Political parties positioning for 2020 election success in the middle of the summer of 2019. We sit down with Iowa Political Party Chairs, democrat Troy Price and republican Jeff Kaufmann 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 politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 5 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Four years ago, nearly 16 republican candidates crisscrossed the state in addition to a trio of democrats. This summer, more than 20 democratic presidential candidates are organizing events, hiring staff and raising funds here in Iowa. But what does the caucus campaigning of 2019 mean for Iowa democrats and republicans gearing up for hotly contested races in the fall of 2020? To talk about it, joining us at the Iowa Press table are Iowa Democratic Party Chairman Troy Price and Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. Gentlemen, welcome back to the show.

Kaufmann: Great to be here.

Price: Great to be here.

Yepsen: Always good to see you. Across the table, Barbara Rodriguez covers politics for the Des Moines Register and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Price, there has been a debate, actually two of them, 20 candidates. What sort of a seismic shift has happened in the race after those debates?

Price: Well, it was really the first opportunity where candidates were able to be sized up right next to each other. And so we saw some changes after that. We had some candidates had good nights, some candidates had okay nights, some candidates wish they probably could have done a little bit better. But it's still early in the process. We're still 7 months today from the Iowa Caucuses and there's a lot of time between then and now and a lot of debates between then and now. So certainly we saw some changes after that, we've seen some people pop after that poll, but there's still a lot of time before caucus goers cast their votes.

Henderson: Are you comfortable with the way the DNC is managing the rules for these debates?

Price: I am. I think that they've done a good job. They laid out the process earlier, they have several debates I think lined up, more than what we had in 2015 and 2016. I commend Chairman Perez and the folks at the DNC for the work that they've been doing to try and keep this process fair. Now, there's some folks out there who object to how some of that has gone and, listen, some of them raise very legitimate concerns. But I think the DNC is trying to be very transparent about it, try to make sure that the candidates know early and these rules have been out there for a while, with the candidates anyway, make sure these debate rules are out there early so that folks know how to prepare and what to expect.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, in 2015 republicans had a series of debates. There seemed to be a flavor of the month candidate after each one of those debates. Are you concerned that the democrats are creating a sense of energy around these events and with all the candidates who are crisscrossing the state that may leave you at a disadvantage in 2016?

Kaufmann: Well, I think that energy definitely, it's infusing energy into the Democratic Party. But there is also a reverse effect too, it's also infusing energy into the Republican Party. When every single democrat, every single one on that debate stage raised their hands that they support providing health care, free health care, taxpayer funded health care, to illegal immigrants, that energizes the Republican Party, especially with an issue that pulls 59% of the country against it. So yes, I believe it does infuse energy in the Democratic Party, but it's also infusing energy into the Republican Party and giving us quite a few things to talk about.

Rodriguez: Mr. Kaufmann, just on that point of what you're talking about, I've seen some campaigns that have already started to talk about sort of socialism, a conversation over socialism. So is this what the 2020 cycle is going to look like? Socialism, socialism, socialism?

Kaufmann: Yeah, I think as long as they continue to put forth socialist policies, yes. I think, and that's not a manufactured term on the part of republicans. We're talking about several that are self-proclaimed socialists. There are democratic socialist clubs in campuses all over the state of Iowa. So the word socialism is not a manufactured term, it's a borrowed term from the candidates themselves.

Rodriguez: But just as a follow up to that point, some would argue that there are existing federal programs that would fall under socialism, subsidies for farmers. I'm curious what you think about the response to that?

Kaufmann: Well, I think there's a difference between long-term historical farm subsidies and promising free education, removing 200,000 Americans from their health care plan for Medicare for all, and the Green New Deal. We have taken this to an absolute brand new level and once again it might be hard for us to place that socialism label on these candidates, but many of these candidates are proclaiming that themselves. In fact, you even saw Governor Hickenlooper basically chastise people on the stage, his fellow democrats, for saying that socialism, or for proclaiming to be socialists. So you had somebody on the debate stage was pushing back on his colleagues about socialist policies.

