Reporters' Roundtable

Nov 23, 2018  | 27 min  | Ep 4613 | Podcast


The 2018 electorate in Iowa shifted purple on election night. But republicans remain in power. What does it mean for governing and for the 2020 positioning already underway? We sit down with Iowa reporters on this roundtable 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 23 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: When Iowans went to the polls earlier this month, various storylines developed along regional lines. While rural areas continued their overall trend to ruby red conservative, swing districts in more heavily populated suburbs shifted towards democrats. The results meant two new female democrats in the U.S. House, but also republican power holding at the Iowa Statehouse and in the Governorship. Those regional voting trends are just part of the conversation today at the Iowa Press table where we have gathered a group of journalists to talk about it. Tom Beaumont covers politics for the Associated Press. Kathie Obradovich is Opinion Editor for the Des Moines Register. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome everybody, glad to have you out here talking about the campaign and the aftermath. I'd like to just go around the table and ask each of you a simple question. What do you see as the biggest impact or effect of this election? Kay, I'll start with you.

Henderson: Well, last week on this program we had a republican operative, Craig Robinson, say Governor Reynolds had not yet distanced herself in a very significant way from the policy agenda of Terry Branstad. And this past Tuesday we saw her start to do that when she suggested that she may have a new policy regarding felon voting rights. As many of you may know, Iowa, Kentucky and Florida have been the only states which do not automatically grant felons voting rights after they have completed their sentences. Florida voters overwhelmingly decided they were going to give more than a million Floridians who were felons the right to vote again. And Governor Reynolds this week signaled that she is considering some sort of policy change at the state of Iowa that might mirror that, it might entail, I'm just speculating here, an executive order, it might entail some sort of action at the legislative level as well.

Yepsen: So we stay tuned for details.

Henderson: Exactly.

Yepsen: Tom, question to you. What is the big effect or impact you see in the 2018 elections?

Beaumont: I look at Iowa as having reflected the rest of the country in one big way, it was a split decision. 52% of Iowa voters voted for a democrat for federal office. That is a majority. 50.4% voted for republican Governor Kim Reynolds. You look around the country, democrats made gains in the House, they took the majority, yet Trump largely held his base. So I think it foreshadows what we're going to see in 2020. But Iowa, again, seems to be a microcosm of the rest of the country.

Yepsen: You're based in Iowa but you travel the country for the Associated Press now. What do you see in this region in terms of 2020?

Beaumont: Well, you take a look at the Senate races in the Upper Midwest and all of those states that narrowly went for President Trump, the republican in 2016, all of them re-elected democratic Senators, from Pennsylvania to Ohio to Michigan to Wisconsin. That was that big, they called it the blue wall that Trump was able to knock down. I think that's a real warning sign for the President in 2020. It resets the map somewhat. Iowa is a bit of the tail on the dog. We'll see what happens.

Yepsen: Kathie, what is your read on the big effect or impact of the 2018 election?

Obradovich: For Iowa I think you can't escape the fact that the glass ceiling really shattered this time for women running in public office. In 2014 we were down with Mississippi and just a couple of other states as being a state that had never elected a woman not only to Congress but as a Governor. Now in Iowa in 2018 100 women were on the ballot. That is a record breaking number. Iowa now has two women for the first time representing the state in the U.S. House of Representatives, first woman to be elected in her own right now with Kim Reynolds as Governor and I think the numbers, a 30% increase in the number of women serving in the Iowa legislature with 34 women in the House, 11 in the Senate. I think what the question will be now is does that change how our elected officials govern? Will there be a change, for example, do we see a change in the U.S. House with an increase in the number of women? Do we see a change in the Iowa legislature with the type of issues that they pursue and their mode of pursuing issues and how they work with the Governor? I think it will be interesting to watch.

Yepsen: Does it make any difference to the way men handle women in the legislature?

Obradovich: How they handle women?

Yepsen: Bad choice of words, Dave.

Obradovich: I certainly hope so.

Yepsen: Just this locker room atmosphere that has existed there.

Obradovich: I think that they have started. Kim Reynolds made a start, especially with her firing of her old friend, Dave Jamison over in the Iowa Finance Authority. The men in the legislature, in the Senate, saw their own leader, Bill Dix, implode because he was not practicing what he preached in terms of sexual harassment or at least sticking with his marriage vows. So we'll see what happens. But I think that they have been alerted, they have been put on alert.

Yepsen: Well, and it's an issue. Last week a formal complaint was filed in the Iowa Senate against Senator Nate Boulton so that's going to be right up for the ethics committee. Erin, what is your reading on the big effect or impact of the 2018?

