Republicans aiming toward 2018 face national fights while a republican majority and President in Washington balance tax reform amid federal investigations. Some Iowa republican perspective on this edition of Iowa Press.

Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS 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.      


For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 3rd edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.   

Yepsen: The blueprint for Washington republicans in early 2017 was aggressive. By this time of the year they planned to repeal Obamacare, pass comprehensive tax reform and weigh fresh infrastructure spending. So far they have fallen short in nearly every aspect of their agenda. And in D.C. there are factual fights between Steve Bannon and Mitch McConnell republicans. Here in Iowa, Governor Kim Reynolds assumed a role managing budget problems and hemorrhaging costs from the state's health care. So what is next for the governing party? Well, joining us to answer those questions are former republican candidate for Governor Doug Gross and Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition President Steve Scheffler. Gentlemen, welcome back to Iowa Press.

Good to be with you.

Yepsen: Good to see you again.

Thank you.

Yepsen: Across the table, Jason Noble is Chief Political Writer for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Gentlemen, I want to open the conversation, a simple question to both of you. We'll start with you, Mr. Gross. Is this now the party of Donald Trump?

Gross: Oh, it certainly is. You look at the numbers, Donald Trump gets 80% to 90% approval ratings from republicans. The one thing they're united on is being against democrats and being for Trump. That's kind of what unites republicans right now.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, same question, is this Donald Trump's party?

Scheffler: I would totally agree with that because republicans have grown frustrated with prior republican administrations who have not kept their promises and they're looking for somebody to shake up Washington and get us an agenda to save America.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, does that mean that the philosophy of republicans has changed on things like trade where President Trump has demonstrably different views than have been traditional republican orthodox?

Scheffler: Well, I think a lot of republicans have gotten sick and tired of all the nationalism and they're looking for fair trade deals with other countries around the world. And if you look at the map here in Iowa, Southeast Iowa traditionally democratic counties. Wapello, Lee, Des Moines County, Clinton County, Dubuque County, counties have been overwhelmingly democrat where Trump's message of getting America back on track again resonated with voters real well.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, when I told folks you were going to be on the show they said, ask him if he's still a republican.

Gross: Oh yeah, I'm a republican and proud of it.

Henderson: Why?

Gross: Why? I believe in limited government and I believe that government is not the solution to problems and the private sector is a far better generator of wealth and quality of living for people. So it's philosophical. Now, I indicated that we're the party of Trump. I didn't indicate that that's a sustainable effort long-term. I see Trump as sort of a throwback. And the question I really see us having probably a party that is composed of lots of different factions right now, traditional republicans, you've got people that are anti-market and frankly anti-international and then you have young millennials who frankly are almost libertarian. So we're sort of a coalition, as Paul Ryan says, without a parliamentary system. So that's why they're having such difficulty getting things done.

Noble: Mr. Scheffler, permanent members of your own party have raised some serious questions about President Trump, his leadership, his temperament. How do you respond to republicans like John McCain, Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, who are saying this guy is a danger to democracy?

Scheffler: Well, first of all, I think they were in shock when Donald Trump was elected. And as Phyllis Schlafly told me, we're looking for people to shake the system up and not the business as usual. And when people like John McCain and about six or seven other republicans promise to repeal Obamacare they ought to keep their promises. If they had no intention of doing that then they should have kept their mouth shut.

Noble: Mr. Gross, how do you respond to those criticisms that we're hearing from republicans about President Trump?

Gross: Well, any time that you have a former, your most recent President and you have a guy like Corker and you have someone like Jeff Flake and Ben Sasse, all who are very thoughtful people and are conservatives, indicate that they are appalled by the behavior of their republican President you know you have a problem. So my sense is there is discomfort within the Republican Party with Donald Trump about two things. One is about his style and two, about some of the substance of his policy positions, both of which I think are problematic for the party long-term. That being said, what unites republicans is their antipathy toward democrats and the fact that -- but what we shouldn't do is mistake the fact that democrats are so weak for our strength because we are not strong right now. We can't get anything passed.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, is Donald Trump still marketable to social conservatives?

Scheffler: Absolutely. If you look, as you well know 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump and he has done more for religious liberty, he has done more for personal freedoms, he has done more for the life issue than even Ronald Reagan did. So absolutely, he understands who brought him to the dance and he has done very well in trying to fulfill his promises, unlike a lot of republican Presidents of the past, including George W. Bush, who when the democrats said boo they bent over and they wilted. So I think people, conservative Christians are very excited about this presidency and what he has been doing.

