Political Party Leaders

Jan 11, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4620 | Podcast


Elections are in the rearview mirror and back on the front burner. A new year in Washington begins with a government shutdown and new Steve King controversies. All as Iowa is about to inaugurate a Governor and begin another legislative session. We dig in with Iowa Party Chairs Jeff Kaufmann and Democrat Troy Price 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, January 11 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: Campaigns today seem to never end. The dust from November 2018 has barely settled before caucus presidential candidates have descended on our state, a government shutdown in Washington greeted new Iowa Congresswomen and back in Iowa a leading republican state legislator is already challenging Steve King in a high stakes primary for the 4th congressional district. And we haven't even gaveled in the Iowa legislative session. To dive further into the constant politics we've gathered Jeff Kaufmann, Chair of the Republican Party of Iowa and Troy Price, Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Price: It's great to be here.

Kaufmann: Good to be here.

Yepsen: It's good to have you with us. Joining the conversation are Iowa political reporters James Lynch with the Gazette and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, Steve King went on the House floor this Friday afternoon and apologized for heartburn created by a New York Times story in which he was quoted about white nationalism, white supremacy in Western civilization. Jeb Bush says it's time for republican leaders to denounce him because King will not step aside. What say you?

Kaufmann: A couple of things. First of all, primaries we're neutral. That's the simple fact. There is a primary now in the 4th district. I will be, the Republican Party is going to be neutral. Second of all, I'll say it and let me just say very clearly that the word white supremacy is offensive to me. It's offensive to the Republican Party of Iowa. We are the party of Lincoln and I don't believe, I think the ideology is nonsense and quite frankly I think the use of the word is inappropriate. So I'll just be real straight forward about that and get that out of the way.

Henderson: He endorsed a white supremacist running for office in Canada before the election. Why didn't more Iowa GOP leaders denounce him then?

Kaufmann: Well, ultimately this is a statement about white supremacy. When did it become offensive, I believe it was, I'm paraphrasing here, Kay. But this is directly about a term and as the Republican Party of Iowa Chair I'm going to specifically address that term.

Henderson: Congressman King says of his now republican primary opponent, State Senator Randy Feenstra of Hull, that he is a political opportunist, that he is sort of being puppeted by the establishment. Did you recruit Senator Feenstra to run against Congressman King?

Kaufmann: No. I am not, I'm neutral in that particular primary. I'm not going to comment on the merits of Congressman King, In terms of as a candidate I'm not going to comment on the merits of Randy Feenstra. We are going to be neutral about that. But I can tell you that I was not involved in recruiting anyone.

Henderson: You called him, Mr. Feenstra, a legitimate challenger, which seems to indicate that this is a different race than it has been before.

Kaufmann: Well, my intention there is we know with any Governor, with any presidential candidate and several of our congresspeople there are going to be folks that throw their hat in the ring that are not politically viable. When I say legitimate I'm talking about we'll have some electoral viability.

Yepsen: Troy Price, what is your reaction to all of this?

Price: Well, I mean, the simple fact of the matter is, is that Steve King has overstayed his welcome. In spite of all the stuff that he has said, he has not done anything for the 4th district and I think that's why we got as close as we ever have in this last election cycle. But back to something that my counterpart said here a minute ago. Republicans have always stood by Steve King all the way up to and including the night before the election when Kim Reynolds ended her campaign with Steve King up in Sioux Center and then a week later says, oh Steve King needs to really think about what his future is going to be. You know, you can't have it both ways. And the fact is, is that the Republican Party has always stood by Steve King. This rhetoric, the latest rhetoric is not anything new from Steve King, we've heard this for years and years and years.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: Troy, let's stick with the 4th district. Did democrats miss an opportunity here in 2018? You talked about coming close to defeating Steve King. Should there have been more resources devoted to backing J.D. Scholten there and pushing him across the finish line?

