Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss the 2020 election dynamics in Iowa and the current status of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Caroline Cummings, politics reporter for Sinclair Broadcasting Group.

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

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Nearly 50 days until Election Day and Campaign 2020 is hitting the crucial home stretch here in Iowa. We dive into the issues and candidates driving the headlines on this Reporters' Roundtable 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, September 11 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: It seems nearly every week in 2020 has been dominated by a litany of news events and issues. The home stretch of Campaign 2020 is no exception. Here in Iowa, while the coronavirus pandemic is still impacting everything from school attendance to church services, candidates are running a different kind of campaign. The usual rallies and handshakes have been replaced by virtual town halls and a distant wave from at least six feet away. To get an inside look at the current issues we have gathered a reporters' roundtable. Journalists joining us are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Caroline Cummings, Political Reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome, everybody. Lots to cover today. And I want to hear from all of you. Caroline, I'll start with you. The pandemic. What is the political fallout of the pandemic on Iowa politics?

Cummings: Well, I think it remains to be seen. Of course at least in the General Election context we've seen some polling showing really divided on party lines in terms of are the President and republicans handling the coronavirus response well or are they not? In terms of Kim Reynolds, who is at the helm of the state's response of course, she is not up for re-election this year, she's got two more years on this term. So I think for the strong feelings on both sides about her response I think that will obviously, we'll see how that really tees up in the next few years and if people remember this. And I'm sure they will because it's obviously a colossal moment.

Yepsen: Erin Murphy, what do you think the effect, the political effect is of the pandemic?

Murphy: Yeah, I did just want to say I'm probably just too naive and shouldn't be in this spot I find myself in, but I can't help but be a little sad that we even have to have this discussion, that it has become a political thing. I would have liked to have think that maybe a once a century pandemic would be something that we could try and tackle collectively. But like everything else in our world these days the political sides have retreated to their respective corners in a lot of ways. I think Caroline makes a good point. When you look at something like this I think the biggest political impact is going to be felt at the executive level. So the President is going to be judged on this heavily in his race and here in Iowa specifically I think we see a bigger impact in a couple of years when Kim Reynolds is up for re-election and I'm sure any number of the actions she has taken will be re-litigated in that race.

Yepsen: Kay, how do you see this?

Henderson: Waving at you from I think eight feet away, David.

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Henderson: The one thing that occurs to me is the mood among the electorate is dour and it's for a variety of reasons. The pandemic, of course, the derecho and drought for a lot of farmers who didn't get hurt by the derecho and see their crops flattened, they're having reduced yields because of the weather situation. You also have this ethanol issue sort of hanging around and depressing corn prices in particular. So people are not happy for a variety of reasons. We were hearing that people are more depressed than ever and people have just gone into their respective caves. You've got republicans on one side and democrats on the other and there aren't a lot of independent swing voters this time around in my estimation.

Yepsen: Caroline, expand a little bit on your observations about Governor Reynolds. As has been said, this may not have an impact on her until two years from now if she runs for re-election. But boy, she is having to make some unpopular decisions.

Cummings: And I think this line that she said yesterday during her news conference on Thursday, we're taping this on Friday of course. She said that essentially no matter what I do I'm not going to please everybody. And I think that's really true because republicans have praised her efforts more or less, democrats have condemned them and that has teed up into court battles. You've got, she was sued over her closure of bars in six counties, she was sued by her in-person learning requirements, sued over rather her in-person learning requirements. Of course the courts decided both in her favor that she had the authority to close those bars down and that she rightfully interpreted the law governing schools during a pandemic. So I think that she is facing criticism to be sure. But then of course there's republicans who think she is approaching this right. And I think that the most recent polling we've seen on this issue is that there was one poll in August said that she had a 28% approval rating, among the lowest in the nation, then there was yet another poll the same week that said her overall approval rating was 58% and there was some more deeper divisions on issues like schools and mask mandates. So I guess those polls of course are just snapshots but I think it kind of adds this dimension too that this is not just cut and dry. People maybe agree with her on some things, they disagree on others, that sort of thing.

Murphy: Yeah, that's exactly what I was going to say. That is what will be most interesting to me as time passes and again especially if Governor Reynolds runs for election again and these issues are re-litigated. We all know how democrats feel about Kim Reynolds handling the pandemic and we all know how republicans feel about her handling because we hear that. But there's a lot of people out there who vote but don't get caught up in the day-to-day political grind. But the pandemic is very real to them so they'll have strong opinions on that too.

Yepsen: But Kay, isn't she in an inordinately bad position here? Everybody is mad about schools and the chaotic schedule. If somebody's not happy I could say every school principal saying, go talk to the Governor about it. People with sports, bar owners. It's not very good for a politician to have every bar and restaurant owner in the state badmouthing you. What do you make of that?

