2020 election and future political battles

Nov 20, 2020  | 27 min  | Ep 4814 | Podcast | Transcript

Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Dennis Goldford, professor of political science at Drake University, and Mike Mahaffey, former chair of the Republican Party of Iowa, discuss the 2020 election and look ahead to the next big political battles in Iowa.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table is Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.

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

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2020 is slowly lurching to the finish line, but political battles await in the weeks and months ahead. We gather perspective with Drake University Professor Dennis Goldford and former Republican Party Chair Mike Mahaffey 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. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

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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 20 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

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Yepsen: 2020 has been a year of unprecedented news and political strife. As an ongoing pandemic surges here in Iowa, political parties are now setting their sights on the political battles of the coming weeks and in 2021. To assess the political situation here in Iowa we're joined by Drake University Professor of Political Science Dennis Goldford and Former Chair of the Republican Party of Iowa Mike Mahaffey. Gentlemen, welcome. Good to see you both. Good to have you back on the show.

Nice to see you.

Yepsen: Also joining the conversation across the table is Kay Henderson, News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Gentlemen, this week concerning news when Senator Chuck Grassley announced that he had been exposed to someone with COVID and then later the same day announced that he tested positive for it. Thankfully as we tape this program right now he says he is asymptomatic and feeling well. Mike Mahaffey, that spawned a lot of conversation about the next Senate race in Iowa. Do you think Chuck Grassley will seek re-election?

Mahaffey: I really don't know the answer to that. One of the interesting things is that he missed votes in the Senate for the first time in 27 years, which is a pretty extraordinary record. I would not bet against Chuck Grassley running again. I know he's going to be, I think he's 87 years of age. If the republicans win the Senate, if they win at least one of the races in Georgia on January 5th, they will control the Senate and Chuck Grassley will continue to have quite a bit of influence and power. And if that is the case I wouldn't bet against him running again.

Henderson: Well, if he does not, there have already been some names floated out in the atmosphere of people who might run. Ashley Hinson, who just won a race for the U.S. House seat representing you, I believe. Who else do you think might be considering it?

Mahaffey: And Ashley is I think a rising star in the Republican Party. But I would be a little surprised if she ran simply because it would be after only one term. And it certainly could happen. Well, another name, which is a familiar name, is Pat Grassley, who is the Speaker of the Iowa House and the grandson of Senator Grassley and who just came off a very successful election in terms of what happened in the Iowa House of Representatives where it was 53-47 and is now 59-41. So that is one. Another couple of names that I've heard are Jack Whitver is another one. And I think there would be, if Senator Grassley does not run again, that is the first time since 1980 that that seat has been open. So there will be numerous people.

Henderson: Dennis Goldford, what are you hearing in regards to this republican race? And what names are you hearing on the democratic side?

Goldford: Really nobody yet. I think the democrats are trying to dig out from under the rubble of their high expectations from this past election. And of course, Mark Smith is not going to run for re-election as the Democratic State Chair. Janet Petersen is not going to resume her position in the Iowa legislature. So the democrats I think they're not quite in a circular firing squad at the moment, but they had tremendously high aspirations for this election and they are at this point just trying to sort that out. Chuck Grassley, boy I hope I have his physical constitution going forward. I mean, talk about an iron man. He still jobs, he runs every day, he's in tremendous shape and he seems to have weathered so far this particular test of positive for the COVID virus pretty well. But I recall Strom Thurmond, who basically got wheeled onto the Senate floor when he was 100 any time they needed a vote from him and they wheeled him back to his office. Of course, the Senate from South Carolina. I don't think Chuck Grassley wants to be in that position at all. But I think Mike is right in terms of surveying the lay of the land. If it looks as though the republicans are going to keep control of the Senate then it gives him obviously a lot of things to do and worthwhile staying there.

Yepsen: Another race in 2022 that is being talked about is the Governor's race. Dennis Goldford, Kim Reynolds. How is her handling of the pandemic going to affect her hopes for re-election?

Goldford: I think at this point it is completely about that. Now, other issues will emerge, of course. But the people I have talked to or comments I've become aware of, I've heard her called COVID Kim, I've heard that the level of outrage that I've seen as to what she has done or not done is just striking to me. There are people of course who believe she has done a very good job. I'm not hearing that as loudly as I'm hearing some of the objections at this point. But for right now, barring what happens any given amount of time down the road because we never know what is going to pop up on our screens, it'll be COVID, COVID, COVID, as far as how she has handled that.

Yepsen: Do you hear names of democrats who are thinking about it?

Goldford: I don't want to mention names particularly because I don't want to foster any little boomlets or things like that. Democrats don't have anybody, at this point, of statewide name recognition, although Theresa Greenfield certainly had a ton of money to get herself known across the state. Would this be something that interests her? I don't know at this point.

Yepsen: I don't care about boomlets, but I'm here to report as a reporter. Cindy Axne's name comes up in political circles. She's not all that excited about Washington and a governorship has a lot of appeal.

