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Partisan tensions raging in Washington with impeachment hearings. But what are the issues and policies driving the Iowa electorate ahead of 2020? We sit down with a pair of Iowa online political writers, Laura Belin and Shane Vander Hart, 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.

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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, November 22 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.  

Yepsen: Political partisanship is hard to avoid in today's media climate. As impeachment hearings move into their third week in Washington, the 2020 campaign is wrapping up nearly a year of democrats working Iowa. But what candidates are primed for success next year? We've gathered a pair of online political writers plugged into their respective readerships. Laura Belin is editor of the progressive website Bleeding Heartland and Shane Vander Hart is editor of the conservative Christian website Caffeinated Thoughts. Laura, Shane, welcome to the show, good to have you with us.

Belin: Thank you.

Vander Hart: Thanks for having us.

Yepsen: Across the table journalists joining us are David Pitt with the Associated Press and Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises.

Murphy: Shane, we wanted to ask you, this past week Iowans had a service for former Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Cady who passed away about a week ago. Cady will be perhaps most well-known for writing a decision in the Varnum-Brien case that legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa. That decision sparked a movement among conservatives, particularly evangelical conservatives, that had some of the justices removed off of the Supreme Court, and since then republicans have also changed the state law that determines how the justice to the Supreme Court are picked in Iowa, gave a little more authority to the Governor. I'm wondering from your perspective are conservatives happier now with the direction of the court system in Iowa since the Varnum decision?

Vander Hart: Well, I think they are definitely happy with the change in the makeup of the judicial nomination committee process and the fact that maybe it's a little more transparent. I think the Governor has a little more, a few more options that would be probably I would say ones that she would probably be more interested in nominating the court. One of the things prior to the change that a lot of people didn't understand, one thing that I heard constantly was that the nomination process, it's non-partisan, but conservatives as we viewed the process we said, well it seemed to us to be stacked in progressives' favor with the requirement that so many members of the Bar be on the commissions and so forth. So we just didn't feel like when the Governor, Branstad had his picks and when Reynolds had her picks, that probably they weren't getting the candidates that they would really like to have.

Belin: That's just a complete canard. Most of the elected attorneys on judicial nominating commissions in Iowa are republicans, they have been republicans. Governor Branstad, when he was able to fill those three vacancies on the Iowa Supreme Court in 2011 after the oust of the three Supreme Court justices, he was sent a list with many conservative candidates, he appointed three conservatives in 2011 and this was a state judicial nominating commission that had been mostly filled with Vilsack and Culver appointees. So I understand that's a grievance that republicans have expressed but it's just not borne out by any facts at all about the Iowa judiciary.

Yepsen: What do you expect to see, Laura, as a result of Chief Justice Cady's passage?

Belin: Well, I think it's unfortunate that all of the, the changes are unfortunate because I think republicans in the legislature and the Governor are very happy with the idea of giving the Governor more of a free hand in judicial appointments. But people who haven't been born yet are going to be Governor under this system decades from now and we have no idea whether they will be wise and use that power to appoint good, qualified people or whether they'll just put cronies on the commission and on the court.

Murphy: Well, and to that point, is this something that democrats have at least wakened up to, that republicans got into power and made these changes, are democrats at least aware of the game that is being played now, for lack of a better way to put it, that they need to win races so they can be in a position to either stop a change like this or have the governorship and have that authority in their power?

Belin: Well, democrats had a trifecta in Iowa from 2007 to 2010 and nobody even raised this issue of changing judicial nominating. At the time I know that Governor Culver wasn't always happy with the candidates that were forwarded to him to make the appointments, but that is the way the system works. It was a good system that was working well since 1962. So I just think it's very unfortunate that it has become politicized in this way.

Yepsen: But you expect the court to move further to the right as a result of --

Vander Hart: I think we're seeing that shift. I don't know how much that looks like. Laura mentioned that it was full of republicans. I would say maybe they were republicans but not necessarily conservative, not necessarily people who were originalist in their judicial philosophy. So I think we're seeing more of a shift in that regard. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes that will make with upcoming decisions.

Yepsen: A different kind of republican.

Pitt: We probably should switch topics because we could do a whole show on that, no doubt. So impeachment obviously is the other thing that is in the news now quite a bit and I'd just like to get your sense for whether it is firing up the base? Maybe you can both answer this question. Where are we with that? Is it changing any minds? Shane, you can take that first.