Henderson: Well, and there's also not much separation in the minds of voters between the executive of the United States of America and the executive of the State of Iowa. So she is sort of marching through this pandemic with Trump and people see that, among the democrats, and they react to it viscerally. And republicans who otherwise might be a little trepidatious about the use of some of the executive powers that we've seen, they are party lined behind the Governor. So she is benefiting a little bit from the fact that republicans feel as if, some of them feel as if they need to defend her. She is also benefiting from the fact that depending on where you go in Iowa there are certainly different views about the pandemic. If you go to rural Iowa where they haven't had a lot of, they don't have a lot of people living there and they don't have a lot of people who have contracted the virus, their view of the pandemic is a lot different than it is in places like Iowa City and Ames, those liberal bastions of the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: And it's also true that old adage, you can't beat somebody with nobody in politics. So it isn't going to be just her against her job approval rating, there's going to be a democrat against her and that person will come with pluses and minuses as well. Erin, talk about the impact on sports. We have our priorities in Iowa, we've got to have our high school football, certainly got to have the Hawks game and the Cyclones. What is the impact of all this on sports?

Murphy: Well, and it's interesting because there's different levels to this. So at the high school level the athletics, fall sports, football, volleyball, cross country, etcetera have been tied into the debate over whether schools should be back in-person in that the Governor has said if a school district wants to move online that means they can't play sports during that period either and that has kind of created a whole new kind of pressure because as we've seen and we've heard from people who react when sports are canceled that they're not happy about it. They want their sports. They want it to be attempted even during this pandemic. So that has gotten twisted into the whole school debate. And then at the college level right here in Iowa we have the Big 12 and Iowa State playing, the Big Ten and Iowa not, which has become a political football as well, apologies for that one.

Yepsen: Kay, is there any political ramification to any of this? Or this is just something inside the campuses and schools about football and athletics? Any political fallout you can think of?

Henderson: There is great uproar in the campus towns of Iowa City and Ames about this. But if you look at the lineup of state legislators who represent those two cities they are democrats, not a lot of republicans representing those areas, and so it sort of falls along partisan lines.

Yepsen: Caroline, another big issue being talked about a lot is absentee ballots. A lot of Iowan, maybe most Iowans, for the first time will be casting an absentee ballot. Is this going to be chaotic?

Cummings: Well, there's some questions about that because there's these three lawsuits, Woodbury, Linn and Johnson Counties, the auditors were sued over pre-filled absentee ballot request forms, two of those were already decided by a judge voiding those pre-filled forms and we have another decision pending that could come down as soon as today. And so people are confused about if I already sent my pre-filled ballot form in and now that doesn't count towards getting a ballot, it is incumbent on the auditors to let them know that it doesn't count. And then they're also going to be inundated with multiple absentee ballot request forms, which is totally normal and fine, you can send multiple ballot request forms back and only get one ballot in return. But I think all of these decisions are weighing heavily on voters also because maybe they don't understand that a court decision in Polk County, excuse me, in Johnson County or Linn County or Woodbury County, doesn't have bearing on their other counties but it's just going to add this, all these news headlines coming at them I'm sure it's causing some confusion.

Murphy: Yeah, I think the short answer there is there's evidence it already is chaos. Caroline is actually right about everything she said. The good news is at the end of the day here we're still only talking about absentee ballot request forms, and I want to make that clear to the viewers, we're not talking about the ballots themselves. So once they eventually get their ballot, cast it and file it, as long as you're a person that wants greater turnout that's a good thing and should be okay at that point. But in the meantime yeah, there's a lot of chaos with the different ways that auditors are handling this.

Henderson: And looking ahead, David, to November 3rd, Iowa has a law that is more favorable to counting those ballots than many other states like New York which had horrible problems with its primary this summer. The auditors can open the envelope the day before, we had Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald on the program a couple of weeks ago, he has special equipment to slit open those envelopes because he's going to get tens of thousands, tens of thousands of envelopes carrying those ballots. And then they can count them, they can run them through the machine as soon as the polls open on the 2nd and then announce the results and tabulate the results when the polls close.

Yepsen: And I think it's important, there's a lot of talk nationally, the President is talking about fraud. You have election officials in Iowa who say yeah, it's different, this might be a little confusing, but there's no evidence of fraud.

Henderson: And you can also track your ballot. You can go online and see where your ballot is.

Yepsen: And they're also saying we should know the outcomes in Iowa on Election Night, unlike some other states that that may not be true. Erin, let's talk about voter registrations. Republicans, we talk about polls, but voter registrations republicans have a narrow edge statewide.