Goldford: The difficulty for democrats is that as we saw this time, Joe Biden won, what, 6 counties out of 99 and Theresa Greenfield won 8 counties out of 99. Any democratic candidate running statewide, whether a presidential candidate, a senatorial candidate, or a gubernatorial candidate, has to pile up big majorities in those more urbanized counties. And in the last couple of election cycles, including this one, they haven't done that. So I don't know if Axne would want to make that move yet or not.

Yepsen: Mike Mahaffey, knocking off a sitting republican Governor in Iowa is pretty tough.

Mahaffey: I live in a different neighborhood than Dennis lives in. I don't hear the outrage about Governor Reynolds. In fact, talking to a local doctor the other day who said that he had some sympathy for the position that she was in. Is there some criticism? Yes. What I hear more than anything in terms of criticism is, why not let local governments decide if they want to have a mask mandate. Now, we know this week that the Governor has moved more in that direction. In terms of the COVID, by the time the gubernatorial election comes around, let's hope and pray and I believe it is the case, it won't be the main issue that candidates will be dealing with.

Henderson: Mike Mahaffey, you ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1996 and came within I believe 4,000 votes of Leonard Boswell. What is your counsel to people like Abby Finkenauer and whoever doesn't win the Second Congressional race? Mariannette Miller-Meeks is in the lead right now, Rita Hart has asked for a recount in that Second District. But why did you not choose to run a second time? And what is your counsel to people who might think, I'll run again in two years?

Mahaffey: We had a son that was beginning college, went to a private school, in two years we had a daughter that was going to private school. Kay, it's called billable hours. And I never regretted the decision to run for Congress and I have not regretted the decision to not run again. Having said that, I do talk to people that have lost elections and I say, there is life after politics, or you can be -- Abby Finkenauer, for example, is a very young person. She doesn't have to get right back in the game if she doesn't want to and there are other things in life. The great thing about life is it's not a one act play. I did lose by I think about 4,000 votes and it was close enough that I thought, well, it was a good showing. I feel whomever loses that Second Congressional District race, you have to feel sympathy for them because it's a race that is going to be decided by, it looks like, less than 100 votes. That is a difficult pill to swallow.

Yepsen: Right now for Mariannette Miller-Meeks it looks like the fourth time is a charm.

Mahaffey: Yeah it does. Another thing in that race that I think is important, Johnson County, which is a very strong democratic county, Miller-Meeks got 1,170 votes more than the President did and Rita Hart got 3,000 votes less than Joe Biden did. That is going to come back and haunt the democrats. They have to figure out some way to repair that.

Yepsen: Dennis, we have a lot of candidates in Iowa who come up short, they gave it a good go and didn't quite make it, yet Iowa political history says that a lot of people win on their second go. Neil Smith, Tom Harkin --

Jim Leach.

Yepsen: Jim Leach. Is there anyone on the scene in Iowa who lost in November who you think will probably still be in a good position for the future. Kay mentioned Abby Finkenauer, she also would be a great prospect for a job in the Biden administration. She was an early supporter of Biden. But are there people on the scene who you think are people we're going to hear more from?

Goldford: Well, again, I don't want to sound like a flag waver for Theresa Greenfield but I thought she ran a very disciplined campaign. She certainly had a ton of money. I think she just got caught in a Trump wave in Iowa that certainly helped Joni Ernst. But I think as a candidate she was impressive. There's the question about J.D. Scholten. The problem for him is he lives in one of the most republican districts in the state, if not the country, the most republican district in the state. So there are some younger folks, I think we're looking to some extent the beginning of a generational change. Chuck Grassley won't be there forever, at some point he'll decide not to run. Joni Ernst won that first re-election bid which pretty well absent scandal sets her up to continue fairly successfully. So I think that we'll see where Cindy Axne goes. But I think there are some possibilities there for the future.

Yepsen: One of the things, Dennis Goldford, that happens next year is census numbers are given to the states and they redistrict the lines for the State House of Representatives and for U.S. Congress elections in that 2022 election. What do you expect to see the effect of that redistricting to be? What is that going to do?

Goldford: Well, the first point to make I think is that Iowa has a really good redistricting process with the Legislative Services Agency and the way that is done. I get calls every 10 years, I've been here that long now I guess, and they want to know how Iowa does it because it's not simply a partisan gerrymander of sorts. So the way Iowa does it, at least for people who aren't over partisan, is very respected around the country. I think, again, that our population has not declined, but it grows very slowly. When I came here in 1985 I think the population was about 2.8 million. Finally in the early aughts we hit 3 million. It takes a while. But I think a lot of the smaller more rural counties are emptying out. And look at the Third District, to get the magic number from 2010 you needed 16 counties, you needed 39 counties to get the magic number, that same number in the Fourth District. So I expect those numbers to increase. 

Yepsen: Mike Mahaffey?