Murphy: Well, for me, and Tom talked about the split decision in Iowa, at the state level we had our first election since republicans took full lawmaking control at the Iowa Capitol, first opportunity like that for them in two decades and voters chose to keep them in those positions. Kim Reynolds won a very competitive race for Governor, the Senate actually increased the number of republicans and in the House they fended off a challenge for their majority. It got whittled down a little bit but republicans still control the House as well. So all those issues that democrats tried to put on the campaign trail, the private management of Medicaid, the budget, abortion policies, those, the voters looked at those and chose to send republicans back. And that translated to the other statewide offices as well. Paul Pate for Secretary of State has been under a lot of fire from democrats and voting rights groups over the voter ID law. He did better than Kim Reynolds. He got more pure votes than Kim Reynolds did. So Iowans chose to keep republicans in power.

Yepsen: Kay, let's talk about something I mentioned in the open and that is this urban/rural divide. What has happened to it in Iowa? How did we see it show up in election night?

Henderson: Well, Fred Hubbell won 11 of the 99 counties and those were the 11 most populous counties.

Yepsen: Fred Hubbell of Des Moines.

Henderson: Fred Hubbell of Des Moines. And rural areas increasingly are siloed. Folks who live there talked to people who share their own political views. Urban Iowa is siloed. People who share your views are generally your neighbors. You go online and see your views sort of reinforced by the people that you hang out with, if you will, online. It's more of the big sort and I think that democrats have not figured out how to be successful not only in areas of the state which are sparsely populated, but also in areas of the state like an Oskaloosa or a Mason City which are sort of micro urban areas. They don't know how to put a candidate forward and I think one of the lesson for democrats from this cycle may be perhaps no run someone who lives in the state's biggest city.

Obradovich: I think democrats came closer though than they have in the recent past. Terry Branstad made it his goal to win 98 out of the 99 counties when he was re-elected the last time and he did. The only county that he didn't win was Johnson County, the people's republic where Iowa City and the bluest county in the entire state. And in this last election Steve King, Congressman Steve King in the most overwhelmingly republican district in the state came within 2 points of being knocked off to a first time candidate, first time democratic candidate. So I think democrats are coming closer at figuring out how to win in some of these rural areas. There was no, it wasn't like JD Scholten just ran up the vote only in Story County or only in Carroll, he wasn't winning those counties but he had good vote counts and was competitive with Steve King. So I think we may still see the red maps, the overwhelmingly red with little islands of blue. The question is though can democrats get closer, bring the vote closer in some of those counties that will still be red?

Yepsen: Tom, did you see this play out around the country, the urban/rural split, change things at all?

Beaumont: Yeah, there was I think Iowa's third district is a really good example of what happened around the country. You saw Cindy Axne just thump David Young in Polk County, yet it was hardly a rebuke of him across his district, Axne only won by a point and a half. But she performed so strong in the suburbs. We see suburbs like the more west side of Des Moines and Dallas County used to be reliably republican, those are trending democrat, they're trending democrat in Northern Virginia, in Virginia ten, Kansas three, those are places where we saw republicans that had won more than one term, kicked out of office in democrat surges. The whole of Orange County which used to be a reliably suburban area of the state went overwhelmingly democrat for the House and contributed to the democrats winning the majority.

Yepsen: Erin, do you see any changes coming in Iowa's election laws as a result of this? We had some glitches up in Decorah, for example. Any changes in the law coming as a result or needed as a result of what we saw?

Murphy: There's going to be some discussion over that, whether changes are made remains to be seen. Mentioned the republican control still so it's in their hands whether they deem it a problem. But one of the concerns that has been raised is over postmarks and what counts as a postmark. Can they use the electronic scan?

Yepsen: The bar codes.

Murphy: The bar codes. So that is a discussion. As you mentioned there is a tight race that is headed for a recount and there are a number of ballots, somewhere in the 30 range I believe, that were essentially thrown out because they didn't have a postmark. So that's a discussion that is definitely coming at the legislature.

Henderson: You mentioned Paul Pate. During his election night victory speech he mentioned the voter verification law, which he referred to on election night as voter ID, and he said we need to do more suggesting and I'll quote here, "we need to be able to put more republicans in the winner's circle." So that was an interesting way to describe election law changes. And it leaves open the possibility that there could be something sort of percolating among republican legislators to make some significant changes. Who knows, but that was an interesting way to celebrate your victory.

Obradovich: One of the changes that I still don't understand from this last cycle was doing away with straight ticket voting. It seemed to me like that was beneficial to republicans and they took that off the ballot. I'd be interested to see if there is any study coming up on whether that made any difference to people because I know that the concern is that it takes away votes from down ballot races. But in this case when you have a winning Governor at the top of the ticket you want your voters to be able to just fill in one circle, right? I just don't understand and maybe they'll revisit it.