Murphy: Yeah, and this is interesting because coming out of the Caucuses the democrats had overtaken them, benefiting from the Caucuses and the great interest there was with a very competitive democratic race and not as much on the republican side with an incumbent republican President. So democrats had taken the statewide lead and since then republicans have regained that lead and have actually expanded on it. When you break it down what's interesting by congressional district, they have a large statewide lead, but it's all built in one congressional district. Democrats have more registered voters in the First, Second and Third Districts. Republican's advantage is built entirely in the Fourth District. So it's good news for them statewide. Joni Ernst likes to see that. But it does present some challenges still for republicans at the congressional level, especially in those competitive First, Second and Third District races.

Yepsen: Republicans are spending a lot of time and money and phone calls, almost with a screwdriver and a chisel, going in there and digging out the supporters. Erin, does that tell you that their turnout operation is better than the democrats?

Murphy: I think that's a fair question right now and they've kind of got a unity project working right now from the Trump campaign on down through the local races, they're kind of all working as one big republican team, it's not the Trump campaign and the Ernst campaign and on down the line. And we'll find that out for sure and it's showing up in the registered voter numbers at least. But the other thing to remember is these races, especially those congressional races often come down to the no party voters, which in some cases are higher than the republicans or the democrats and which way they're swinging.

Henderson: The other thing we can't forget is that before the June primary the Secretary of State sent an absentee ballot request form to every active voter and independent voters, or no party voters, picked a side. So if you look at how registration has changed from before that happened to after it happened and we had record turnout among democrats and republicans in the June 2nd primary, that can also be traced to that mailing that Paul Pate sent out.

Yepsen: Kay, one new ingredient in the Iowa equation this year is felon voting. Paul Pate was on this show and estimated that 35,000 potential new voters have been re-enfranchised as a result of Governor Reynolds' executive order. What is the political effect?

Henderson: It's unknown. We have various groups that are trying to help folks figure out how to register to vote if they are among that 35,000 group that the Secretary of State mentioned. If half of them vote will that benefit democrats? Will it be a wash? It's hard to know because has anyone polled this group of people to know? And also will they participate? That's the other thing that we don't know. If you look at some other states there is some evidence that there's not a lot of participation when people gain this right. It's sort of unknown.

Yepsen: One of the things, some republicans were worried about this because they see a lot of those inmates are minority voters, generally those voters tend to vote more democratic. But I've talked to some republicans who say, there are a lot of white inmates in Iowa, they're blue collar, they're not as well educated and that profile is a republican.

Henderson: The other thing you have to remember is that to be a voter, voters have a propensity to vote, so if you voted when you were 18 and you're 65 you'll be more likely to have voted throughout the course of your adulthood.

Yepsen: Let's go around the table and Caroline, I'll start with you. I want to talk about the race for President. I'd like to quickly hear from each one of you about your thoughts about how the race for President in Iowa is going.

Cummings: Well, of course the pandemic, like all campaigns, has upended a presidential campaign in this state. I think that people are seeing Iowa, or they saw Iowa as maybe a year or two ago as, well it's a republican stronghold, the President is not poised to lose it. But the numbers, again, polling numbers, albeit snapshots in time, are shifting towards it really is becoming more or less of a toss-up. And I think that perhaps that is why we've seen Vice President Pence coming through Iowa for events to try to make sure they keep the Iowa base. And we've also got Kanye West on the ballot so that's a whole other thing in there.

Yepsen: What's the effect of that, Kanye West? Is he going to siphon off enough votes, he's a rap music singer, African-American, is he going to take enough votes away from democrats to tip the state to Trump?

Cummings: That's the GOP, few in the GOP are making that play, right, is that he might siphon off some people. But there's polling to show that only 2% of black voters, of course that's national numbers, say they support Kanye West. So I think that's not necessarily true that just because he's a black rapper that black voters are going to vote for him.

Yepsen: Well, it is true that there's republican operatives that are behind this. Erin?

Murphy: To expand on that real quickly, my sense is that there is not as much interest in a third party vote this year as there was four years ago. I think this is a much more even split, you're either for President Trump or you're going to go for Joe Biden. I don't think, unlike four years ago when there was a lot of protest votes, I don't like either candidates so I'm going to vote for Jill Stein or whoever it might have been, I don't sense there's as much appetite for that this time around.

Henderson: There were 1.3% people who voted for President in Iowa in 2016 who wrote somebody else's name in. We're not going to see that this time around.

Yepsen: Talk about the Senate race, Kay. How do you see that unfolding here?