Henderson: Mr. Gross, you are an attorney. What sort of legal exposure has occurred this week for the Trump administration given what we now know about Iowan Sam Clovis who was a member of the Trump campaign team and has testified before the grand jury?

Gross: I don't want to say that I'm on Bob Mueller's team or am a prosecutor because I'm not. That being said, what I observe is the fact that Mueller indicted someone who was participating in a meeting discussing Russia in a meeting where the President and Jeff Sessions sat is problematic for the administration. And where that leads frankly nobody really knows right now, but that is problematic, and that's what I think Mueller is focusing on.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, what are your thoughts on the state of the Russia investigation? And what sort of role will Sam Clovis have moving forward in Iowa politics?

Scheffler: I don't know. I think there's a lot of unanswered questions so I guess I'm not willing to go into territory that I'm not familiar with. But I think the bigger question here is the abuses of the democrats and particularly Hillary Clinton, Loretta Lynch and what was unveiled here just the last couple of days with Donna Brazile basically exposing what the DNC did. So I think this whole thing about the Russian being in cahoots with Donald Trump and his people is bologna and there's a bigger problem here that the democrats have got to deal with that's going to be hopefully exposed here real soon.

Henderson: Doug, did you have something to add? You sort of inhaled there.

Gross: I try to breathe while I'm on the show. No, I think that the point Steve is making is appropriate in that we really don't know what's going to happen as a result of this. All we do know is the Russians made a major effort to try to influence our election and probably in some respects did. And that is problematic for our country and problematic for us as a free society how we deal with that. So I think that's a problem for us.

Henderson: About Sam Clovis, what place does he have in the Trump administration moving forward and in the Iowa Republican Party?

Scheffler: Again, I really can't answer that. I don't know. I think we'll have to see how things shake out and I'm sure that the Trump administration will make an appropriate decision about whether to retain him or not. And what happens in Iowa politics, as you know, 24 hour days in politics is an eternity sometimes.

Yepsen: Do you really see any fallout from this in Iowa at all? It's a big deal story for a while in Washington but a year from now when we're headed into the November election is this going to amount to anything?

Scheffler: I'm on the road three and four nights a week and I'm on the phone six days a week talking with activists and I don't see any concern there. The overwhelming consensus I see among activists is they're not disgusted with Donald Trump and his administration, they're disgusted with republicans who made promises that they're not willing to fulfill.

Noble: Mr. Scheffler, do you see Donald Trump delivering on the agenda that he promised given that we haven't seen action on health care, on infrastructure, on tax reform?

Scheffler: Let's face it, he's trying to do that, but when you've only got a 52 to 48 majority in the U.S. Senate and you have these republicans that play these games it's very difficult. I would hope so. And I think they better understand getting closer to the 2018 election they better deliver on some of these things or they may pay the consequences and that will be not a real pretty picture.

Noble: Mr. Gross, what are the stakes of this tax reform discussion that's playing out now given the inaction on health care, on infrastructure, on some of these other agenda items?

Gross: It's everything for republicans. The one thing that you think would unite republicans would be tax cuts and tax reform and if they can't get together on that then to Steve's point they really failed the test of governance because they haven't been able to do anything on health care, they haven't done anything yet on infrastructure but tax cuts ought to be the easiest thing to do. That being said, it's anything but certain that they'll actually do it. So if they don't accomplish it what will happen will be there will be hell to pay in 2018 for republicans. First of all, you have a republican President who has 38% approval in his midterm of his first term. Usually that's a tough time for an incumbent party anyway. And then if you don't do anything you say you're going to do it will be a big year for democrats in '18 if we don't do that.

Yepsen: One reason that republicans are having, leaders are having some trouble getting this bill is there are still republicans around who care about the budget deficit. Mr. Scheffler, do republicans care about the budget deficit? Jeff Flake, some republicans are saying we can't support this if it blows a hole in the budget.

Scheffler: Absolutely. Bob Corker, I don't ever remember him talking about deficits too much until this time, until he has an ax to grind with the President. The bottom line is I think the economy will grow but we have got to have something in place with this convoluted tax system we have. If I had my wish we'd go to a flat tax, but of course that's not going to happen. But we have to do something to get the economy going.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, budget deficits? Debt?