Rodriguez: Mr. Price, actually just based off of what Mr. Kaufmann was just saying, you've got a lot of candidates running and you have some that have policies that one would argue are very to the left. Do you have a concern that that may alienate some independents for the general?

Price: No. No, what I think is happening right now is we're having a strong and healthy debate about policies and about ideas. And the one thing I'll say about this conversation is we're putting forward ideas, we're putting forward policies. After two and a half years of the Trump administration and the little policies they have put forward that have barely been able, or in many cases not been able to get support for passage, we're seeing what has happened in this country and people are living the effects of these failed policies every day. And so the other side is going to do everything they can to try and cast us in one way or another, but the fact is, is that our campaign or our candidates, our campaigns are putting forward real policies and we're having that debate right now and I think it's great. People are engaging in it and it doesn't matter what side of the issue you're on, people are really engaged in this conversation, it's why we're bringing more people into the party every day, it's why we're seeing so much energy and enthusiasm at events all across Iowa. I feel really good about where we are as a party, where this conversation is going and I think as we get closer to caucus day and through the primary into the general, people are going to see that it's the Democratic Party is the party that is fighting for them and putting forward policies that address the real issues facing Americans like health care, education funding and climate change and so many others.

Yepsen: I want to switch to a couple of issues that are currently in the debate. Mr. Kaufmann, you're a student of history, when have tariffs ever been a good idea for the Midwest?

Kaufmann: Well, I think tariff, the tariff policy is a response to longtime history of failed policies. Everyone agrees, even Chuck Schumer agrees, that we have an issue with our trade policy with China, there's no doubt about that. And if these tariff policies eventually work, and I believe they will, and I don't think that's just pie in the sky, I'm basing that on conversations I've had personally with the President of the United States, I believe tariff policies have focused, I believe will work. We've got a new policy that is sitting and languishing in the Iowa House right now, or in the federal House right now between Mexico, Canada and the United States and because of democrats in the House we're the last country that is going to, and hopefully, going to pass that. And so there have been times when tariffs have worked and have not worked. Long-term I think there's a historical argument that tariffs do not work. But short-term, look, the Mexican southern border is now guarded, has now been locked down by the Mexican government. Does anybody think that would have happened had there not been the threat of tariff policy?

Yepsen: Are you seeing any erosion among republican support in rural Iowa for the President because of his tariff policy?

Kaufmann: David, I'm actually not and the polls will prove that out. We have had journalists, primarily national journalists, but some state journalists, throughout Iowa trying to find that farmer that is opposed to the tariff policy. And you can find them, there's an organic turnip farmer in Johnson County I'm sure that doesn't like the tariff policy, primarily because he doesn't like the President. But overall I think the republican stronghold in rural Iowa is holding.

Yepsen: Mr. Price, China. What do democrats want to do to deal with the Chinese theft of our intellectual property?

Price: Well, there's a lot of different ideas out there and we're hearing those out on the campaign trail. But the one thing that we don't want to do is have this be a tariff war, a trade war, that is being waged on the backs of Iowa farmers. I mean, it's not just rural farmers that are affected, it's rural communities like where Jeff lives, where I'm from, that are affected by this. I've talked to several people out there, some of them my own family, who have seen a tough winter that they just had. That means people are pulling back, people are doing that. And so we need something different. Listen, I don't have the answers on Chinese intellectual theft. But our candidates are talking about it and that will be part of the conversation in this primary.

Yepsen: But Mr. Price, this country has come to this position because nobody has been able to figure out how you answer that question. The Chinese have been stealing our intellectual property for many, many years. President Trump is saying it's time that it stops. But he has taken now a path of tariffs, which usually aren't a good idea in the Midwest. Well, so what do democrats want to do about it?

