Reporters’ Roundtable

May 17, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4636 | Podcast



It's bill-signing season in Iowa. The Governor is taking action on bills that cleared the 2019 legislative session. And it's caucus campaign season with about two dozen democratic candidates competing for attention. Reporters are here to review Iowa's political landscape 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, May 17 edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: This past week, Governor Kim Reynolds signed legislation making sports betting legal in Iowa, perhaps this summer. Also, we have two more entrants in the democratic presidential sweepstakes in Iowa, both of whom are here right now. And joining me at the table today to talk about all things politics, Clay Masters, Morning Edition Host and Political Reporter for Iowa Public Radio and Erin Murphy, Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises Newspapers. Erin, let's start with sports betting. How soon?

Murphy: Yeah, the bill diagnosed July 4th but roughly sometime this summer Iowans should be able to place their first legal bets on sporting activities, games, on the college and professional level.

Henderson: There's also a fantasy sports component of that. Explain that part.

Murphy: Yeah, so it legalized all fantasy sports, games and betting, including on the daily fantasy sports sites. So if you're not familiar with those you might have seen commercials for things like Draft Kings and Fan Duel, if I have those right, and it's fantasy sports but instead of betting over a whole season you're literally placing new bets each day and those were not legal in Iowa, they are now.

Henderson: You and I sat through the House debate and there were critics of the bill, one of whom called it the greatest expansion of gambling in Iowa history. Supporters of the bill argued that it's going to set up this system whereby people aren't going to be bilked by bad actors. How is the politics of this, in your view, going to play out?

Murphy: It was interesting to see it play out and it wasn't one of those republican versus democratic issues. It was close, it was a contentious debate and vote, but it was very much a mixture of republicans and democrats. You noted some of the opposition and concerns and then some of the reasons people gave for supporting it. And now it's kind of in the hands of the state Racing and Gaming Commission, which already oversees dog and horse racing in the state. They'll be the ones regulating this. It's one of those things, it's kind of like the lottery, as long as there's no hiccups people don't worry about it too much, but when something bad does happen it gets a lot of attention.

Henderson: Okay, so I'm not going to go to some alley and place a bet with my bookie. How am I going to place a bet?

Henderson: You have two ways now. You can go physically to a casino, any of the state overseen casinos, and create an account there and place bets in the casinos that choose to do this, each one has the option. Or you can just do it online and that is where some of the biggest concerns came, and you mentioned the one legislator who talked about gambling expansion. All you have to do is pull up your phone, create an account and you can gamble online now. There's concerns about that and the old camel's nose under the tent thing, does that mean other entities, does the Iowa Lottery now come back and say, hey we want to have online gambling too, you let it happen for sports betting, we want it too. And does it get to a point where we literally have casinos in our back pockets?

Henderson: Clay, full disclosure, I don't have a bookie. Maybe I should clarify that before we move on. But, you grew up in Nebraska. How will this play in the Omaha, Council Bluffs market in your view?

Masters: Well, I think that Council Bluffs is going to be a big benefiter here in that there's going to be a lot of people that live in Omaha or even Lincoln is not too far away from Omaha, there's going to be a lot of interest in people crossing the Missouri River to spend some time in Council Bluffs. So we'll watch.

Henderson: There was also a disputed election in Northeast Iowa in 2018 that spawned some legislative reaction and the Governor this week signed a bill that makes some changes in absentee ballot process. Clay, will voters notice?

Masters: Not really unless we have another one of these closely contested elections like we saw with Michael Bergen and Kayla Koether, the democrat who was challenging the few postmarked ballots. There won't be a lot seen unless we have another one of these really close contested elections. What this bill or law now does is it makes it so counties have to, election officials have to actually have this bar code and right now only a handful of Iowa counties have been doing it. This is so that they can look at data for when these were postmarked, when they were sent in, and so again, yeah, nobody is really going to notice unless we get to some razor thin election again, in my view.

Henderson: Erin, there's a bill that may be noticed that was signed into law by the Governor this week, if you own an electric vehicle you may notice. The Governor approved a new registration fee. What's driving this?

Murphy: Yeah, and that's a way of getting at, so electric vehicles becoming more and more popular and prominent and the benefit obviously is that they're using less gasoline, which means less fossil fuels, less pollution. But the tradeoff for states and governments is they're using less gas, which means they're buying less gas, which means less gas tax revenue which is going to the state, which cuts down on that revenue and makes it harder for them to keep up the roads that these electric cars are driving on just like everybody else is. So the fees are a way to an attempt to offset that loss in the gas revenue so that drivers of electric cars are still contributing in a way that helps governments keep up the infrastructure, keep up the roads. The concern that people had is that you're punishing people for using something that is good for the environment, but supporters of the fee say, but we need that to help keep these budgets whole so we can keep our roads safe.