Price: We had a very strong campaign up in the 4th district, J.D. Scholten did, the state party did, we had a lot of legislative candidates up there as well that worked very hard to try and turn out voters up in the 4th district and we're proud of the work that we did and very proud of the work that J.D. Scholten did.. He demonstrated how you win campaigns here in Iowa. You go out there and you meet with folks one-on-one and you build that infrastructure. We saw in August of last year I was up in the 4th district and started to see that he was really building a movement up in that district. And I think that we got pretty darn close this last time, J.D. ran a tremendous campaign and we are committed to doing everything we can to make sure that we turn that district blue in 2020.

Lynch: So what should J.D. Scholten do next?

Price: Well, I'll leave that up to J.D. Scholten but I know he's considering a few options at this point. But he definitely demonstrated that he is definitely one of the future leaders within our party.

Yepsen: Before we switch gears I want our viewers to know we've invited Congressman King to be on the show and hope to arrange that as soon as possible. On another subject, Mr. Kaufmann, republicans have signaled that they want to change the way we nominate judges to the Supreme Court in Iowa. What is that all about?

Kaufmann: And before I address that question I just want to say, given my counterpart's comments I assume he's going to be up at the Capitol on opening day talking about Nate Boulton being seated as well. So we all have our situations to deal with. In terms of how judges are nominated, I've heard a lot of talk about that from both sides of the aisle. I don't know that anybody has a predisposed notion about how that is going to look. But I don't think there's anything wrong at all about looking at that. I've heard some people say that the Bar Association has a disproportionate voice there. That could signal more grassroots input. I don't know exactly which route they're going to go but I don't think it hurts to have that conversation.

Yepsen: Mr. Price, is this just an effort to stack the Iowa Supreme Court with conservatives?

Price: Yes. Trying to take away -- the way this process has worked now over the last 40 years I think most people agree it has helped to try and keep politics out of the system. And when you start hearing the proposals that are floating around out there, that the Governor is going to be able to nominate all the people that he or she would want to appoint to the judicial nominating commissions it really kind of takes away or adds more politics into that process and that is something that is not good for our state.

Yepsen: Well, Mr. Kaufmann, one of the proposals is we just cut the Bar out entirely and have the Governor appoint a commission who then makes recommendation to the Governor for who should go on the court. What's wrong with that?

Kaufmann: This is a conversation we're going to have and I don't think you're going to have anyone stand up on the floor of the House or on the floor of the Senate and say look, we're going to stack the Supreme Court. I think it's going to be spun in that particular direction certainly. But the merits are going to be when we actually see the bill and we start to see people getting behind that bill. There's a whole lot of, the House and the Senate are going to have to agree, the Governor is going to have to agree, we've got a whole lot of time, this is the time when people think out loud and even though I used to tell my freshmen legislators don't do that, that's what people do, we're thinking out loud, let's wait to see what begins to gel and what begins to take some solidity in these bills.

Yepsen: One final thing, it is true conservatives in Iowa, religious conservatives in Iowa have been unhappy at the Iowa Supreme Court for rulings on gay marriage, abortion, right?

Kaufmann: Fair point, David. And we have a vehicle for people to speak out about that. We have the up or down vote on all of these judges. And so I really think this is more about giving people more of a voice as opposed to an organization. The Bar Association, we have a vehicle and they did speak out in the election when we lost three Supreme Court Justices. So I don't know that that stop gap in and of itself is necessary in terms of these changes that they're talking about.

Henderson: The democratic candidate in a Northeast Iowa legislative district has asked that 29 ballots that were mailed but don't have a postmark be counted in her race. The race was certified. She finished 9 votes behind. Mr. Price, the law says postmark. Should the law be changed?

Price: Well, I think that the starting point in this conversation should always be that if someone actually got a ballot in and dumped it in the mailbox by the time that the law requires and we can prove that, as is what happened here, then the vote should count. I don't know why that is such a difficult concept for folks to, or for some folks primarily on the other side of the political divide, to embrace.

Henderson: But there is no postmark on those ballots.

Price: Well, there is the intelligent barcode on those ballots and they were able to go and scan them and find out that they were in fact mailed by Election Day. And I think that trying to get all lost in the minutia it's where people get frustrated with government because these are 29 people who actually legitimately mailed their ballots in by Election Day. I don't see why it's so difficult to count those ballots and I think that, I would hope that my counterpart regardless of how this would have stacked, if Kayla Koether was 9 votes up I would be saying count those ballots because --

Yepsen: She's the democratic candidate.

