Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Jeff Kaufmann, chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, and Mark Smith, chair of the Iowa Democratic Party discuss 2020 campaigns.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table is Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, and Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises.

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.

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As Americans near 100 days out from the 2020 general election, the country is battling a litany of issues. We check in with Iowa Political Party Chairs ahead of the fall elections on this edition of Iowa Press.

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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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. 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, July 24 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: Some of Iowa's traditional political tent poles look different this summer. Amidst an ongoing pandemic, candidates are rarely seen mingling at summer barbeques or indoor events, and they won't be standing on a soap box at the first Iowa State Fair canceled since World War II. But a big general election is still being held and to get a sense of the stakes for Iowa we're joined by Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann and the new Iowa Democratic Party Chair, State Representative Mark Smith. Gentlemen, welcome to the show. Congratulations.

Smith: Thank you, it's nice to be here.

Yepsen: Journalists across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Gentlemen, let's begin talking presidential politics. Let's start with you, Mr. Kaufmann. Why is Iowa considered in the polling data as a swing state?

Kaufman: We've always been purple, Kay. I remember after some successes we had in 2014 and 2016 there were national reporters trying everything they could to get me to say that we were red and I said, we're purple. We are a swing state. And elections here are never going to be taken for granted at any level and this is going to be another bruising battle.

Henderson: Mr. Smith, why is Iowa considered a swing state?

Smith: Kay, this election is very competitive this year because of the failed policies of Donald Trump that he came to Iowa four years ago running for President and promised a lot of things that would be beneficial for Iowans. Now we are in the midst of the worst pandemic that all living people have gone through, a pandemic that 50% of all cases in the world are in two countries, Brazil and the United States of America. We also have had 30,000 Iowans lose their health care and if the republicans have their way with the Affordable Care Act another nearly quarter million would lose their health care.

Yepsen: Didn't democrats benefit from the Caucuses that they had? The party registrations jumped up. I think the two parties are separated only be a few hundred votes in party registrations. Did that have something to do with it?

Smith: This is the first time in 20 years, David, that the democrats are ahead in registered voters. Clearly the fact that we had the second largest participation in the Caucuses ever is significant in that regard and then the turnout for the primary. All of that has led to where we're at as a party.

Murphy: There's also a big Senate race here in Iowa important not only to Iowans but nationally in the race for the control of the U.S. Senate, which party comes out of the election with majority. I want to get each of your handicap on that race. Representative Smith, we'll start with you. Theresa Greenfield, what are her chances against Joni Ernst?

Smith: Well, we are going to be very excited that in November that we'll have a new United States Senator and that Theresa Greenfield will be elected to that position. She is a person who had a farming background, has lived through Iowa's difficult times including the death of her first husband, been a single mother, she knows what it's like for everyday Iowans.

Murphy: How about Joni Ernst? What are her challenges to keeping this seat?

Kaufmann: Sure, and just one correction, republicans are actually ahead by a couple hundred votes. We have reduced that margin from 14,000 in February to even right now, so we're pretty motivated along those lines. In terms of the Senate race, this is going to be a tough one. The first re-elect of any U.S. Senator in a purple state is going to be a knockdown, drag out. I really feel that ultimately the first female combat veteran elected in the United States history is going to prevail. Look, Theresa Greenfield cannot continue to not be aggressive in holding press conferences, not be aggressive in talking to press. She has got to come out and she's got to talk to people. The other thing is eventually Iowans are going to figure out that you can't take millions in corporate funding and then look in the eyes of cameras and saying I'm not taking dollars from, not taking corporate dollars. So I think ultimately Joni is Iowans, Joni is a scrappy farm girl in more ways than just a 30 second spot and I look forward to her re-elect.

Yepsen: But isn't the fate of the Senate race really tied to what the outcome is of the race for President? I know in the past Iowans have shown a willingness, I'll ask you first, Mr. Kaufmann, have shown a willingness to split tickets. In 1972, Nixon and Dick Clark won, in '84 it was Reagan and Tom Harkin won. So it has happened. But things seem a lot more partisan now. So if Trump wins doesn't Joni Ernst win? If Biden wins Iowa doesn't Theresa Greenfield?

Kaufmann: In some ways I wish it was that simple because I do believe the President is going to win Iowa. I think certainly the President is, there is an element there of is there coattails? How big are the coattails? How long are the coattails? Is there reverse coattails? Those are all fair questions. Ultimately Joni Ernst has the ear of the President but at the same time Joni Ernst has also pushed back on the President and changed his mind on several things that are important to Iowans. She doesn't get talking points from Chuck Schumer, she doesn't get talking points from Donald Trump, she is her own person.