Henderson: Early in the year we saw that this was a competitive race. It is ranked among the competitive Senate races in the country, lots of outside money being spent on this race. What I find most interesting is that just sort of digress here, but you have two women running against one another in the Senate, you have two women running against one another in the First and in the Second, you have a woman and a man running against one another in the Third District. There's going to be parity in the Iowa congressional delegation and there may actually be a majority of women win on Election Night.

Yepsen: Erin, how do you see the Senate race?

Murphy: 50 and 50 in 2020. The polling has shown a close race and that is very believable given what we kind of knew coming into this. Kay talked about the high stakes, Iowa could help decide which party controls the Senate nationally. Joni Ernst has kind of been attacking Theresa Greenfield based on her business record and they kind of accuse her of "hiding in her basement", not being out in the public a lot and doing public events. Conversely Ernst has kind of come under fire lately for some comments she made kind of feeding into a town hall questioner’s question and kind of conspiracy theory type take on COVID deaths. So we're seeing the punches thrown. The polls haven't shown a lot of movement yet. I think we still have a really close race.

Cummings: Kay hinted at how expensive this race is and I feel like perhaps that is heightened of course because it's close, but also maybe the dynamics of a race that is being conducted in a pandemic. You could argue that these races, while so colossally important, the presidential election and maybe the deciding factor on flipping the United States Senate from republican to democrat, that it's not taking up the oxygen that it perhaps otherwise would because of these other conversing issues that we're facing. We've got the pandemic, you've got record unemployment, you've got race relations, there are so many other things it almost seems like it supersedes the day-by-day horse race of what Theresa Greenfield is saying, what Joni Ernst is saying and vice versa. And then also just to the point about the expenses, you can't turn on the television or watch a YouTube video without seeing an ad for this race so they're putting a lot of money clearly into advertising to reach people during the pandemic.

Yepsen: It's wallpapered is the term for it and I'm not sure any of that stuff is moving any numbers, it's just so much media there.

Cummings: And that might also be because of all these other pressing issues that are capturing headlines, people aren't paying as close attention.

Henderson: The other thing is that the Ernst people are sort of employing the anti-Romney strategy that Obama did, let's attack the business record, and also they're doing what President Trump is doing against Biden, as you mentioned, accusing her of staying in the basement, whereas the Greenfield campaign has not been explicitly tying Ernst with Trump because she needs Trump voters from 2016 to vote for her.

Yepsen: Let's quickly move through the congressional races, we've just got a few minutes left. Caroline, what is your assessment of the First District race, Abby Finkenauer versus Ashley Hinson?

Cummings: Like we've mentioned, campaigns obviously upended by pandemic, but I think what is unique about the First District is they are really the one that is hit the hardest by the derecho, so that derecho response in terms of what Finkenauer has done in Congress, what Hinson would do, those are issues that are maybe more at the forefront for that district than perhaps other districts. They were at this very table litigating that during a debate recently. So I think that is an interesting dynamic.

Yepsen: Second District.

Murphy: Open seat race, been held by a democrat, Dave Loebsack, for a long time but it's a district that Trump carried in 2016 so republicans feel they have a good shot there. Polling has kind of been a little bit all over the place but mostly showing a close race with Rita Hart in the lead, some more recent ones have shown Mariannette Miller-Meeks, the republican, leading. So I think a competitive race there.

Henderson: One of Iowa's, in the Third Congressional District, David, one of Iowa's first ever Congresswomen Cindy Axne, a democrat from West Des Moines, rematch against former republican Congressman David Young. The interesting thing about this is this rematch is really not at the top of the ticket. For a lot of people in discussions they are more focused on the other two races that have been referenced before.

Yepsen: Erin, real quickly, did J.D. Scholten choose poorly when he decided to run for Congress as opposed to running for U.S. Senate?

Murphy: I think it would be interesting to get his honest take on that. Now, he made that decision before the primary so when Randy Feenstra knocked off longtime incumbent Steve King who has been in hot water for all kinds of things over the years that completely changed the dynamics of that race and made it so much harder for the democrat in that race. So it's a fair question. Might J.D. have been better off as a Senate candidate?

Yepsen: Kay, real quickly, the battle for the Iowa House. Democrats have a shot do you think?

Henderson: They hope that they have a shot. They're investing a lot of money in it. Fred Hubbell, who ran for -- who was the democratic candidate for Governor last time around investing in that strategy. Republicans are raising money and hope to go after a few swing seats that are occupied by democrats. It could be a nail-biter for people on Election Night.

Murphy: Democrats are getting national help money on that too.

Yepsen: They need to break the republican trifecta. We're out of time. Thanks to all of you. We'll be back next week to dive into economic issues confronting Iowans. With sectors of the economy still reeling six months into a global pandemic, we'll sit down with Midwestern economists Chad Hart of Iowa State University and Ernie Goss of Creighton University. That's 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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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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