Gross: Budget deficits and debt are important until you get in control, David. That's the history of both parties. During the Reagan years there was substantial deficits in order to implement the tax cuts early in his years and that fueled a strong recovery that lasted through the 1990s. I think the same thing would happen here if we passed this.

Henderson: Mr. Scheffler, Steve Bannon has indicated that he'll maybe encourage primary opponents of some of the U.S. Senators that are running for re-election. Do you expect any of Iowa's congressional delegation, obviously only the four congressmen are up for re-election in Iowa, do you expect any primaries there if there is inaction on tax reform?

Scheffler: Well I think they're going to try to do what they can do, our three Congressmen and U.S. Senator so I don't see that there's going to be any problem with them having primaries or at least any valid primaries. And I would hope that they'll be very picky about who they decide to primary because undoubtedly some people probably deserve a primary but not certainly the three Congressmen we have and our two U.S. Senators. Of course neither one of them are up this time. But I think they'll do what they can to deliver on tax reform.

Henderson: President Trump has already had a campaign style rally this past June in Cedar Rapids. What sort of groundwork is there in Iowa for the Trump 2020 campaign, Mr. Scheffler?

Scheffler: Well, as you know, the Republican Party is in the best shape it has ever been. Jeff Kaufmann is the best of the best, by the end of this year he'll have raised around $1 million, which will be a record for a non-election year or absent a Straw Poll. And so the Republican Party is actually in a very, has a very strong structure and so I think it's going to be a strong team going forward in 2020 and everywhere Jeff Kaufmann is he talks about the merits of this administration and is a big cheerleader and of course I think that in turn helps us in retaining our first in the nation caucus status too.

Henderson: And for viewers who might not know, Jeff Kaufmann is the Chair of the Iowa Republican Party.

Yepsen: Speaking of 2020, is Iowa still going to be first, Mr. Scheffler? I preface that question by noting that you're on the Republican National Committee studying the whole nominating process. So what is the latest on Iowa's status?

Scheffler: You never say never because going back about two years we had three successive RNC meetings where it was on the agenda at the rules committee meeting and anybody on the rules committee can put that on the agenda. And luckily, and hopefully by our salesmanship we were able to save that. So you never know what is going to come up. But I think of all the early states we're probably in as good a position as any of them. One, because of the superb way we conducted our caucuses last time. But in addition to the fact that the hole republican team from all of our republican elected officials to all of the party officials were on board with Donald Trump from day one. And Donald Trump actually said at I think two or three campaign rallies he wanted Iowa to stay first. And when Ronna Romney decided to run for chairman, when she called me soliciting my support before I could even get to that topic of conversation she said, I want you to know that I like Iowa and I like the status that they hold. So I feel cautiously optimistic. But you still have to make sure that you present your, or put your best foot forward and make that case. But I feel pretty confident.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, how about you? Are you confident Iowa is going to keep its first in the nation position?

Gross: I think we likely will for the same reason we have democracy, because it's a terrible form of government except for everything other, and where else are you going to start it? So it makes sense here so there's a lot of inertia associated with that. But what I'm concerned about, frankly, are some of the things some of our party leadership is saying with regard to inviting people into the state of Iowa to contest this. We should never be in a situation where we don't invite people into our borders to have discussions about the future of our party and the future of our country because that's the nature of Iowa. Everybody gets that chance to speak up. And frankly when a party chair of ours tells our neighboring Senator not to step foot in our state that hurts our ability to retain the caucuses in my opinion long-term.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, you're shaking your head.

Scheffler: I don't agree with that at all. First of all, Ben Sasse brought that upon himself. He repeatedly goes after the President. In fact, here this last week it got even more bizarre when he attacked Sean Hannity and Pastor Jeffress in Texas for Sean Hannity speaking at this church. So the guy is obsessed. And of course when it came to the NFL he again attacked the President talking about apparently the President and the flag is on one side and everybody else is on the other side. So, Mr. Sasse invites it upon himself and if he can't behave himself and get with the Trump agenda and start attacking the left as opposed to attacking our President then he has what he has coming to him. So I make no apology for that and I support our chairman full-heartedly for what he has done to those people that do those things.