Vander Hart: It's not changing anybody's minds. There might be a small number but among republicans they are fired up. You look at Donald Trump and his favorability among republicans is higher than even Kim Reynolds. So I think the base is fired up. I think they're tired of the impeachment hearings. I've personally tried to look at it with an open mind and I'm a little more interested in firsthand testimony than those that are just building a narrative. But I don't see really anybody's minds changed. If you went into it thinking he should be impeached that is how you're leaving it.

Yepsen: Laura, what do you think? What is it doing to the democratic base? Anything?

Belin: The 2020 election will be a referendum on Donald Trump. That is what we've seen. The 2018 election was essentially a referendum on Donald Trump and I don't think impeachment changes that either way. I think all signs point to a very high turnout election with high base turnout on both sides. I think the big question is the independents, the swing voters. I think there will be high turnout and I think the jury is out on how impeachment will affect those voters. But generally speaking with or without impeachment, whether articles are voted out, whatever the Senate does, next November's election is going to be a referendum on Trump.

Yepsen: Shane, does it help President Trump because it fires up the republican base?

Vander Hart: I wouldn't say necessarily it helps but I don't think it, yeah maybe a little bit with the republican base. But the question is what does it do to independents?

Murphy: So we want to talk about the democratic primary, the caucuses, but maybe as a nice segway between those two Laura I'll ask you real quick first, if this does go to the Senate and there has been talk about if that lasts a long time that pulls some of these candidates off the trail here, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and others, Amy Klobuchar. Does that have a real impact on that primary here in Iowa at least if that happens?

Belin: I think it could absolutely. And we have an unprecedented race in Iowa now. We have never had four candidates grouped together polling around 20% give or take a few, we've just never had a race that competitive. We've had lower polling candidates make a late surge but we've just, and we've had some frontrunners that weren't as dominate. So I think it will be very competitive. We saw in 2004 and 2008 more than half of the democratic caucus goers made up their mind in the final month. So those last few weeks of campaigning will be crucial and it will probably be volatile and if several of the key candidates are tied up in Washington on an impeachment trial it could definitely have an effect.

Murphy: So give your real quick kind of 35,000 foot view of this race right now, that aside. How do you see -- you mentioned kind of the top 4 polling leaders. How do you see this race shaping up?

Belin: I think it's anybody's game. I think it is wide open. I've been bearish on Joe Biden because for a frontrunner his numbers have been very weak in Iowa all year. And generally speaking Dan Guild who is an analyst and a historian of the Iowa Caucuses I think you can say, he has looked at decades of polling and a frontrunner who starts the race below 30% basically doesn't win the Iowa Caucuses. But I think anybody could do very well. And I think the problem for the lower polling candidates is that the top of the field is very well liked and so we see the people who are right now stuck in the single digits, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar and Cory Booker, they're hoping and hoping but right now there's not really a niche for them to fill that the top tier candidates aren't filling.

Pitt: So Shane, we'd be real interested in hearing, do you have someone you're afraid of on the democratic side? Is there somebody you would prefer to see run against the President?

Vander Hart: Just to be clear, I'm actually registered independent and I didn't vote for Trump in 2016. So there's nobody I'm afraid of. Well, if I'm afraid of a candidate it's for probably opposite reasons, if they got elected oh wow. But I think Biden is probably still yet the strongest candidate to run against President Trump. I think that independents will probably see him as a better choice than some of the candidates that are tacking further to the left. So he is probably the one I think would be most competitive.

Yepsen: If Joe Biden falters, who takes the center lane?

Belin: I think it's really hard to say. I think there are a number of candidates vying for that. But I think the bigger question is if Joe Biden falters who beats him in the South and particularly among African-American voters because that is who decides democratic presidential nominations and right now I don't really see Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders and certainly not Pete Buttigieg as well positioned to beat Biden in the South. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker were the candidates who could have put together that Obama coalition and whether they will do well enough in Iowa to put them in position to do well in the South is an open question.

Yepsen: Is Amy Klobuchar showing any momentum?

Belin: I think she's got a little bit of momentum. I think she had a strong debate. I think there are people, if Biden starts to look really non-viable as a candidate I think someone like Amy Klobuchar could gain. But there are a number of candidates who are vying for that position and Pete Buttigieg I think most explicitly by saying he's for Medicare for all who want it. But again, I just think that most Iowa democrats are not firmly committed to a candidate and they will make up their mind in late December or January.