Price: Yeah, if it was reversed I would say count those ballots.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann?

Kaufmann: The law is the law, Kay. I mean, you can't think about what should happen in an ideal world and the law is minutia. Being a former lawmaker that is what you put into code is the minutia for situations like this. I don't necessarily disagree and I don't believe I've heard any legislator disagree that we should take a look at that law. But for right now if she has standing, and we've got to realize that we don't know if she has standing yet, that's something that the House of Representatives is going to have to determine, but if she does and we have this full-fledged debate in the House then my opinion is you follow the law. You follow the law. I don't know how it can be more simple than that.

Price: But the law is very, it's ambiguous as it relates to these intelligent barcodes, which is okay, but if there is some ambiguity there the default position should be to count the ballots. I mean, people should have their votes and voice heard.

Yepsen: Mr. Kaufmann, shouldn't the law be cleaned up? It's my understanding that different county auditors were following different procedures for counting votes. I mean, there's an equal protection issue there that all voters may not have been treated the same. Shouldn't the law at least be clarified so that it's clear what is supposed to happen?

Kaufmann: David, I am not opposed from the Republican Party point of view of taking a look at that, at all. Not being in the legislative business anymore I don't know what their plans are but I certainly could very easily get behind republicans and democrats as far as that goes in the Iowa House if they decide to change that law and then the Senate and the Governor as well.

Lynch: Mr. Kaufmann, a change republicans made after you left the legislator, in 2017 they did away with straight ticket voting or straight party voting. Was that a good idea? Do you think Steve King might have not had a squeaker if there was straight ticket voting this year or last year?

Kaufmann: For full disclosure I signed multiple, I put my name on at least one bill, maybe two bills to do just that in the legislature. So I'll be honest with you, personally I have always been a fan of that long before there would have been any electoral ramifications that would show some kind of predisposed notion.

Lynch: A fan of eliminating straight ticket?

Kaufmann: Correct. And I'll tell you, I'll be honest with you, I was wearing my educator hat. I spend hours teaching my students to get educated and understand everybody that is running on those ballots. I've even gone so far as to tell them what is the difference between a republican and a democratic recorder? I believe that it reinforces my claim to students that they should be educated and look at the candidates on their own merits so I'm a bit biased on that so I support it.

Yepsen: Mr. Price?

Price: I think that this conversation about straight ticket voting broadly is just one part of the broader conversation like we just had just a minute ago about republicans continuing to put roadblocks up in voting. It makes it harder for voting. So now instead of going in if you have a couple of minutes you can go and check the party that you're most aligned with, you now have to walk all the way down the ballot. You have to, now the voter ID law when you look at that, when you look -- consistently we see coming from the GOP an effort to try and limit the voice of people in our voting process and not opening it up and that is the big difference between us and the Republican Party.

Lynch: Mr. Price, do you think that there were republicans in the 4th district who if they had cast a straight ticket vote wouldn't have voted for J.D. Scholten, that he wouldn't have come as close to defeating Steve King as he did?

Price: Potentially, potentially. We're still looking at the results right now. We just got the final voter file from the Secretary of State's Office so we're now able to dig a little deeper in to take a look at that. But again I think that the default should be at all times, and this shouldn't be a partisan issue, but the default should be making voting easier for people and we saw in 2017 with the voter ID law, now that's going to be fully implemented in this cycle it's going to be harder for people to vote in this state.

Yepsen: Which party, Mr. Kaufmann, which party benefits from absentee voting? Do democrats do a better job at absentees or do you?

Kaufmann: First of all, asking people to think before they cast their ballot is not a barrier to voting. But in terms of that question, I think it depends on what part of the process. Democrats are better than republicans. I'm just going to tell you that right now. Troy's party does a better job of collecting those applications. In the past, the republicans have done a better job of getting those ballots turned in. I will hand it to my colleague here, they did a good job in the last session and rivaled our job that we have done.

Yepsen: Do you agree with that?

Price: Listen, we identified this earlier than the Republican Party did so we have a stronger history, a longer history of early voting. We started this process way back in the early 2000's and republicans have been slowly catching up to us. I think really it's, everything is on the table at this point for both parties.