Henderson: The Governor still has a few bills to sign. We may be back at this table talking about some of that activity in future days. But let's shift to Iowa's congressional races. Clay, let's start with the first. There was a candidate who announced with a video this week. Tell us about it.

Masters: Yeah, Ashley Hinson, she's a legislator in the Statehouse legislature. She announced she's running. She's a former TV news anchor in that district and her video that unveiled her candidacy, she introduced herself again, remember me, I was on TV once upon a time. And she also took the opportunity then to kind of pivot and start talking about socialism. This is something we're hearing President Donald Trump talk a lot about in his campaign against whoever the democratic nominee is going to be for the presidential race. And you saw in her video attacks on Abby Finkenaur, the Congresswoman, her face was showing up there, but so was AOC and so was Bernie Sanders and so was I think Nancy Pelosi was in there too. So you're already seeing a congressional district race here that is going to get targeted going after some of the same kind of hits that they're trying to go after at the national stage. And so I think we're going to see that just kind of play up more and more.

Murphy: Yeah, I would say get comfortable, get used to hearing that word from republicans. I'm working on a story right now talking about some of these House races and the national republican that I talked to for the story I think dropped that word at least a handful of times in about a span of three answers to some questions. So it's clear that one of the tracks that republicans are going to take in this is trying to draw a contrast and claim that these democratic policies are going to harm the U.S. economy by calling them socialists.

Henderson: Abby Finkenaur, democrat from Dubuque, is the incumbent in the first. Might there be a rematch with republican Rod Blum, the two-term Congressman that she defeated?

Murphy: Also from Dubuque. He hasn't ruled it out yet so we're kind of waiting to see on the Congressman. I know republicans like Ashley Hinson as a candidate so I don't know if there's any moving behind the scenes to clear the field for her. Given that Rod Blum has already served in this office and was beaten in the last election maybe they'd like to see a new candidate take on Abby Finkenaur rather than have a rematch. But as of right now we're all kind of waiting to hear from Rod Blum. He has not ruled it out yet and he remains active on social media, he is maintaining something of a public presence so it's not out of the realm of possibility yet.

Henderson: We have news in the second congressional district this week, Erin, in that a candidate rumored to be thinking about running is running. She released a video. Tell us about her.

Murphy: Yeah, speaking of possibly clearing the field, Rita Hart is going to run for the democratic primary in that second district. She is a former State Senator, represented that area in the State Senate, so she is fairly well known in that district, well liked within the Democratic Party. I don't think the party is actively doing this, I think maybe just the field is going to clear for her. I don't know that she will get a primary challenger. I think it's more likely than not that Rita Hart will be the lone democrat in that race and the nominee. That still could change, but at this point it looks like she'll be the one running to try and keep that seat blue.

Henderson: Clay, Rita Hart was the Democratic Party's nominee in 2018 for Lieutenant Governor. I remember Monica Vernon was the Democratic Party's nominee for Lieutenant Governor in 2014. Does running a statewide race benefit you in name recognition in that respect? I mean, what is your view of Rita Hart's chances here?

Masters: Yeah, I think it does, and a reminder that the second congressional district, this seat is opening up because Congressman Dave Loebsack has announced that he's not going to be running for re-election. And I really do think that gave Rita Hart more of a statewide platform because she was out campaigning a lot with Fred Hubbell, the democratic nominee for Governor, and there was not a debate that people saw but it's not like debates are getting Super Bowl ratings as people watching them. But her name is out there. Her name was on campaign signs in people's front yards and she was making that announcement video leaning up against a planter playing up those rural farm votes and roots and I think that kind of works to her advantage as well pulling some more of the rural votes that democrats are really going to be courting here in the 2020 run-up.

Henderson: Clay, you covered the Cindy Axne, David Young race in 2018, which Cindy Axne won, one of Iowa's first two Congresswomen. David Young two weeks ago announced he was going to run. What do you see as the landscape in that district? Axne won by virtue of winning Polk County.

Masters: Yeah, she won by virtue of winning Polk County, but watching her out on the campaign trail running for that seat she did a good job connecting with voters while she was out on the trail, much more than candidates in the past have done for the democrats in that seat, but so did David Young. I talked to so many people when he was running for re-election this most recent time that had voted for him in the past and planned to but didn't even know if he was a republican or a democrat. There was some of that, he was really good at connecting with voters, but he has also got a primary challenge likely. Zach Nunn, a state lawmaker, is going on a listening tour. So I wouldn't be surprised to see him announce at some point. And it's going to be another competitive race I think no matter who gets that seat to represent the third district, Council Bluffs, Des Moines and Southwest Iowa.