Vander Hart: Yeah, I saw 62% in the latest Register poll say they could change their mind. So that's pretty interesting. That only dropped 1% from October.

Murphy: How about Elizabeth Warren? Is she too liberal a candidate to win a general election, Laura, do you think?

Belin: I don't think we know yet. She used to be a republican and if you've seen her in person she does very well with an audience and she's nothing like the caricature that sometimes you see on television. So I think that we really don't know. She's speaking to a lot of issues that matter to people and I think that will be something that she has to continue to demonstrate throughout the primary is that she is a candidate who can win. But right now, if you look in national polls most of the candidates are beating Donald Trump or are very competitive with Donald Trump.

Murphy: And you mentioned Mayor Pete. Is that surge, is that real? Is that a long-term trend? Or is that a Ben Carson or a Howard Dean type moment that's going to have the other side of the bell curve?

Belin: Well, he's had a couple of surges in Iowa. He had the surge in the spring that put him in position to be in the teens and then he had this other surge. It is to his tremendous credit that he has positioned himself to get to being a top tier candidate. But it's very hard to say right now whether he is going to end up like a Howard Dean who peaked too soon or whether he'll be like a John Kerry who continued to gain support.

Yepsen: Shane, what is your observation?

Vander Hart: I think Mayor Pete has a black voter problem. We're seeing a surge in Iowa, if he wins Iowa, even if he wins New Hampshire and of course you had that poll that came out that he's now 10 points ahead, but I think that comes to a screeching halt when he hits South Carolina. The latest poll had him at less than 1% of the black voters supporting him.

Pitt: Do you want to move onto the federal court question? Okay, so we talked about the state courts. I guess the federal courts have been a big issue. Maybe, Shane, I could address this to you first. What is the impact? We've seen a lot of federal judges being appointed. There's obviously an interest in another Supreme Court pick for the President. Where does that align with all of this?

Vander Hart: That is probably one of the areas where I've been the happiest with President Trump and I think most conservatives have been happy with his judicial picks. There has been a couple that I think a few of us have soured on but for the most part his legacy will be how he has changed the court and I think we're going to see that for years to come. He has made a lot of good picks, he has flipped a couple of circuit courts, so it will be interesting to see.

Murphy: We want to talk a little bit about looking ahead to 2020 as well and the general election. Shane in particular, we wanted to ask you, Iowa was a state that the President won by almost 10 points in 2016. How safe is he here? And in particular did these agricultural issues at some point, haven't seen it yet, but does at some point those issues start to hurt his support here?

Vander Hart: Yeah, I'd say, I wouldn't necessarily put it Iowa is safe territory, but I'd say it leans Trump. And I think definitely if there is some peel off you'll see it in the suburbs and you'll see it maybe among some rural voters.

Belin: I think I would agree that Iowa probably leans to Trump. But we're expecting a much higher turnout election in 2020, it could be 10% or 15%, even higher than the turnout in 2016. And so that's where it's really hard to say whether -- I do think the republican base will be motivated but it could be that there is a surge of voters who didn't participate in 2016 who have soured on Trump. So I definitely wouldn't say it's safe for Trump.

Yepsen: Is it possible that new surge of voters is going to be blue collar voters who haven't participated in low elections, low motivation that are going to turn out for Trump?

Belin: I think it's going to be all kinds of people. But we saw in 2018 and we saw it recently in elections in Kentucky, Louisiana, Virginia, that there's a large number of voters who are hostile to Trump who are inspired to participate.

Murphy: So we'll have another big race here in Iowa for the Senate seat with U.S. Senator Joni Ernst. We want to get both of your thoughts on that race, starting with you, Shane. Do you feel Senator Ernst, Senator Ernst said recently she is one of the more vulnerable Senators up for election. Do you agree with that?

Vander Hart: You can't deny that. Her approval rating is one of the lowest among Senators. She saw a 9 point drop. So I would definitely be concerned if I were her. I don't think this is going to be an easy race. I think a lot depends on who democrats will nominate I think Theresa Greenfield is probably, will be the strongest candidate to run against her. So they can't obviously sit back and relax, they have to really work hard and I think she can make a good case for that but it's not going to be an easy race.