Smith: Well, first of all, let's go back to what he had to say about Theresa Greenfield. And to quote Bill Clinton in a previous debate, that's a golden oldie as far as the allegations that have been made by the Republican Party and those are allegations that have been proven to be false by three independent --

Yepsen: My question, excuse me, was isn't her fate tied to Joe Biden's fate?

Smith: No. I agree with what you said earlier about the independents. We clearly think that Joe Biden is going to carry the state of Iowa. And if you look at Iowa from 1988 forward there have only been two times that republican candidates for the presidency have carried this state, in 2004 and 2016. We're going to carry both the U.S. Senate and the presidential race independently.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, we're recording this on a Friday morning so perhaps this question may be moot by the time this airs Friday night. Where is the Republican National Convention going to be held? And in what form?

Kaufmann: Well the Jacksonville activities have been canceled. We had a call last night, I was actually doing a fundraiser and so I wasn't able to be on that call but I understand it was very, very brief and essentially it laid out that more information next week. So it is being written as we speak. I would imagine, it's important you know I don't have any inside information here, I was not on that call and they're not forthcoming with that information because quite frankly I don't think they have it yet. The President made a decision in the best interest of the health and safety of not only the GOP but the health and safety of the citizens of Jacksonville, the workers and everyone that, the thousands that go together to make that work. I'm guessing that there has to be some procedural things that will occur and then ultimately I think you're going to see some activities here in Iowa. As far as what they're going to look like, I don't know, Kay.

Henderson: Mr. Smith, the democrats were already planning to have a virtual convention, not gather at all in Milwaukee. Has the convention that has been held by these two parties, has that model just been shot up and will never be followed again? Is the future looking like we won't have these kind of huge gatherings which require delegates to actually fundraise in order to be able to attend?

Smith: No, I think the question is what is going on currently and that we don't know what the probable future is going to be because we don't know how long this pandemic is going to last. But we did recognize earlier and I communicated with Jeff about that in having our county conventions virtual when the republicans had them face-to-face and we continued that process. We were able to have quorums in all 99 counties and conduct our business that way. And so democrats have been very active in this and been very safe in how we're doing our conventions.

Henderson: But the question is, is the model of gathering in a city and having people pay $700 to $900 a night to stay in a hotel if they're a delegate to the convention, has that just been blown up and antiquated?

Smith: Well, it may be blown up, it may be antiquated. I'm trying to say we don't know what the future holds in that regard and what things will change and how we do all kinds of business because of this pandemic.

Henderson: Just a quick question, Mr. Kaufmann, rules are set at these events for the 2024 presidential nominating event. Will Iowa retain its first-in-the-nation Caucuses?

Kaufmann: I have been assured that there will be no errant rules or resolutions or brainstorms on the part of any state that will try or attempt to supplant Iowa. We don't have a lot of internal agitation for that right now and of course President Trump has stated absolutely there's no wiggle room, that if he's re-elected we will be first-in-the-nation in 2024.

Henderson: Democrats have a rule that retains Iowa's first-in-the-nation Caucus status?

Smith: Yes and we will fight like hell to keep that in place here. And I'm very glad, I have talked with Chairman Kaufmann about that as well and both of us are committed to keeping the Caucuses first.

Murphy: If Vice President Biden wins the White House he finished a slow fourth here in Iowa, do you lose an ally to the Iowa Caucuses if Joe Biden is President?

Smith: We gain an ally to the Caucuses when he wins Iowa this November.

Henderson: Why? He lost here twice rather significantly so.

Smith: He was on a ticket that carried the state twice with President Obama.

Murphy: Chairman Smith, similar to Kay's question about the conventions, and I know your answer to that was we don't know what the future holds, but the democratic caucuses similarly bring a lot of people to an indoor space, group people together in close packs and keep them there for hours on end in some cases. Is that an antiquated system in whatever post-pandemic world we eventually get to?

Smith: One of the nice things about being 68 years of age is that I have attended the Caucuses since 1972 and I've seen a number of changes occur with them over the years across the state of Iowa. And so we believe in two factors as democrats, that all of our activities need to be very active and they need to be safe. So as we go forward we'll be looking at making sure that we do them in a safe manner.

Murphy: Does that mean the possibility that the 2024 Caucuses for the democrats will look nothing like the 2020 ones did?

Smith: I think that they'll look something like what we have, but again, we'll be monitoring and making sure that those are done in a safe way. We're looking at winning elections this November first.

Murphy: One other thing you were looking at is what went wrong with the reporting app in the 2020 Caucuses. We were told there was going to be an internal report and that was before this pandemic hit and other issues took center stage. Is there any update on that? Is the party still conducting an investigation?

