Reporters’ Roundtable

Jul 26, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4646 | Podcast | Transcript


Caucus campaigning reaches a fever pitch in Iowa as picnics, forums and speeches fill the political calendar. And 2020 state races are taking shape too. We get a campaign trail update on this Reporters' Roundtable edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, July 26 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: Caucus campaigning during an Iowa summer has a familiar combination of sights, sounds and smells as more than 20 presidential candidates descend on our state for picnics, parades and forums. The hardworking Iowa Press corps tags along. And the state races are taking shape too. To talk about it all we're joined today by a trio of Iowa political reporters who have spent much of their summer on the campaign trail. James Lynch covers politics for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Brianne Pfannenstiel is Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa. Good to see you all. I counted up the travel you folks have been doing. I think around this table there has been a half Grassley of traveling around Iowa.

Henderson: Likely, likely.

Yepsen: Let's have everybody weigh in on a question. How is Trump doing? New York Times Columnist Nate Cohn ranked Iowa as a toss-up state. Up until now it has been pretty much leans republican. So Kay, what do you think? How is Trump doing in Iowa?

Henderson: Well, he seems to be tending his fences. He has come here in June and helped the party raise money. His daughter, Ivanka Trump, was here last week to do an event with Governor Reynolds. And the Vice President has been here three times in the past couple of months. So perhaps they have some internal polling in the Trump campaign that shows that this may be a toss-up state.

Yepsen: Brianne, how do you think the President is doing here?

Pfannenstiel: Well, if we look just at his base he's still doing really well here. When you talk to people who are Donald Trump supporters, who were Donald Trump supporters in 2016, you really don't hear a lot of flipping going into 2020. Our latest polling shows his job approval rating at about 80%, which is pretty strong for him here in Iowa.

Yepsen: James, how's he doing?

Lynch: Well, on one hand I don't think Bill Weld or Mark Sanford have made any inroads in the Iowa GOP. On the other hand, I think there's a big question mark in Iowa about the Obama/Trump voters, the people who voted for Obama twice and then flipped to Trump in 2016. The question is, are they going to stick with Trump? Do they feel like he's made progress draining the swamp? Is he listening to them? Or are they looking for an alternative, someone who is going to be the opposite of Trump? And I think that's an open question and we're not going to know the answer for quite some time. There's not a whole lot happening on the republican side at this point so it's hard to judge the mood of those republicans and how enthusiastic they are. I think we're going to have to wait until next year to get a good feel for that.

Yepsen: It seems that the challenge remains the same whether Iowa leans Trump or whether it's a toss-up state right up there with Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania. The republicans have to find some way to get to suburban women and democrats have to find a way to get to rural voters and that is going to be determining what happens in this state in the next year. James, let's switch to the mood of the electorate. What kind of mood are people in? You're getting around.

Lynch: I think people generally are in a good mood. But I think we're at that stage in the campaign where it's all mood and maybe not a lot of substance. Democrats are very enthused and they've got 20 people coming and talking to them and asking them for support and there's just a lot to be excited about. We just came off the corn feed, we've got the State Fair coming up, all these sorts of events that really feed into that, help build the energy of the party. On the republican side, as Brianne said, their polling shows that the base is sticking with the President. But there aren't events really going on so it's hard to judge how excited they are and how enthused they are. You have to kind of look in the margins at issues like tariffs and some of the other, immigration, and some of those issues that Trump has ran on or has policies enacted and see how that is affecting Iowa voters.

Yepsen: Kay, you keep an eye on farm country for Radio Iowa. What is the effect of those tariffs?

Henderson: Well, the effect has been significant in terms of the bottom line for farmers. But heretofore it hasn’t been significant in the effect on Trump support in farm country. People are still in favor of him. If you look at these things like a sports team, which sometimes we do, republicans are all in for their team and democrats are all in for their team. And at this point occasionally on the campaign trail I will run into an independent or undecided voter but that's very, very rare. So I think we're going to, as James mentioned, wait until next year to see if you have a big shift in the middle voter.