Murphy: Well, and you mentioned the fourth district race, Steve King's re-election. He got 30,000 fewer votes than Kim Reynolds in his district that helped make that a close race. We don't have scientific data on this but it's pretty easy to see, pretty plain to see that there are people in that district who voted for Kim Reynolds, who did not vote for Steve King, and probably in the past would have been straight ticket voters and he would have --

Obradovich: And that happened in the first and third as well. Ticket splitting is responsible for Kim Reynolds being elected as well as Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer. So I would think republicans might want to take a look at that again.

Yepsen: Beware the law of unintended consequences.

Obradovich: Yes, exactly.

Yepsen: Tom, Senator Ernst has moved into a leadership position in the U.S. Senate and yet we heard a forecast that she's vulnerable in 2020. What is your take on all that?

Beaumont: Well, it could be that there is a looming anti-Trump wave coming as he is seeking re-election. He won the state by nine percentage points but if you look at Reynolds' results, no it's not a straight comparison, but she barely won election here so maybe there is some tightening of the Trump base. It seems like she is pretty well positioned but in a democratic environment perhaps she is under a little bit more strain. And we are hearing a little bit of chatter about former Governor Tom Vilsack being mentioned as a potential challenger. He's well known in the state, it has been 20 years since he has been in the legislature and it has been a while since he has been on a statewide ticket too. So I just don't know what to make of that.

Yepsen: The track record in this last election of former democratic governors wasn't too good.

Henderson: And he's also made clear that he likes to be an executive, not a legislator. So I don't know that this would be an appealing move for him.

Obradovich: Joni Ernst is going to be tough, tough to beat. I think she has been very smart in the way she has handled her freshman term as a U.S. Senator where she has, as a freshman she has focused where she could on amendments, she has focused on legislation dealing with the military where those committees are not as bipartisan, they're not as partisan, the Armed Services Committee is not as partisan. And she has reached across the aisle to work with democratic women on issues like sexual harassment in the military. And so she has a good story to talk about. I think the question that is being raised nationally is, is she too reluctant to criticize Donald Trump? And I think we'll have to see how that plays out here in the next year.

Beaumont: One question for you, at home it seems like there's a personality that Ernst projects that is very popular in the state that may not have to do with her policy positions and her leadership in Washington. How do you see her personality succeeding in this environment right now?

Obradovich: It's everything. Look, Joni Ernst won this in 2014 on the basis of her personality. Des Moines Register's poll, you maybe remember this, Tom, most voters lined up with Bruce Braley the democrat on issues but they really liked Joni Ernst, they liked her personality, she had this clever ad campaign with her Harley and her gun and castrating, making them squeal. So they really, really liked her. That was a personality based campaign. So was this Kim Reynolds campaign. She really ran a hometown, Hy-Vee checkout girl versus the rich, out of touch Des Moines democrat. If that continues I don't see her getting knocked off.

Murphy: And so to that it will be interesting to see who democrats nominate, who decides to run, if it's not Tom Vilsack. Some of these candidates that lost some of these races here this year, JD Scholten who challenged Steve King in the fourth, Deidre DeJear who lost to Paul Pate in the Secretary of State's race. The democrats have a little more of a bench now so it will be interesting to see who steps forward and who makes the calculation to run in 2020 against Joni Ernst or who maybe decides to sit back and wait for 2022 when there's a decent possibility that Chuck Grassley will retire and that is an open seat race.

Henderson: And we spend all this time talking about the important issues that voters are concerned about and people spend tons of money on advertising and sometimes it just boils down to the old student council race in high school, who is the most popular.

Yepsen: Kathie, we had another Iowan in the news here recently. The acting Attorney General of the United States Matt Whitaker.

Obradovich: Yeah, go figure. He has a history of losing elections in Iowa. He was actually one of Joni Ernst's opponents running for Senate in 2014, he lost in the primary. And now he went in as Chief of Staff to Jeff Sessions. I talked to him a year ago and he was actually really homesick, he didn't get to see the Iowa Hawkeye football games like he wanted to, and of the Iowans who had prominent jobs in D.C. he is like the last one left and now he's at the top of the Justice Department. He has not withstood the media scrutiny very well so it will be interesting to see how long he can last.

Yepsen: And democrats in the Senate are going after the fact that he hasn't been confirmed so it may be a short-term rise here. Erin, the Supreme Court of Iowa, a justice resigned this past week, Justice Hecht, for health reasons. That raises the question of Kim Reynolds appointing another judge. Kim Reynolds will have four years to appoint lots of judges. Is there a battle for, an ideological battle going on now or starting in Iowa over the state courts the way we see in federal courts?