Gross: I think it was a big mistake, it should not be done. We are a party that should be able to listen to all voices. This is not an authoritarian regime. This is a democracy and Iowa needs to be forefront of that.

Noble: Mr. Scheffler, so what is the Republican Party of Iowa position on the potential for a contested caucus?

Scheffler: Of course anybody can run but I fully expect the Republican Party, the whole State Central Committee and the committeeman and the committeewoman to be fully behind our President because he has done a great job. So, again, anybody can run, nobody said that they can't do that. But I fully expect our team to be on board and quite frankly if Iowa wants to retain our first in the nation caucus status we can't have people wandering off and supporting all these other fringe candidates. That's the bottom line.

Yepsen: Will Iowa be a fair, level playing field as it has been in the past? Mr. Scheffler?

Scheffler: Well, as you know right now we have all the members of the State Central Committee cannot endorse a candidate for President, that was last time, but I fully suspect that if Donald Trump runs for re-election that we will change that policy so that we are not bound to remain neutral.

Yepsen: So will the game in Iowa be fixed for the President? What's the point in other people coming here?

Scheffler: After all, David, he is our incumbent President, he has done a great job and, again, anybody can run that wants to run. I'm not saying that they can't run. But I would fully expect the party operation to be behind him --

Gross: But Steve, if they want to run and Iowa is first then they have to be welcomed into Iowa so they can run. We can't say you can't set foot in the state of Iowa and be open for the caucuses. That's a big mistake and that could cost us the caucuses long-term. That's a mistake.

Scheffler: No, I totally disagree. I totally disagree. When you have an incumbent President it's a whole different ballgame.

Yepsen: What about what was done in 1992 where President George Herbert Walker Bush was challenged by Pat Buchanan? The Republican Party of Iowa didn't even do a count. Now, will that be the way that Iowa plays the game in 2020? We'll have caucuses but we're not going to do a count?

Scheffler: I'm almost positive that we're going to have a Straw Poll where people's votes will actually be counted. I'm not concerned about that at all.

Noble: Shall we turn to some state level issues here? Mr. Gross, parties in power often lose seats in a midterm. What do you think the outlook is for the Statehouse, the State Senate, the Governor's race in 2018?

Gross: I think the Senate should be good, strong. If you look at the numbers it should be in good shape. Normally in an off year, as I said earlier, with an incumbent President your incumbent party will lose some seats so I think it's likely there will be some lost seats. A lot of this depends frankly on what happens nationally. There could be a wave that washes over this and really has impact if they don't get tax cuts done. In the House I think it's a little bit more difficult. They may have some retirements. A lot of that depends on the extent to which the democrats recruit good candidates. On the gubernatorial side I think it's likely that Kim Reynolds would be re-elected Governor assuming she gets through the primary, which I think it's likely she will, because we generally re-elect incumbents in Iowa. We've had a long history of that. That being said, I think she'll be tested this session and a lot of this will depend upon how well she does through the course of the session. She needs to show some strength in the session, some focus and something that she stands for and I think if she does that she'll be fine.

Noble: There certainly are some challenges facing this state with budget shortfalls, ongoing problems with health care, social services. What is the republican case for continuing to hold the Governor's Office and both chambers? Mr. Scheffler?

Scheffler: Well, first of all, if the democrats had their way we would have far larger budget problems because the democrats wanted to spend much more money than the republicans did. So it's going to be their job of course to look at the budget and make sure we live within those constraints. But you look at Kim Reynolds' record on the RFS, Renewable Fuel Standard, that was a real test of her leadership where she basically wanted the President to fulfill his promise and he did. So I fully expect that she is going to exert strong leadership here in making sure that we have a good budget.

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, I want to go back to Jason's question on sort of the handicap of how the midterm elections look to you in Iowa. Good? Bad?

Scheffler: I travel the state at events around the state, republican events, they're as well attended as they were last year in election year. People seem to be mobilized, people don't seem to be willing to want to sit out 2018. So I'm not sure that 2018 is going to be a bad set of circumstances after all because people fully understand, I think again it's not Donald Trump's fault, it's basically these republicans that refuse to get on board and that's who they're going to hold accountable. And so it depends, from race to race they may hold some people accountable, but I don't expect them to sit home on Election Day and say, let the democrats take control of everything.

Henderson: As the Republican National Committeeman from Iowa you're a member of the Iowa GOP Central Committee. Are you backing Kim Reynolds? You attended her campaign fundraiser on October 21st.