Henderson: Erin, last Saturday night you and I were in an auditorium listening to republican Congressman Steve King and the three republicans who have emerged to say I will challenge him in the 2020 primary, speak to a group, the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition. What did we learn?

Murphy: This has been really interesting to watch unfold and I think we've even talked about it on this show in the past, some of the establishment in Iowa republican politics is rallying to a certain degree around some of the other people in this field, State Senator Randy Feenstra in particular. It seems like republicans might be interested in having someone else represent the fourth district.

Henderson: Which republicans?

Murphy: Well, again, at the leadership level you get that sense. Former Governor Terry Branstad donated to Randy Feenstra's campaign. Governor Kim Reynolds right after the election said that Steve King needs to kind of do an introspection and decide who he wants to represent. But you mentioned that event, you look at the grassroots level, the voters, the people of that district, Steve King far and away got the most applause that night, he got multiple standing ovations. The people who are going to go and pull the levers in this primary are not necessarily leaving, especially in a primary, he got challenged sincerely in the general election but that brings in a whole other mix of voters. In a republican primary in that district there aren't huge signs yet that people are moving away from Steve King in that district. There's a lot of time to go. We'll see.

Henderson: Well, let's mention the person who challenged Steve King and came within three votes, three percent of defeating him, J.D. Scholten. On this program last week a democrat said, hey J.D., make up your mind, either challenge Steve King or run for the Senate. What do you think the prospects are in that regard?

Masters: Well, we were talking about the primary race in the fourth district and I think that there are a lot of democrats that would kind of like to see a rematch between Congressman Steve King and J.D. Scholten and coming as close as he did. J.D. Scholten of course a former baseball player surprised many with the performance that kind of came out of nowhere and he has this non-profit where he's trying to raise awareness for the earned income tax credit and when he announced it at the Capitol I remember there was a lot of oh, this the moment that he's going to announce that he's running for Senate, or what is this? And he said at that announcement that he was going to be appearing with a lot of presidential candidates touting this earned income tax credit and how people can sign up for it. And so it was seen as a way to try to bolster his cause, but at the same time too he's getting his name out there, trying to show people in Iowa that I'm still here. And I think that could continue to be him trying to figure out if he's going to run for the fourth again, see how that field shakes out, and then also we're all kind of waiting to see how the Senate race is going to shape out for Joni Ernst's seat.

Murphy: And I think that is the one where maybe democrats would like to see a decision sooner rather than later because of the Senate race because that's going to be a big money race. Whoever is going to run for the democrats is going to have to raise a lot of money and the clock is ticking on that already.

Henderson: Speaking of decisions, we had a couple of democrats this week announce they have decided they're running for the U.S. Senate. Erin, are those household names?

Murphy: For the U.S. Senate or for President?

Henderson: For the U.S. Senate.

Murphy: I'm not sure who you're talking about so --

Henderson: Mr. Mauro, who ran for Congress in the third district, has announced that he is running and Kimberly Graham, who is a Des Moines attorney, has announced that she is running.

Murphy: So I guess that answers your question. A, I had actually not heard that, I'm getting news here on the set. And I'm not familiar with either of those candidates.

Henderson: Well, let's move onto presidential politics then. Clay, you've covered house parties that these candidates have. And what strikes me as so interesting is that the homeowner opens their house to have this campaign essentially invade their living room, their kitchen, wherever, and they haven't really decided that that's the candidate they're voting for. What does that tell us about how undecided Iowa voters really are at this point?

Masters: It tells you that Iowa democratic voters are engaged, those that want to be political active and they are engaged enough that they're going to just bring them into their home. You talk to voters at different campaign events and they can tell you a list of people that they are thinking about caucusing for and it just speaks to the large field that we have of 23 candidates that are running to try to be the democratic nominee. And people on the campaign trail, voters, they're talking about climate change, they're talking about health care, and they're looking for specifics of what these candidates are saying that they like about it. And I think a lot of what you're hearing from the democratic voters that are opening their doors or just going into other people's houses to hear from these presidential candidates is kind of despair, somebody needs to be able to take on this role to run against Donald Trump and their minds aren't made up.

Henderson: Erin, two folks announced this week that they're joining this long list of candidates.

Murphy: These two I know.


Henderson: Anyway, this is a compare and contrast moment, these two gentlemen. As they enter Iowa this weekend what are Iowans going to see in Bill de Blasio, the New York City Mayor, and Steve Bullock, the Montana Governor?