Price: Well, again, I don't have the answers but our candidates are talking about it. There's a lot of different ideas about it. But the one way that, one thing I'll say about what we're currently having to deal with right now with what the President has proposed, a way to deal with it is to have a multilateral approach, work with our friends in Europe, work with our friends across the globe to come together and actually put together a policy that would help negotiate better deals. The President chose to go it alone and in the process has hurt thousands of farmers across this state. And that is just unacceptable. When you are out there, when I'm out there and I'm talking to folks, I was up in Dickinson County last month -- I was just going to say, they were talking about a farmer up there who now can't get operating funds, an operating loan, to cover their expenses and now is going to have to declare bankruptcy. This is what is happening on the ground out there, this is the real effect of it. And I would say to you the President has gone down this path, but what is the effect? It's still, nothing has been solved, nothing has been fixed. We've been in this for a year and a half now and farmers are still suffering, rural communities in Iowa are still suffering, but nothing has been fixed.

Henderson: Both of you gentlemen were in charge of your parties in 2018. That election exposed some problems for both of your parties. Mr. Kaufmann, you lost seats in suburban Iowa. How will you as a party win suburban women back, especially in an era when many of them are energized by the debate about reproductive rights?

Kaufmann: Several answers to that. First of all, I don't think we're going to, the republicans are never going to win Polk County. We're not going to win Blackhawk County in terms of in a statewide election situation. A couple of things, first of all, Joni Ernst is going to have coattails. Joni Ernst, the first female combat veteran in the United States Senate. Joni Ernst is a mom. Joni Ernst has a 57% approval rating. So Joni Ernst being one of two people, along with the President, at the top of our ticket I think is going ot be helpful with that. I think you look at microtargeting some of these difficult demographics. I would say not just females in the suburbs but also college educated, some college educated males. I think if you talk to them and the economic numbers do not, they don't lie, we can bemoan the fact that Donald Trump is President, we have got an amazing economy right now with record African-American, record Latino and record female unemployment.

Yepsen: Why isn't that showing up in his job approval ratings?

Kaufmann: I think there is some educating that has to be done. He has got a bombastic way of interacting, but he also has a way of getting directly to those individuals.

Rodriguez: Mr. Kaufmann, just on the fact that you brought up Senator Joni Ernst, she is seeking re-election and I've seen some stylistic changes in how she is looking to run this re-election campaign and some would argue that it brings up that conversation again about socialism or that some of the points that she's making align more with policy points that President Trump has made, not some of the things that you're highlighting about her. Why is that? And at the same time, we're talking about trying to get more suburban voters. How are you going to be successful in that if it's a message that aligns more with President Trump?

Kaufmann: Sure. If the sky is blue and Donald Trump says it's blue it doesn't necessarily mean that you automatically have to oppose it if you're a democrat. These are socialist policies, they are saying, the democratic candidates themselves are saying these are socialist policies. And so republicans who are opposed to socialism, who are in favor of capitalism, are going to point that out. Joni Ernst has also proven that she is a, she understands rural Iowa. I know Theresa Greenfield likes to pretend like she's in rural Iowa, she's an insurance executive that actually isn't making herself very available to the media right now. It has been a long time. So Joni Ernst is taking that message directly to the people and she has proven time and time again that she's not afraid to criticize this President if she believes that what he is doing is not necessarily helping Iowa. I think we have our cake and eat it too with Joni Ernst.

Henderson: Let me circle back to 2018 and the vulnerability found in the election results for democrats. You didn't do well in rural Iowa. How do you fix that?

Price: Well, I think we did better in rural Iowa than we have in the last few cycles. In fact, we improved turnout in 89 of 99 of our counties over the four years previous. And in fact, in a handful of counties improved it over 2016 levels. So we came, we took steps. The pendulum is swinging the other way. Now, we have more work to do. And so first of all, one of the things that we're doing is we've put staff on the ground earlier and we've got organizers in all four congressional districts right now, they've been to all 99 counties, are interacting there, making sure that we have the infrastructure in place. And then we're using these caucuses as the opportunity that they are, which is for us to really build grassroots organization. Our approach this cycle is not just going to build everything for February 3rd and then take off February 4th and wait until things kind of settle up for the general. We're starting the day after that and in fact, we just did two weeks ago, we just did a day of action in, we did 50 events with 58 different counties all across the state. And so we're going to continue to do that, we're going to continue to build and I think we're going to have great success on Election Day next year.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann mentioned a name in the context of the Joni Ernst re-election race. Theresa Greenfield. It appears that the folks in D.C. are sort of stepping on that race and trying to encourage others to drop out. Is that a mistake? Will you wind up with a Bruce Braley candidate if you do that again?