Murphy: Maybe not to that level yet but there is one, especially if you listen to Kim Reynolds' own staff who shortly before the election a member was speaking to a conservative group here in Des Moines and made the case that voting republican, voting Kim Reynolds back into the office was important because of the fact that she would, the next Governor would be making a few nominations to the state's Supreme Court. It hasn't turned into the battleground yet like we saw a few years back after the same sex marriage ruling here. But clearly it is an issue that republicans felt motivated their voters.

Obradovich: And Iowa has a non-partisan nomination process. She doesn't get to actually nominate candidates, she just gets to pick among the ones that the Judicial Nominating Commission gives to her. So I think that is a, that process has served Iowa really well. If there is a battle over changing it, it has to be a constitutional battle.

Henderson: And the battle may come based on what happens in the U.S. Supreme Court, if they have some case that may tinker with Roe vs. Wade then that means every state legislature is going to be in the ballgame of making abortion policy for that state and it always winds up in the courts.

Yepsen: Tom, just a few minutes left. Is Iowa going to be a battleground state in 2020? Or are we pretty much a red state when it comes to presidential elections? I've sort of had a theory and we've talked about it on this program that Iowa may be going back to its republican roots. But what do you think? Is Iowa going to be a battleground state or not?

Beaumont: I look at the thing that I started off at the beginning saying, 52% voting for federal office, 50.4% voting for the republican Governor. That seems pretty much like a swing state. You look at what is happening like I said in the Upper Midwest where there have been republican trifectas in the statehouse, there has been a reaction to that, for heaven's sakes we have a democratic governor in Kansas now. So as we look to 2020 there are lots of things about the Trump base that is holding but you've got Arizona coming online, you've got Georgia coming online, Nevada certainly establishing itself as a pretty democratic state. I see Iowa maybe trending back.

Obradovich: You've got a caucus race too that is likely to energize democrats. The number of candidates who will be here to compete against Donald Trump will be miniscule and they will be ostracized probably. So that helps lead into a more energized democratic base.

Yepsen: Erin, we've got just a couple of minutes left and let's get to the 2019 legislature. What impact did this election have on the legislature, if any? Is republicans having the trifecta going to mean that they double down on tough stuff, the conservative things like they did the last time? Or do they see these closer election results and say whoa, we better tone it down, it's a more suburban state? What do you think about that?

Murphy: That's going to be really interesting to see. Usually lawmakers get in this position and they realize how rare the opportunity is and they like to go for it. That is definitely what we saw the last few years. They did not tiptoe through the tulips, republicans just mowed through their agenda. Will that change now? I'll be interested to see the dynamic between the Senate where they gained republicans and they feel more embolden to keep forward with that agenda versus the House where they kept their majority but lost some seats and are going to be in a very real battle in the next election too. Might they be more cautious?

Yepsen: Kay, there's three specific issues here. Redistricting. Do republicans with their majority power change Iowa's redistricting laws?

Henderson: It appears that Linda Upmeyer, the House Speaker, will be the veto on that opportunity. I think maybe it may percolate up in the Senate but she's going to say no.

Yepsen: Right. Why should they change the rules of a game they just won? Secondly, IPERS. What happens there?

Henderson: Well, the Governor got $100,000 donation from somebody in Missouri who wants changes in that state's pension system. She through the end of the campaign was challenge on that and ultimately said, no changes for current beneficiaries or future beneficiaries.

Yepsen: You pushed her pretty hard on that question in an interview. You think they won't tinker around with this for future state employees?

Henderson: I think the outcry that they would have, there are 350,000 Iowans who are part of the IPERS system either current beneficiaries or future ones, half of them are school teachers who are already upset about collective bargaining and they have the ability to write a pretty good letter and have a pretty good harangue session with a legislator from their area. So I think that would be something that would be a real flashpoint.

Yepsen: Just a few seconds, Kathie. Will they get into it, the third one is will they get into abortion issues?

Obradovich: Yeah. And we have a court battle right now. There is definitely a subset of the Republican Party who wants to push that law even further to completely outlawing abortion. So it's a possibility. I think there's divisions in the party. Kim Reynolds' leadership is going to be really important.

Henderson: And the Governor told me, no, let's wait until this court battle has ended and then we can discuss something else.

Yepsen: All right. So we stay tuned. Thanks everybody for coming out to do this.

Obradovich: Thanks, David.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times next week and political analyst Charlie Cook joins us to look back at the 2018 campaign and ahead to 2020. That's Charlie Cook on Iowa Press 7:30 Friday night with a rebroadcast at noon on our main IPTV channel as well as a replay Saturday morning at 8:30 on our .3 World channel. So 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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