Smith: That is still in process and we're still looking at that. Again, I want to emphasize that thousands of Iowans participated in the best caucuses that they have ever attended in their lives and then the problem was with the reporting afterwards. So yes, we're continuing and we'll have a report here in the coming weeks here.

Yepsen: In the coming weeks there will be a report?

Smith: Yes.

Yepsen: And what will the report say? What you do different?

Smith: The report will be an analysis of what went wrong and as a result of what went wrong we will then be looking at what changes we need to make in the process.

Yepsen: Jeff Kaufmann, back to 2020. Where do you come down on this, the issue of vote-by-mail and absentee ballots? Republican Secretary of State Paul Pate says absentee ballots are great and mails everybody an application. President Trump says no, he doesn't like mail-in ballots, it's rigged is the phrase he used. So where do you come down in this argument between two republicans?

Kaufmann: Well, and I think President Trump it isn't necessarily the idea of voting, it's making sure that you have security in the voting. The Iowa legislature moved to try to tighten that up a bit. But republicans are going to spend the largest amount of money ever in our absentee ballot program. I am actually a bit floored by some of the investments that we're having. The republican-led legislative council just okayed for Paul Pate to send out absentee -- that means the average Iowan is going to get three to five and some of they are independents and it shows they truly are, they could get eight, nine, they could get eight or nine requests. So we're in favor of it.

Yepsen: Are you worried at all though that the President by his criticisms about and accusing the absentee ballot efforts of being rigged and games and all that, it might be discouraging republican voters from voting if President Trump who they like and trust is saying this is a bad way to go? You're not getting any pushback?

Kaufmann: It's like our voter ID law, obviously there were partisan shots at that. 75% of Iowans favored that. A lot of the conversation that we're having with absentee ballots is about making sure we have the equivalent of voter ID security in that system. I'm on the side of that and 75% of Iowans, including many democrats, are as well.

Yepsen: And Mr. Smith, National Public Radio had a story last week that said 65,000 Americans did not have their absentee ballots counted. Some of that was delayed mail, but some of it was just mail that wasn't delivered properly. How worried are you, and the same question to you Jeff Kaufmann, that the pandemic delays that have occurred in the U.S. mail service could mean that some people who drop that ballot in the day before the election it's going to be delivered a month later?

Smith: Well, what I didn't hear in your statement about the voting is I didn't hear how many of those 65,000 were here in the state of Iowa. What I have seen is that the June primary, after Secretary Pate decided to send this out to all active voters I think is the word that was used with the list that people were sent the ballots to, we had the greatest participation in a primary that we have ever had. And if there were issues with voting by mail and it not getting returned properly here in the state I didn't hear about this. We've been the party that has promoted that people vote by mail for years, since before I first got elected in the Iowa House, which was quite a while back. So we're very supportive of this and haven't been part of the voter suppression that the republicans put forth in the Iowa General Assembly.

Yepsen: Jeff Kaufman, worried at all about mail and absentees?

Kaufmann: No and republicans weren't involved in voter suppression. That is an oldie as well that I don't think resonates particularly well. But bottom line is yes, I am worried about the integrity of our voting always. That is how you are proactive about it. Do I think we have a good system in Iowa right now? Yes I do. Do I think that in June things worked? Yes, it went our way, we have evened up the registration. Actually republicans gained from those particular actions. We have a lot of people in our party that like to show up at the polls. It's a family event, grandpa taking a granddaughter, etcetera. But we are going to make the largest investment in GOP history in voter turnout and absentee balloting. I don't think there's any more evidence of our commitment than that.

Henderson: Sometimes crises generate new ideas. Mr. Smith, is there one thing that has happened as a party organizer or organization during the pandemic that you want to replicate in the future?

Smith: Yes. I think the outreach to voters. I have been impressed as I talk to Iowans all across the state that first all they're home, second of all they are willing to talk and so the opportunity to connect with as many voters as possible through telephone, Zoom, all kinds of creative ways that way to make sure that we're in contact with our voters is something that I want to keep forward.

Henderson: Mr. Kaufmann, has there been some new ideas step forward or are we just going to go back to having big rallies and candidates walking up and down Main Street once the pandemic is over?

Kaufmann: Sure, and there are safe ways to go door-to-door, standing back 8 feet, wearing a mask. There's still going to be voter contact. It's going to be different. And what I'm hearing and I'm talking to a ton of candidates out there is that there is still a hunger at the door, I agree with Mark, I think some of these things we're going to continue and I think we're going to continue them possibly in new expanded ways. We tried Zoom. There are pros and cons to that. I've been pretty proud of some of our republicans that I don't know what Zoom is and I want to show up at the polls, I want to be at that rally, I want to hear everybody chanting go Trump or go Joni. I think they have adapted pretty well because I think all Iowans, republican or democrat, understand that these are incredibly, incredibly unique situations and I think they all understand to a certain level we may disagree on policies but I think we understand that we have to adapt in order to make sure we have these elections.