Price: Listen, I think primaries are good. I think we have a primary that has developed. And I think we're going to have, I said before any candidates were in the race that we'd have a spirited primary, I think we're going to continue to have a spirited primary. And I think our candidates are going to be better for it.

Henderson: So are you telling Chuck Schumer to knock it off?

Price: Listen, whatever the DS chooses to do is their choice. But from us at the Iowa Democratic Party we remain neutral in all primaries, we will continue to remain neutral in all primaries and we just want to make sure that whoever emerges from a primary is the best candidate going forward.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, what is the statute of limitations on farm cred?


Henderson: You mentioned that Theresa Greenfield, you're criticizing her for mentioning her connection to the farm. How long is that statute of limitations for claiming a connection to the farm?

Kaufmann: Well, my comments basically come from that attempt, rather sad attempt, of her to almost be a Joni Ernst mini me in her opening commercial. She was dressed like her, the setting was just like her. There's street cred if you grew up on a farm. But growing up in a farm in Minnesota and actually being a real estate executive in Des Moines, that's apples and oranges when you're comparing it to a lifelong history in rural Iowa for Joni Ernst. I don't think I'd ever imagined I would be quoting Eddie Mauro on this show, but I agree with Eddie Mauro, she's basically being picked by the Washington, D.C. insiders, according to Mr. Mauro, her competitor's press release yesterday.

Yepsen: Mr. Mauro is one of those challenging her in the primary. Go back to Barbara's question for a moment about Senator Ernst. Is there a different, do you notice a different emphasis in what she's doing this campaign as opposed to last? In the last campaign it was make them squeal and ride your motorcycle. And this campaign it seems like we're talking more about socialism and running with Donald Trump. Do you see a change in tone here?

Kaufmann: I was the MC at the Roast and Ride and I'm guessing that the phrase make them squeal came up at least 20 times in front of national press. No, Joni Ernst has a record now and we know, just like the democrats are hoping that we forget the great economy today, I think democrats are going to hope that we forget all of the bills and the success at passing bills that Joni Ernst has had. I think she is proactively just calling out what the democratic candidates are saying themselves, they are socialists.

Yepsen: Mr. Price?

Price: Well, I would say this, that she said she'd go and make them squeal and she has been down in the muck with all the folks in Washington, D.C., she has become a player in Washington, D.C. and within the party, with in the Republican Party. She is not, she might criticize the President from time to time, but her voting record certainly doesn't prove that.

Rodriguez: Mr. Price, just switching gears here for a bit, you mentioned the caucuses and organizing and I've been keeping an eye on the discussions over the virtual caucuses and there has been some preliminary approval for the rules around that on the national scale. How is that going? Because we've been seeing some reports of people expressing maybe confusion or what's to come or how is this all going to work. So how is that working right now?

Price: It's going well. We are in the process right now of putting all the pieces in place for it to be successful. We're creating an entirely new process. This is the first time that there will be digital participation in a presidential, in the presidential contest. And so it takes time to put all those pieces in place. We're working with vendors right now to finalize and trying to finalize those folks who will help us implement this. We're working with security experts right now to make sure that we have the protections that we need so that we don't have any foreign interference or outside interference in our process. We are in that process. Folks will be expecting, starting in September we're going to start a robust education program around all of this. But I will say we have been very transparent in this process. When folks have questions we answer them. In the month of May I think I did 30 different events across the state talking about what the changes are to the caucuses and we will have more information on that as we get into the fall and when we have more of our processes figured out.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, republicans will hold caucuses on the same night as democrats. You will have a Straw Poll. Are you using the same software to collect results? Are you mutually raising money for this process, for just the mechanics of it?