Scheffler: You know, if she had not been an incumbent Governor I would have undoubtedly not gotten involved in the race. But she is incumbent Governor, I was asked to endorse her and so without hesitation I did that. And, again, I don't have any qualms or any concerns about the Mayor of Cedar Rapids running against her. But I think she has done a great job and so I felt very comfortable in making that endorsement. And of course endorsements don't mean a lot, as you well know.

Gross: Except for yours, Steve.

Scheffler: No, no. When I've made endorsements some people aren't as happy with it. So people make their own decisions but I feel very comfortable with it and think she has done a great job. And, as you know, she is the first female Governor, but aside from that just on her credentials I think she has done a great job. She is the most well-prepared Governor in history to take over I think because she had a good mentor in Terry Branstad.

Henderson: Are you endorsing?

Gross: I'm not, I'm staying out of it. I have worked, frankly, with both of them on think tanks with both of them, Committee of '82 with Kim and Engage Iowa with Ron. I think we're lucky to have those two people because they're both, they care a lot about the future of the state of Iowa, they're very studious and they know the issues. So I think we're fortunate to have that. And frankly, I think a primary is a good thing. I think the democrats learned in the Senate race with Bruce Braley that you can rue the day that you don't have a primary and test your candidate. And I think it will help Governor Reynolds to actually be tested in a primary.

Yepsen: Jason?

Noble: There is a national conversation playing out right now on the topic of sexual harassment. I'm wondering, what do you guys think might be the political implications of that conversation here in Iowa given the settlement in a lawsuit involving the republican Senate caucus here in Iowa? Is that something that the republicans are going to have to answer to in 2018, Mr. Scheffler?

Scheffler: I don't know if people are paying much attention to it but it is a concern I think. I guess on a personal basis I think they should have probably dealt with those people earlier and dismissed them earlier. But again, I don't know all the circumstances. But sexual harassment in any form is totally unacceptable and you've got to live up to pay the consequences for bad actions. So it shouldn't be acceptable in the workplace period.

Yepsen: Mr. Gross, same question to you. How do republicans in the Iowa Senate, are they going to have to deal with this issue on the campaign?

Gross: Yeah, of course they are. Any time you use over a million dollars of public money to pay off somebody for a sexual harassment claim it's a problem. I expect to see it in a lot of the democrat's ads and while people may not be paying attention now they'll be paying attention then. So I think it will have negative impact.

Yepsen: We've got just a short amount of time left and I want to turn more to a big picture question. Is Iowa going back to being a republican state? You look at the profile, we've talked about some of this here of the republican voter and Donald Trump's coalition, older, white, didn't go to college, blue collar. You look at a profile of Iowa and that sort of describes the Iowa electorate. So I'm wondering, Doug Gross, is Iowa going to go back to being a republican majority state?

Gross: I think Iowa is a red state today and I think when you look at the margin Donald Trump had in Iowa it was greater than what he had in Texas. And so what you're having in the Midwest is culturally you have, the way you described it, David, is accurate, you have a profile of a citizen, of a voter, that fits the republican and particularly the Donald Trump mold better than it does the Hillary Clinton and democrat mold. The question is, is that sustainable? Because the concern about it, in my regard, a lot of those are older people, those are people where the economy is passing them by, are they really the future? And so that is my concern for the Republican Party. I think my question is how is the Republican Party today appealing to the millennials? How is it appealing to the young professionals that are going to be the future of Iowa?

Yepsen: Mr. Scheffler, about 20 seconds.

Scheffler: I think as long as we have continued strong leadership like Jeff Kaufmamn or people like him then I think the Republican Party will continue to make strides as we get the message out. So I wouldn't call it maybe a red state yet but certainly a dark pink and as long as we have the message right and we have the right candidates I think we'll --

Gross: Medium rare.

Scheffler: Yeah. -- continue on the right road.

Yepsen: This was a great conversation. Thank you both for being here. We're out of time now.


Yepsen: And thank you for joining our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week with another program. Des Moines Mayor Frank Cownie and Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart join our conversation. Now, with state volleyball coverage next week, catch us Friday night at 7:30 just on our .3 World channel and Sunday at Noon on our main Iowa PBS channel. Iowa Press also rebroadcasts on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.



Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS 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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