Yepsen: And which party benefits by having the Iowa voter have the chance to cast a straight ticket vote? Which party would benefit more from that? Or does it depend on the district?

Price: I think, I honestly think that there's probably no difference one way or the other for either party when it comes to straight ticket voting.

Kaufmann: Actually when I was running that bill, republicans actually have an advantage, that's why it's a bit laughable to say that somehow this is some kind of GOP conspiracy. We were actually hurt more by straight ticket voting. I don't have a problem with that because I don't think there's a problem with people thinking before they fill in the dot.

Henderson: Talking about absentee voting. The Democratic National Committee has told Iowa democrats to figure out a way so that people who are not able to attend the precinct caucuses on February 3rd have an opportunity to participate. What is that going to look like?

Price: Well, we're still in the process of determining that. We'll have more to talk about on that point in several weeks. I'm afraid I can't tell you today what it's going to look like. Here's the, the thing that we are committed to is one, preserving the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses, making sure that there are still neighborhood meetings where friends and neighbors can come together, talk about the issues important to our state, talk about who should be the standard bearer of our party. We're committed to preserving the spirit of what the caucuses are. At the same time we want to make sure that we make the caucuses as open, honest and transparent and accessible as we possible can. And so that is, we're in the process of figuring that out. I think we're going to have some, people are going to be happy with what we come up with. It's going to be able to preserve the spirit of the caucuses and still make sure that we are a caucus and not a primary.

Lynch: Mr. Kaufmann, will there be reason to have a GOP caucus in 2020? Or will there be some challenges to the sitting President?

Kaufmann: Absolutely. There is a reason to have a GOP caucus. The reason is 2024, 2028, the continuation of showing the country that Iowa can hold a caucus, can have a transparent caucus and I'm talking about --

Yepsen: Do you have a vote --

Kaufmann: Absolutely, in my opinion, David, I think we should and the reason for that is that we continue that tradition and we make sure that as Iowa we are an arbiter of allowing everyone to participate. I think that is very important. I've got my head in 2028 and 2032 when I'm making some of these decisions and I know my colleague does as well.

Henderson: Will the caucuses actually be held on February 3rd, 2020? Folks sort of wait around to see what the Secretary of State in New Hampshire seems to think of the way that these absentee votes are counted. What is the over/under on February 3rd?


Price: Well, Jeff has been through this process more in this role than I have, but I will say that I think we're going to continue our conversations with our counterparts in New Hampshire, with our friends at the DNC to make sure that this process continues to move forward. But the one thing I'll say about what we're looking at here, because we have multiple changes that we're making to the process, and going above and beyond what the DNC has asked us or told us that needs to be included in our delegate selection plan. And so we are committed to try getting through this process as soon as we can. We know we already saw this past week that we have candidates coming to the state, launching campaigns, we're going to have more of those in the weeks ahead. And so we are committed to doing that and making sure that our candidates know the rules of the road.

Yepsen: Question for both of you. Mr. Price, how are you going to handle the turnout? We're seeing record turnouts in every recent caucus cycle but you look at some of these crowds that are showing up for Elizabeth Warren or for President Trump when he's here, the floors are going to buckle in some of these caucus sites, right? What do you do about that?

Price: Well, from our standpoint that is one of the benefits of adding this non-present participation piece to our caucus process is that could help alleviate some of the crowds in the room. The other thing too though there are some structural things we can look at in terms of realignment, if we can make that easier and simpler so that folks don't have to wait around for three or four hours to get all the pieces done as well as the registration piece. But the thing that I'll tell you is that I'm confident that this is going to be a record setting caucus. We're going to have record candidates and record turnout.

Kaufmann: And to add to that, David, the complexity also are disabled Iowans, making sure in these various places that we are able to allow all people to vote and I know that's something that certainly doesn't separate Troy and I. It's going to take a lot more time and it's going to take a lot more planning. We cannot wait until the last minute to nail down these caucus spots.