Lynch: I think there is subtly republicans are playing defense, as Kay mentioned, the visits by the President and Vice President and Ivanka Trump. But if you notice almost every day it seems like Chuck Grassley or Joni Ernst is talking about the importance of the USMCA, the trade agreement between Canada, Mexico and the United States. And in the absence of at least the appearance of progress on a U.S./China trade deal they're pushing that every day, every day talking about the USMCA. And of course Canada and Mexico are Iowa's biggest trade partners.

Yepsen: It's hard to predict an election when you don't know who the democrats are going to field just yet. So let's turn to that question in the caucuses. I want to hear from everybody on this. Handicap the caucus race on the democratic side. Brianne?

Pfannenstiel: Well, one of the firm metrics that we got just recently was fundraising numbers from a lot of these campaigns. And so Pete Buttigieg obviously did very well. There was a lot of reports ahead of time that he was doing fundraisers and it was expected that he was going to do well. Someone who kind of came out and surprised people was Elizabeth Warren. She raised $19 million even though she had kind of eschewed these closed door fundraisers, these high dollar fundraisers. And so that I think is really a validation of this approach that she's taking and that early on was in no way obvious that this was going to work. And so here in Iowa she has got a lot of momentum right now. Her field staff is still among the top. When you ask people who's active here, who are you hearing from, who is out in your community, the Warren campaign is always right at the top.

Yepsen: Yeah, I see she was in Sioux County. Not a lot of democrats up there but still, a few.

Pfannenstiel: A few, I think 8% of registered voters there are democrats so she found a couple of them.

Yepsen: Kay, what's your analysis of the caucus race?

Henderson: You definitely have two tiers of candidates. You have former Vice President Biden, you have the two Senators, the aforementioned Warren and Kamala Harris and then you have Buttigieg. And then you have this sort of midlevel group of people who maybe could move up. You see kind of a Cory Booker in there. He has a great Iowa organization but hasn't really shown anything in terms of polling data yet that that's paying off. And then you have people, the rumors are their staff has told them to get out of the race and they're resisting this. And they're just sort of waiting on for this Iowa moment thinking that maybe they'll be the next Jimmy Carter. And given the extent of how many people are in this race and the names, the very recognizable now names at the top for democrats, I'm not sure waiting for the Jimmy Carter moment is something that's going to pay off for those people down in the bottom of the polls.

Yepsen: James, how do you see it?

Lynch: I think the Iowa Caucuses are Joe Biden's to lose. If you look at all the polling he's ahead, sometimes he's not ahead by very much, sometimes by wider margins. But then you have this race like who else is in there. There's only like four or five people in double digits in most of these polls. You've got Biden, Sanders, Warren, Harris, sometimes Buttigieg, sometimes -- but there's only a handful. So it's a top tier of candidates but even among them there's separation. Everybody is waiting for that breakout moment, something to happen where boom, whether it's the State Fair soapbox or it's the next debate or whatever, that they get some attention and with 20 people if they have anybody on their staff who is a realist they know their odds are long.

Yepsen: Biden is in the position Mondale was in, in '83. Will he win? And will it be big enough? And if he does, who comes in second or third? And in '84 it was a guy named Gary Hart, so a somewhat similar moment. Kay, you were busy with a project last week with AARP and the Des Moines Register. You and Kathie Obradovich moderated forums in five communities in Iowa.

Henderson: Correct, over six days, 17 candidates. It really showcased the debate that is going on within the Democratic Party about Medicare for all and how far the party should go in proposing universal health care. You have sort of more moderate voices in the party led by Joe Biden who are suggesting a public option be added to Obamacare, the Affordable Care Act. And then you have folks at the other end of the spectrum, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, saying let's get rid of private insurance and let's go full bore on Medicare for all. And everyone else is sort of trying to navigate that. And parts of the party are very, very enthused by the idea of Medicare for all, parts of the party are very worried about Medicare for all. And so it was a really interesting dynamic to watch how the audiences, which all were made up of AARP members, responded to all the candidates.