Kaufmann: We're still, anything we do in terms of reporting we would like to do together, and we're still in negotiations in terms of how we are going to do that, technology that we're going to use. If you remember from three years ago, actually three and a half years ago, the republican and the democratic parties did a lot of things together that we could. I think Troy and I, even though we disagree on maybe the merits of various candidates, I think Troy and I are in lock step in terms of making sure each other's caucuses go well.

Yepsen: One of the worst fates to happen to a state party chairman is to mess up the count on caucus night. I want to ask both of you, Mr. Kaufmann, can you assure people that the count, the republican count on caucus night will be fast and accurate?

Kaufmann: Based on 2016 as my proof, without hesitation I can promise that.

Yepsen: Mr. Price, same question to you. Is the democratic count going to be fast and is it going to be accurate?

Price: Yes.

Rodriguez: Just kind of moving along, Mr. Kaufmann, again with the congressional races I'm looking at the re-election campaign for Representative Steve King. You've got some republicans who have sort of severed ties with King and you've got now what appears to be a crowded primary. I'm curious whether you acknowledge that that presents maybe a dilemma if you've got a split within republicans?

Kaufmann: Actually, Barbara, I don't see it as a dilemma. We have been so adamant from 2014 when I became chair of remaining neutral that it's just another step in that neutrality. I would have been tested, well I was tested on that in the primary for the republican nomination for Governor. It looked like for a time I was going to be tested on that if Donald Trump had any competitors here. It looks like I'm not going to be tested on the latter. But we're going to be neutral and we're going to let them fight it out. The fourth district is going to have a chance to decide who is going to be the republican nominee and likely congressperson from that area.

Yepsen: But, Mr. Kaufmann, are you concerned as party chair that you're going to have a divisive primary? What is it, three, four way already? That's going to weaken the party in such that a democrat could conceivably pick it off?

Kaufmann: If the wounds do not heal, of course, every chair has got to be concerned about that. I think that Iowans, including Iowans in the fourth district, I think we're used to being voters that have to come together in the end. We've done that every single caucus season. I think as the party chair my role is to make sure that whoever wins that primary up there in the fourth district, I hope that the other three will be behind that particular candidate.

Yepsen: We've got just a minute left, Mr. Kaufmann. I want to ask you, it never ends in Iowa, are we seeing the start of the 2024 republican campaign in this state?

Kaufmann: I think people just like to see corn in the summer. I really do. No, of course, they're testing the waters. I will say this, every single candidate, and like Nikki Haley coming to Iowa, she came here and the vast majority of her speech was in support of the President's policies. So when you say 2024 I definitely think if there's any aspirations it's looking at that. I think 2020 is going to be supportive of the President and Joni Ernst. Joni Ernst is going to have some of these votes.

Henderson: Ben Sasse is back and you told him to stay on his side of the river. Is he welcome here?

Kaufmann: Ben Sasse is welcome here and I will agree with Senator Sasse where we have common ground. If he criticizes the President I might bite.

Yepsen: Mr. Price, Iowa has went for Trump in the last election. It is rated as a toss-up or lean republican this race. What is your take? How realistic do you think democratic chances are of carrying Iowa?

Price: I think very good. I think we have a very good shot at carrying Iowa and a lot of states here in the Upper Midwest. I mean, since the day the President took office his net approval rating has dropped 21 points here in the state of Iowa. He has been under water approval wise for over a year. I think people are seeing the effects of it, people are feeling the effects of his policies and they want something different in Washington.

Yepsen: And my approval rating is going to go down if I don't exit the show on time.

Kaufmann: Great transition.

Yepsen: Thank you both for being here.

Price: Thank you.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us. We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night, Noon on Sunday and anytime at Iowa PBS.org. 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.       

More from this show

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa