left and I want to turn to the legislature, specifically to you, Craig. Republicans held on. What does this election do to the issues that the republicans will deal with in the legislature? In the last trifecta they passed a lot of social conservative legislation. Now they've still got control. Do they double down and pass more of those kinds of bills? Or do they say hey, we've got to tone it down a little bit here or we're not going to be able to appeal to the new Iowa, to the suburban Iowa?

Robinson: I think that there's going to be a definite continuation where they're going to want to continue to tinker on tax reform, corporate taxes and some of those things. I think it would be very difficult for them to go in and do more on the social conservative front. They did an awful lot. If you look at their to-do list over the last 20 years they checked a lot of those things off in the last two years. That's why I think it's more of a question mark, what do they choose to do moving forward? I don't think we know.

Yepsen: What do you think?

Rynard: Yeah, talking with some of my democratic friends after the election who were very depressed that republicans are going to retain full control, then they also said, well, what else could they do to us that they didn't do the last two years? Although I feel like those are words that could come back to haunt us. But they do have to be careful because, look, Iowa is early on in this type of cycle that Michigan and Wisconsin, which flipped their Governor's houses and Kansas, were on. A lot of the really far right republican legislation that passed in those passed four, six, eight years ago and then it caught up with them. A lot of the changes to especially budget issues and funding of different programs are still theoretical right now and are not going to impact people until later on.

Henderson: Craig, you sort of alluded to it earlier, does Kim Reynolds have a decision to make? Is she a continuation of the Branstad legacy or does she forge one of her own?

Robinson: I think we kind of saw it. I think she has to forge her own and I think she will. I think that when you come to office as she did, she is fulfilling Branstad's term and you also have to understand the impact that has on the legislature where they had much more control of the agenda last session than she did coming into that office. So now I think being elected I think she has firmer ground to stand on and I think she will be able to steer legislation that she wants to see on her desk versus what they just throw up there and make her sign.

Henderson: Pat, give us two names. Name a democratic presidential candidate of the future who distinguished him or herself through this campaign.

Rynard: Cory Booker did a lot in Iowa with even the small amount of time that he came here.

Yepsen: Kay wants two names. Who is another one?

Rynard: Well, John Delaney did a great job of kind of boosting him up.

Yepsen: You're saved by the bell. We're out of time.


Yepsen: Thank you both for being on and coming out again.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Thank you. And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press over Thanksgiving weekend. You can catch Iowa Press at 7:30 Friday night on our main IPTV channel and another broadcast Saturday morning at 8:30 on our .3 World channel. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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.

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