Yepsen: Did anybody do particularly well? Did anybody do particularly poorly?

Henderson: Well, again, I think what you saw reflected on the performance on stage was the position of the candidate within the tiers that we mentioned before. The frontrunners you could clearly tell they were frontrunners for a reason. They have a dynamism about them, a presence. And some of the folks at the bottom of the pack you can see why they're at the bottom of the pack.

Yepsen: Brianne, an event coming up here in a few days are the next round of debates. What do these candidates have to do in those debates to do well in Iowa? It strikes me that these debates are really big events in Iowa because every caucus goer watches them. So who has got to do what here in this state?

Pfannenstiel: Well, as we've been talking about, everybody is looking for their breakout moment. We look at Iowa as the place to winnow the field and these debates have really upped the ante a little bit of who is going to make the stage this time and next time. And so these candidates really need their moment. And we're nearing kind of the end of this phase where they can credibly get that moment. This is the last debate where we're going to see 20 candidates. Next time that's going to be narrowed substantially. So even among the frontrunners they're looking for a chance to stand out. Kamala Harris had her big moment with Joe Biden last time. And what I'm hearing from voters here in Iowa, potential caucus goers, is that they want to see in their candidate that they can go up against Donald Trump. So it wasn't so much that Kamala Harris had the winning position on bussing necessarily. They liked that she had that presence and they could see her in that moment being on a debate stage with the President. And so I think they're looking for that in Joe Biden, they're looking for that in Senator Warren and Senator Klobuchar, all of these kind of top tier candidates needing to have that moment to feel like I could take on the President. That's what Iowa caucus goers are looking for.

Yepsen: Senator Harris had her breakout moment by taking after Joe Biden. Now, that lesson has been learned by all the other candidates. So do we expect to see Joe Biden become a punching bag in this debate with 19 other people pounding away on him trying to have their breakout moment?

Pfannenstiel: Well, say that Joe Biden is in between Kamala Harris and Senator Cory Booker and so today when Joe Biden put out his plan for criminal justice reform we saw a very quick response from Cory Booker saying, he didn't name the Vice President, but it was very clearly he was not impressed with this plan. And so the Vice President is going to be between both of these Senators who are potentially going to be looking for that moment.

Lynch: Sometimes when we talk about the breakout moment we think about those second tier or lower candidates. But Joe Biden needs a breakout moment. After his first debate performance he's the one that really needs a breakout moment. He has to be very strong and if he doesn't do well in this debate I think his support is going to be even shakier.

Yepsen: Yeah, more questions about is he too old.

Henderson: The other thing is as soon as this debate is over they need to get on a plane to Iowa. Several of them have already scheduled events here. If you’re going to have a moment and you're going to build upon it you need to be here to sort of build on that momentum. That's what happened with Harris last time around. She was here over the Fourth of July holiday and people were turning out, they had watched her on television, they came to watch her to see if she was like that in person.

Yepsen: James, it has been mentioned that many of these candidates, most of these candidates in fact are at 1% or less. Eric Swalwell dropped out of the race. He read the numbers and said magic is not happening. Who else do we expect or are you hearing about may be on life support here?

Lynch: Well, about 12 or more candidates. But we hear rumors that Delaney's staff is telling him to drop out. He has vehemently denied that. We've heard that Hickenlooper's staff have told him maybe he should look for something else. Beto O'Rourke's fundraisers are going elsewhere. There's a lot of rumors that Kirsten Gillibrand will be the next one to drop out. And this is part of the caucus cycle where you have the campaign and then you have the rumors about who is doing badly and who's not raising money. We have the fundraising report so we know where everybody is at. I think we're going to get a good sense of who is in and who is out when it comes to that qualifying for that September debate.

Henderson: And the last hoorah may be the soapbox series that Brianne's newspaper sponsors during the State Fair. That has been a showcase for candidates in the past. Some of them have had sort of a standout moment standing on the soapbox, if you will. And so a lot of them will look to that and see if they can capitalize on that. I think we're going to have some decision making around the turn of the, of August into September.