Lynch: Troy, this week we saw something unusual, a potential candidate coming to Iowa to say I'm not running. Tom Steyer, a California billionaire said, instead of running for President he's going to spend about $40 million of his money on need to impeach, trying to impeach President Trump. Is that, from a democratic perspective, is that helpful or would that money be better spent helping candidates in 2020 whether at the state or federal level?

Price: Are you talking about Steyer's effort?

Lynch: Yes.

Price: Listen, I think that Mr. Steyer has been incredibly helpful to a lot of candidates. He was helpful to us in 2018 and I'm certain he's going to continue to be helpful in 2020. I'm not concerned about whether or not his resources are going there or someplace else is going to have necessarily a big impact, so long as we're engaging people, and that's really what this process is about is about engaging people around certain issues and certain ideas and certain candidates.

Lynch: By emphasizing that issue is he going to force some candidates into an uncomfortable position on that impeachment issue?

Price: Oh, I don't know, I haven't talked to the candidates about it so I really couldn't tell you that at this point.

Yepsen: Going back quickly to the caucus process, any talk about going to a primary? You hear this every cycle, those people are going to be standing in line on caucus night and say, we should have a primary.

Price: There are certainly some folks out there who have talked about that over the years, activists and caucus-goers and stuff like that, but we at the party are committed to keeping the spirit of the Iowa Caucuses.

Kaufmann: If I even entertain that conversation I need to be fired.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Tom Vilsack, the former Governor, is rumored to be considering a run for the U.S. Senate for the seat that Senator Joni Ernst currently holds. How likely is it that the former Governor will run for the U.S. Senate?

Price: Well, there's no question about it that Tom Vilsack is still an incredibly popular leader within our party. But I have not spoken to the Secretary and so I couldn't comment on that.

Henderson: When does he need to make a decision so if he doesn't run someone else needs to put a campaign together?

Price: Well, I mean, we're still fairly early in this process. We're still 22 months away from the election. So I think there's still a lot of time to figure out what the race is going to look like on the democratic side. But the thing that I will say is that democrats are committed to winning that seat and we are going to do everything we can and no matter who emerges from that primary I'm confident we're going to be able to defeat Joni Ernst.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: Sticking with senatorial elections, 2022 Chuck Grassley will be up for re-election, he has maybe dropped a few hints that he's thinking about not running. If he doesn't run who do the republicans have to put on the ticket?

Kaufmann: The thought of no Chuck Grassley in this state making decisions frightens me so much I'm going to pass on that question, James.


Lynch: But Jeff, we saw what happened when Tom Harkin announced his retirement sooner than a lot of people expected. Is the Republican Party ready? Are there candidates who can step in and play that game?

Kaufmann: Fair question. And yes, we have a bench, we have a bench that is looking at three congressional districts, we have a bench that will be looking at 2022 if the Senator, and I strongly believe that should be his decision, if the Senator ends up not running.

Yepsen: We have just a couple of minutes. Mr. Kaufmann, is Iowa going to be a battleground state? Is this going to be a tough state for the President? I'm thinking specifically of tariffs, farm bankruptcies, bankruptcies are going up now after several years of going down. How tough of a year do you expect this to be?

Kaufmann: The first Cook Political Report has just come out and we are leaning republican right now. But I have never said, and I never will even after a lot of good success, we are a purple state and we're going to have to work.

Yepsen: Mr. Price?

Price: I think it's going to be a very tough state for Donald Trump for the reasons that you just mentioned but also when you look at the 2018 result democrats beat republicans by almost 4 points at the congressional level, at the federal level and so folks are looking for a change in Washington and that's why if I was Joni Ernst I'd be scared right now and that's why if I was Donald Trump's campaign I'd be very scared about holding this state.

Kaufmann: I'd be talking to Kim Reynolds, she did pretty well.

Yepsen: We've got to go. Thank you both for being with us.

Price: Thank you.

Kaufmann: Thanks.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week when we sit down with Democratic Party leaders from the Statehouse, Senator Janet Peterson and Representative Todd Prichard. Also stay tuned next week for live coverage of the Governor's Condition of the State Address on Tuesday, January 15th at 10am and then the Inauguration of Kim Reynolds on Friday, January 18th at 9am. 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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