Yepsen: Shane, why have her numbers dropped?

Vander Hart: Well, that's a good question. I think perhaps the RFS thing might be hurting her.

Yepsen: The Renewable Fuel Standard.

Vander Hart: Yeah, the Renewable Fuel Standard might be hurting her amongst the rural voters. I think there might be some dissatisfaction that she's not pushing back against Trump as much.

Murphy: I wanted to ask you about that. Does Trump on the ticket with her help or hurt her?

Vander Hart: Well, again, he's got a higher approval rating than she does so it's hard to say. He didn't really have much coattails in 2016 so I'm not anticipating that's going to happen in 2020 either.

Pitt: Laura, maybe we can talk about Theresa Greenfield in that race. Talk to us a little bit about where you think that stands. She is obviously the choice of the democratic national folks and in funding coming her way from there. What do you think?

Belin: I think it's very open. I think most democratic voters don't know a lot about the candidates for Senate. I thought it was unfortunate at this Liberty and Justice celebration where we had 14,000 people there and they didn't give the Senate candidates a chance to speak. So I think Theresa Greenfield you have to say that she is the frontrunner in the primary with the support that she has and the fundraising. But I think that people are going to be very open to hearing from the other candidates. I think Kimberly Graham who is running on the Bernie Sanders, AOC type platform, there are a lot of Iowa democrats who believe in those issues. I think Michael Franken has a very interesting biography. He's the only candidate not from Polk County, he's a veteran, he's from a farming family. So if he's able to get his message out to people I think the primary is fairly open and I think it's healthy for the democrats to have a vigorous primary. I don't think it helped us in 2014 that everybody coalesced around one candidate for the Senate race.

Murphy: We also want to talk about the fourth district congressional race. There's a primary there as well on the republican side. Shane, what is your view? Is Steve King vulnerable in that primary specifically before they get to the general?

Vander Hart: My sense is that he still has a lot of grassroots support. I think the primary it's going to be a closer primary than he's ever had before. It may even, he released an internal poll that in my mind is a little bit questionable because it had a lot of 65 plus polling in it. So I think it's definitely going to be closer than that. But I just don't see him losing that primary. I could be wrong.

Murphy: Is it one of those cases, I believe there's 5 candidates in that primary including Congressman King, is that to his benefit? Were it more maybe just him and --

Vander Hart: Definitely to his benefit because as the incumbent he obviously has more hardened supporters. But again, going back to his internal poll he showed he was above 50% so I'm not sure it's going to matter that much.

Belin: I've been confident all year he's going to win that primary and I think he would beat any of those candidates one-to-one and it's going to be even easier for him to win with a splintered field of opposition. But you have to remember that Senator Randy Feenstra who is the republican establishment's choice in that primary has never had a contested election, he has never had to beat an opponent in a primary or general and I don't think he has the political skills to beat Steve King.

Yepsen: Is it possible, Shane, that some of these people who are -- the filing deadline in Iowa is March 13th, so we've got time for people to get in or get out. Is it possible that some of these other candidates challenging Steve King would drop out of the race?

Vander Hart: Maybe. But I haven't seen any indication from any of the candidates that I've talked with that they would do that. Steve Reeder right now, he's not really raising a lot of money, he may drop out. And I see Jeremy Taylor staying in. He actually seems to be racking up some endorsements and some support.

Yepsen: I want to point out to our viewers, remind them, it takes 35% of the vote to win a primary outright. So that's why if the anti-King forces are splintered that obviously enable Steve King to get to 35% and I gather that is what both of you feel is going to happen.

Belin: I think he's going to, I think he would exceed 50% anyway. But yes, I think the republican base largely agrees with Steve King's opinions and views and that is although some republican establishment figures wish that weren't true, it is true.

Vander Hart: The caveat, I would say they agree with how he has voted. They may not necessarily agree with everything he says on Twitter.

Yepsen: Just a few minutes, Dave.

Pitt: Yeah, maybe we should turn just quickly to the legislative session coming up in January. Do you think, Shane, that conservatives have an expectation out of this session just simply because obviously there is some concern about whether the House stays in republican control or not? So is there a feeling like this might be our last chance to really get something through that conservatives may want to get through the legislative session?