Yepsen: Brianne, we used to say Iowa winnows the field. Isn't the Democratic National Committee and its debate rules winnowing the field? If you're not on the debate, you're not. And so has the Democratic National Committee sort of superseded Iowa as the place where you winnow the field?

Pfannenstiel: Well, they have certainly come in and taken a position that they need to be involved in this, that there are so many candidates that it behooves the party to help narrow it down more quickly. And that might be meaningful for Iowa that on caucus night there are maybe 15 viable candidates instead of 25 and that the results therefore are more meaningful. So I still think we're going to learn a lot from Iowa and I still think Iowa does a lot just by who is gaining momentum here. That determines who is going to be on the stage, right, is the results of those polling and the fundraising numbers. So Iowans still have a voice in this but the DNC is kind of setting the standard by saying you need to have reached this benchmark by this date.

Henderson: And you can't really overemphasize how the results of the caucuses will be interpreted. Does Joe Boden win by a large enough margin? Is there sort of a split decision where you have all these candidates sort of at the finish line all together? I think it will be really interesting to see how the results are interpreted and the perhaps two sets of results will get the delegate equivalents and then the raw vote totals from caucus night.

Yepsen: James, let's turn to the U.S. Senate race that is shaping up for 2020. Joni Ernst is up for re-election. Democrats have a primary. Do they have any realistic hope of beating her?

Lynch: I think so. I think there's opportunity there. I think Joni Ernst is going to be a very strong candidate for re-election. I think she is doing all the right things in terms of preparing for re-election for that campaign. But yeah, I mean, Theresa Greenfield when she ran in the third district or she tried to get on the ballot and had some problems, but she had a lot of support, people saw a lot of potential in her. Kimberly Graham and Eddie Mauro are also in that race. I guess the big question on a lot of people's minds is whether J.D. Scholten will decide to run for the Senate and make it a four-way primary. That would be a very interesting race if he gets in. It's going to be interesting anyway I think.

Henderson: During Ernst's annual fundraiser in June I asked her if she thought that this race would be in the 85 million neighborhood because that is how much was spent on her race with Braley and she is fully prepared I think for a very expensive race because democrats are going to target every seat that they think they might be able to pick up in an effort to claim the U.S. Senate.

Yepsen: Brianne, Senate races tend to be ideological contests. If the democrats are making the presidential race competitive in this state, doesn't that automatically mean the democratic nominee for U.S. Senate is? Do we really see a whole lot of people voting for Trump and the democrat or the democratic presidential candidate and Joni Ernst?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think you still see some split ticket voters in Iowa. I've talked with some recently who said I'm a firm Donald Trump supporter but I vote for my local democrats, I vote for people in state races who are democrats. So I think they still exist. But we're already seeing those efforts by republicans to tie any democrat who is running to the far left messages that we're seeing in the 2020 race. I think it was Pete Buttigieg who said recently they're going to call us socialists if we do Medicare for all and they're going to call us socialists if we do nothing. So we might as well do what we think is right. So you’re seeing that messaging trying to tie them to the democrats who are running for President regardless of what they're saying.

Yepsen: James, let's switch gears to -- or Kay I want to ask you about this. The race for Congress, let's start with the fourth district, Steve King's seat, since that's I think the most interesting race in the state. What's happening in that primary?

Henderson: Well, Steve King didn't have a terribly good fundraising quarter whereas his primary opponent at the top of the fundraising list is Randy Feenstra, who has raised significantly more, I think in the neighborhood of $400,000 for his effort, number one. Number two, Bob Vander Plaats, who many Iowans know in the social conservative circles has endorsed Randy Feenstra. And then thirdly, you have the specter of J.D. Scholten. Does he run against King? And does he run against Ernst? So I think this is the most interesting congressional district race for us, the watchers, if you will, to sort of try to read the tea leaves.

Yepsen: And James, if Steve King loses the republican primary Iowa law allows him to run as an independent.

Lynch: It currently does.