Murphy: Yeah, Steve Bullock, the Governor of Montana, expansive rural state versus the Mayor of the biggest city in the country. It will be an interesting contrast. Governor Bullock is definitely stressing his experience as a democratic Governor in a red state. Trump won Montana comfortably, the state legislature there is roughly two-thirds republican and he talks about being a democratic Governor in a state like that, not only just being the Governor but enacting some progressive policies. He has really stressed that, whereas Mayor Bill de Blasio will be here maybe defending against the headlines that have come out since his announcement that seem to suggest he's only running for president because he's tired of being Mayor of New York City. So I'm sure not the headlines he wanted for his campaign rollout.

Henderson: Clay, I've heard you joke that they're always here. Despite the fact that these roughly two dozen candidates are spending a good deal of time chatting with Iowans, Joe Biden spent relatively few hours in the state, but his lead seems to be growing. Why?

Masters: Well, I think that kind of gets to overanalysis of the polls. Right now it's still very early and polls provide you a good snapshot of where things stand in a race in a state. The national polls you can kind of take a pulse of where Americans are, but those early state polls like Iowa and like New Hampshire are the ones to kind of keep your eye on. Of course people remember Joe Biden, he was just Vice President not too long ago for eight years. Of course people remember Bernie Sanders, he gave Hillary Clinton a run for her money in the primary in 2016. So I'm kind of continuing to just watch where these other candidates kind of jockey for those lower positions because this is, you're looking for a time to really shine and if you really hit a momentum early on we still have like eight and a half months to go and you can't, it would be hard to maintain it for that long.

Murphy: And I was going to say, it's easy for us to forget because we follow this, we live and breathe this 24/7, 365. But we're still very early in this process. As you noted, two more candidates, hopefully the last two, just got into the race this week. So a lot of the candidates are still very much in the introductory phase. A lot of Iowa democrats are far from making up their minds. So, as Clay said, polls are a snapshot in time and there's plenty of time and very much a likelihood that that polling will move.

Henderson: Well, we don't have much time left but we have about three minutes. Erin, on the Twitter-verse I see people asking why are so many people running? What's the value of running if you don't really see a clear path to victory?

Murphy: There's a couple of things. One, it's easy to run in Iowa. It's not expensive. There's not, even though Vice President Biden served just a short time ago there is a sense that there's not a clear leader nationally of the Democratic Party so there's no one  who steps in and clears the field, even the former Vice President, so there's wide open opportunity there. And there's some, especially in the bottom tier candidates who maybe are just doing this to elevate themselves, sell a few books, get their names out there, there may be a little bit of that going on as well.

Henderson: Clay, you mentioned that voters are asking these candidates at town halls about climate change, about Medicare for all. One of the things that they're not being asked about and the candidates aren't really talking a lot about, trade policy. That is a lot of the conversation in the political atmosphere in Iowa. Is that because some of these democrats actually agree with President Trump on trade?

Masters: Well, you saw Chuck Schumer issue a statement that seemed supportive of some of the trade policies that Trump is doing. But at the same time too China, I can remember talking with former Governor Terry Branstad as he was going to become U.S. Ambassador to China, saying when Donald Trump would come I made sure that he wouldn’t say anything bad about China. There's a really good relationship for agricultural exports and so it's coming up here and again every once in a while but I think it's something you might see heating up more and more as there become more and more issues with tariffs and trade down the line.

Henderson: Erin, does it strike you that the critique of Trump on trade from these democratic candidates is more about style than substance?

Murphy: Yeah, one of the more interesting takes I heard on this was actually from Tom Vilsack, the former Governor and USDA Secretary, who said, I get that we need to go after China and fix this stuff, but he was critical of the way the Trump administration is doing it, the whole policy by tweet and going it alone, not building a coalition first. So there are democrats who admit, yeah, we need to do something about this. They're more critical of the method that the administration has used.

Henderson: We have one minute left. Clay, I'll ask each of you, what has surprised you thus far?

Masters: I guess just going back to all these candidates. We knew there was going to be a lot. But it seems like every week I'm saying something in the morning news about another candidate. And it's just like, at some point isn't this going to stop?

Henderson: Erin?

Murphy: I think, and to kind of work off of that, the enthusiasm that has been able to be maintained by the democrats, I was just this morning, Friday morning at an event with Governor Bullock, one of his first ones, a little coffee shop in Newton and more than 50 people packed into the little coffee shop on a rainy Friday morning. A lot of interest, a lot of enthusiasm despite this expansive field, despite the endless opportunities. They have these events are filling up and democrats are engaged and active and it's going to be an interesting process to watch play out.

Henderson: Gentlemen, thanks for your insights. And thank you viewers for your interest in this topic. Join us again next week at our regular times. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm Kay Henderson. 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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Associated General Contractors of Iowa