Vander Hart: Yeah, I haven't necessarily heard anybody say hey, this is the top bill I want to see get pushed through. But I know there's concern among republicans that the Iowa House is vulnerable. So I think definitely if there's any movement on any kind of property tax reform you'll probably see it this session, any movement on tax credits we'll see that as well or school choice.

Pitt: Controversial social issues?

Yepsen: School choice would be.

Vander Hart: No, I think there's more bipartisan appeal with school choice than a lot of people would give it credit for. But on the abortion issue with right now where the courts are at I think the only bill they could really put forward is the constitutional amendment they introduced last year that basically stated --

Belin: I don't know why they didn't pass the anti-abortion constitutional amendment, the state level constitutional amendment, last year and I found that intriguing, they didn't even pass it through the Senate where they have a 32-18 majority. So I'm not quite sure what's going on there. And I think that maybe they sense that the public isn't really with them on that issue. But I think during the legislative session it will be interesting to see whether the incoming Speaker Pat Grassley has, he has said that he's going to try to find consensus in his caucus. There are a number of people in his caucus who weren't happy with the way Linda Upmeyer ran things and we'll see how that goes. I'm very concerned that MidAmerican Energy is going to make another big push for the solar bill that got stalled last year that didn't get through that. It's one of the issues that I'll be watching during the legislative session.

Vander Hart: As far as pro-life republicans, they have republican majority but I don't think everybody is as pro-life in the republican caucus as the democrats would like to think that they are. Some bills they can get through, some others are harder.

Yepsen: Playing off of Dave's question, republicans, particularly in the House, have to make a decision. Do they opt for a moderate, less controversial, pass the budget and get out of dodge approach? Or do groups say we've got to have this bill, that bill, that bill, the social conservatives, this may be the end of our trifecta? Which is it, Shane?

Vander Hart: Well, the skeptic in me is that they'll go the latter. They'll go moderate and end up angering their base, which that seems to be the republican M.O. --

Yepsen: But, Laura, are they worried about angering suburban women?

Belin: Well, they should be worried. If we look at what happened in the Kentucky Governor's race, in the Louisiana Governor's race and the Virginia legislative races they should be worried about the suburban voters and that is the voters they'll need. I think one sleeper issue in the legislative session that I'm watching for is the gun constitutional amendment which there was a screw up by the Secretary of State's office so it didn't get published before the 2018 election and they had to start over. But they may try to retroactively fix that so they can get it on the 2020 ballot.

Murphy: Real quick, we talk about suburban women voters, can Iowa democrats, if they're going to take back the House, can they expand -- so they won those, can they expand into those midsized cities, rural areas, win enough seats to get a majority back?

Belin: That's a big question and looking at the overview of the House landscape there are paths to 51 House seats for Iowa democrats. It would involve winning some of those seats or at least holding some of those seats in the more rural areas and I think one of the suburban seats, Ashley Hinson's seat that she is vacating, is one that certainly they could win. But the one up in Winneshiek County that they lost by 9 votes when 29 votes weren't counted, that's another one. The seat down in Fairfield is one. And Andy McKean holding onto that seat over in Eastern Iowa. I think there are multiple paths. But some of those suburban seats might be difficult holds. The republicans don't have declared candidates yet in some of those districts but we don't know yet whether they will have a strong contender there.

Yepsen: Shane, quickly, what do you think?

Vander Hart: Well, I think definitely republicans have the opportunity to make some gains in the suburbs, as Laura mentioned. I think there's a good chance that democrats could flip the House. I think a lot of it just really depends on what happens at the top of the ticket.

Yepsen: We've got just a few seconds left. I said you were both online journalists. I want your websites for our viewers. Shane, what is your website?

Vander Hart: CaffeinatedThoughts.com.

Yepsen: CaffeinatedThoughts.com. Like too much coffee, right?

Vander Hart: Yes.

Yepsen: Okay. Laura?

Belin: BleedingHeartland.com and also there is a Bleeding Heartland Facebook page and I'm on Twitter @LauraRBelin.

Yepsen: Okay great. Thank you both for being with us today, appreciate it.

Belin: Thank you.

Vander Hart: You're welcome.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular Friday night broadcast on Iowa PBS's main channel at 7:30 and again Saturday morning at 8:30 on Iowa PBS's .3 World channel and of course any time online at Iptv.org. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.

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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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