Murphy: One of the ways we're having to adapt right now is looking ahead to the school year. The Governor just issued a proclamation this week that required schools to offer at least half of their core subjects to be taught in buildings. I want to get each of your thoughts on that. Representative Smith, we'll start with you coming from the legislature.

Smith: Well, this has been extremely confusing. The first reports from the Governor were for school districts to put out plans of how they wanted to conduct and make sure that our children learn in safe ways. And then came the edict from the Governor to require the requirements of face-to-face here. This has caused a great deal of concern from students themselves, from parents and from teachers of how we do this in a safe way. The United States of America is the country with the highest level of COVID-19 cases that is planning on opening up their schools. We have not been given clear direction on COVID-19 from the very beginning from our leaders and it is showing as we start looking at the school calendar start date.

Murphy: But there's concerns for the parents who want their kids in school as well. What is your response to those who want to be able to send their children physically to school?

Smith: They want their children to be in school, they want their children to be safe while they're in school and the concern is they don't feel that both criteria have been met.

Murphy: Chairman Kaufmann, what happened to local control? Why does what a small school in rural Iowa and a major school in Iowa City or Des Moines, why do they have to have the same policy?

Kaufmann: Well, the Governor has, there is parental choice, there is flexibility in that particular mandate. Look, the Governor of this state, and there are many democrats that agree with me, that her approval ratings are at an all-time high. The bottom line is I want the Governor in every single county in this state right now because people get and they understand that she is basing her decisions, and sometimes yes she has looked at things differently because new science has come in and that is called flexibility. If she wasn't doing that then the democrats would say that she's not listening. The bottom line is this with this Governor, she has walked that line between making sure that we have economic viability and we have safety at the same time. I'm one of those teachers, this isn't a political, partisan talking point to me. I'm going to walk in in August and I'm going to walk into this classroom and there's going to be kids there and I can tell you one thing, I get that angst, I understand that angst and I'm not going to politicize that angst. The other thing I would say is, as a teacher, online is great, it's how we've had to adapt, but I'm telling you right now that I have students that I know whose education has not been as good as it can be because of the online. Kids with disabilities are sometimes hurt by the online. Now, that's not to say we shouldn't do online, that's to say that it is a reasonable thing to do to look for in-person because that's better education. So I'm a teacher, I get it, it's not a talking point to me.

Henderson: Less than two minutes left. Mr. Smith, you are in charge also of legislative elections as party chair. How do you get people to get enthused about a legislative race when they're focused on the presidential top-of-the-ticket race?

Smith: By having candidates that are quality candidates from the top of the ticket to the bottom of the ticket and that is what we have. This is a great crop of candidates, people that know their districts, now their people in their districts and are working very hard.

Yepsen: Republicans have -- go ahead, Kay.

Henderson: But how do you get them to split their ticket or vote straight ticket, make that decision?

Smith: We do it the way that we've always done it which is each candidate needs to sell why they are the best person for the office.

Henderson: How do you get people to pay attention, Mr. Kaufmann, to legislative races when they are very focused on re-electing President Trump?

Kaufmann: It's difficult during a presidential year, no doubt about it. It's making as many personal contacts as possible. I agree with actually everything Mark said about the legislative races. I would just add, remember we no longer have a fill in the dot for R, fill in the dot for D. I think that is going to facilitate what you're suggesting we need people to do.

Yepsen: We have less than a minute left. How worried about democrats about the student vote? You've got campuses that are all online, nobody is in the dorms. Your party benefits a lot from big student vote. What are you going to do? How worried are you?

Smith: Well, we're recognizing that we have the student vote and that the majority of them go our way. And so Chairman Kaufmann has talked about having an aggressive vote-by-mail program, we're having that as well and we're reaching out to students all across the state and other areas where they traditionally vote in the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: And we're out of time. Thank you both for taking time to be with us.

Thanks.

You're welcome, thanks for having us.

Yepsen: Good luck to you all.

Thanks.

Yepsen: And we'll be back on Iowa Press in three weeks after a brief hiatus that includes Iowa PBS coverage of the Girls State Softball Tournament. Iowa Press returns on Friday, August 14 with Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Theresa Greenfield. 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. Iowa PBS is supported in part by Wells Fargo. Fuel Iowa is a voice and a resource for Iowa's fuel industry. Our members offer a diverse range of products including fuel, grocery and convenience items. They help keep Iowans on the move in rural and urban communities. Together we Fuel Iowa. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.

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Associated General Contractors of Iowa