Yepsen: It currently does. Do you think the legislature, republicans in the legislature who clearly favor Feenstra in this, will pass a law, what is called a sore loser law, Iowa is only one of two states that doesn't have one?

Lynch: I expect that there will be a real effort to do that. There was an effort in the 2019 session that didn't materialize. There were proposals but they didn't get very far. I would expect that the legislature would do that. They have to do it before March 15th which is the filing deadline so it would have to be something they would do early and very quickly to get it passed and signed into law. I wouldn't be surprised if they did it. Like I said, there was some momentum this year but not enough to get it over the hump.

Henderson: And significantly you said legislators are lining up behind Feenstra. Jack Whitver, who is the top republican in the State Senate, held a fundraiser for Randy Feenstra, spoke at a fundraiser for Randy Feenstra. So they're not being behind the scenes supporters, they are out front supporting Randy Feenstra.

Yepsen: And didn't the President snub Steve King?

Henderson: He did. Steve King did not get to ride on Air Force One to the fundraiser that the Iowa GOP had in June, came on his own flight, and was not acknowledged from the stage because he was sitting in the audience and his name was never mentioned from the rostrum.

Yepsen: We've got three minutes left and we've got three congressional districts left. James, in the first district.

Lynch: First district Abby Finkenauer running for re-election, being challenged, her primary challenger seems to be Ashley Hinson from Marion, a state legislator. They both had good fundraising quarters. That's the news from the first district.

Yepsen: Battleground race there.

Lynch: Battleground race.

Yepsen: Brianne, oh no, James, I was going to ask you about the vacant Dave Loebsack seat in the second district.

Lynch: Yes, Loebsack is retiring. There's a primary, it looks like there will be primaries in both parties on the democratic side. Former State Senator Rita Hart and engineer Newman Abuissa from Iowa City and on the republican side Bobby Schilling, a former Illinois congressman who now owns restaurants in Iowa is running, and State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks may get into that race. It's an interesting dynamic there. He's a carpetbagger, she's a three time loser.

Yepsen: But isn't that something of a toss-up race too?

Lynch: It is. It probably leans democratic.

Yepsen: How successful do you think Schilling will be facing the carpetbagger? We haven't had somebody move to Iowa since the 1800s when Iowa was just becoming a state, somebody may have served in Congress in another state, come here.

Lynch: People who move to run don't have a great success record nationwide. So I think that will be a challenge for him.

Yepsen: Brianne, third district, Cindy Axne's seat.

Pfannenstiel: The third district is looking to be a rematch of the 2018 race. Cindy Axne is now running as an incumbent. But David Young, who she defeated, is in the race again trying to take back that seat. And so in the past couple of weeks we saw State Senator Zach Nunn who had been on a listening tour who had been talking about potentially running withdraw his name from that, throw his support behind David Young. Again, we saw fundraising numbers there, both of them seem to be doing well. It looks like we're going to see a rematch.

Yepsen: Is Nunn done with a future in Iowa politics? Or does he live to fight again another day?

Pfannenstiel: I would expect to see Zach Nunn again in some other capacity.

Yepsen: How do you think the Axne/Young rematch is going to play? Won't we have, why wouldn't we have the same result?

Pfannenstiel: Well, that's a great question and I hear that from a lot of republicans who are wondering what's different this time around? Is the President doing so much better? Is the economy so much better? Has the landscape changed so much that David Young can come in and change the result? But I think he's hoping that it was a close enough race and that he can do better.

Yepsen: Well, and the difference is in a presidential year blue collar voters tend to turn out more. In the past that used to help democrats, now it helps republicans. So maybe Young wins the seat back by simply getting more of that base vote out. Kay, what do you think?

Henderson: I think it will be fascinating to see how much Minnesota Congresswoman Omar is a part of the race in the Ashley Hinson versus Abby Finkenauer and the squad because what we saw when they released their announcement video that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was in it.

Yepsen: I've got to go. We're out of time. Thanks everybody. And thank you for joining us. We'll be back next week at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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