Mahaffey: I think you're going to see a move towards medium-sized towns and suburbs in terms of grown. I think 68 out of 99 counties in Iowa lost population within the last few years and that is something that very honestly the Republican Party needs to address. The rural base, well, they need to look at the question -- I practice law in a small town. Here is what most of the businessmen and women that we do work for are concerned about. The number one issue is being able to find enough good help. That is the number one issue over taxes or anything else. How do we have enough skilled workers, how do we have enough good help for the different businesses that they have? And that is something that is a problem in the state of Iowa and we're going to have to continue to address that.

Yepsen: Well, if republicans would support a higher minimum wage maybe they would get more people to go to work for them. That's the old saying, if you pay them they will come.

Mahaffey: Well, as a matter of fact, that may be part of it. But I think the other part of it is you've got to have the people with the right kind of education to do that. And I'm not talking about just going to college, David, I'm talking about welders and people that have those skilled craftsmen and women that we really need in the state of Iowa.

Yepsen: One thing that does happen in redistricting is that a lot of candidates decide to retire and you'll have new districts and there will be a lot of turmoil in Iowa politics in the year ahead as people decide whether they stay or go. Kay Henderson?

Henderson: Mike Mahaffey, sort of again back to your political resume, you were Chair of the Iowa Republican Party in 1988, Dukakis carried the state, republicans didn't have a good night. Rebuilding the party, what are the parallels that you may see between the Iowa Republican Party in 1988 at this point and the Iowa Democratic Party? And how long did it take to glide out?

Mahaffey: It doesn't take that long in Iowa because of what Dennis talked about. The way we do restricting keeps Iowa competitive. A lot of the races this year that went toward republicans, it was a very good night for republicans, but they were won by very close votes. But I think the problem the democrats have right now is that they ran good candidates, they had plenty of money, in fact many places they had more money than the republicans had, and they still did not do that well. Somebody asked me the other day, what do you think they should do? And I said, well, perhaps they should resurrect the ghost of Harold Hughes. And the fact of the matter is they have got to get some leaders from small town and rural Iowa in order to win some of these races again. I hesitate to give advice to my democratic friends, but here's one piece of advice I would give in terms of the gubernatorial candidate in 2022, don't run somebody from Des Moines.

Henderson: Dennis Goldford?

Goldford: The problem for democrats here in Iowa is that with our elections becoming increasingly nationalized, we watched the campaign ads this past season, we don't know who the Iowa candidate was, it was Nancy Pelosi or it was Chuck Schumer. And it's hard for a democrat until they figure out who they are to get a hearing in the small town and the rural areas of Iowa nowadays. We can say it's not a Bob Ray Republican Party anymore but it's not a Harold Hughes Democratic Party anymore either. That is the difficulty for democrats.

Mahaffey: But there's still a way that you can make a difference in races. Let me give you a couple of races here in Polk County. The republicans picked up two legislative seats in Polk County, one with a 25-year-old teacher from Ankeny, another with Eddie Andrews, who is an African-American pastor who is married to the woman who is the NAACP Chapter President for Iowa and Nebraska. And by having those kinds of candidates in those races it made all the difference.

Yepsen: Dennis Goldford, playing off on that, one of the things that is going on in the Democratic Party right now is the question of whether they made a good tactical decision in not going door-to-door. Mike mentioned the under voting in Johnson County, for example, probably cost them a seat in Congress, these two seats he mentioned in the suburbs. Is that, do you agree that that was a mistake by democrats? Or was that a wise move given the health pandemic?

Goldford: No, I think it was a mistake. The political science research that I know of suggests that what matters most is that personal contact. We would get tons of written ads, flyers, pamphlets in the mailbox every day. Most people just toss those. And that personal contact is crucial. The democrats didn't want to seem to contradict their message about how dangerous the virus is, but they could have stood at a distance, rung the doorbell and stood back. I think that did help republicans.

Mahaffey: Which is what republicans did and here is what republicans found out, people were glad to see somebody. You ring the door, you stand back, you have your mask on and you talk to people, they like that. Democrats said, oh we made millions of phone calls. It's not the same.

Yepsen: So, a question for both of you and I'll start with you, Dennis Goldford. Is Iowa now a republican state?

Goldford: You know, I resisted saying for quite a few years that Iowa is a red state, I kept saying it's purple, but after this election, and again one swallow does not make a spring, but I'm inclined to say now Iowa is, it is at least a very pink state if it's not purple anymore.

Mahaffey: For the time being, yes.

Henderson: We haven't much time left but we do want to talk about 2024. Mike Mahaffey, does anyone have a leg up here? If President Trump is not re-elected will he be the leading candidate here in 2024?

Mahaffey: If President Trump decided to run again in 2024 he would have a lot of support in the state of Iowa. If he does not I think it's really a wide open race.

Henderson: Who has caught your eye among those -- a wide berth of people have come through.

Mahaffey: Well, you're going to have Ted Cruz again, you're going to have Vice President Pence, you're going to have Nikki Haley, you're probably going to have, you may have Chris Christie. You might have --

Mike Pompeo.

Kristi Noem.

Senator Hawley from Missouri. Cotton from Arkansas.

Mahaffey: Right. You're going to have a lot of people coming through Iowa again. And, by the way, I think Iowans will still continue to have the first-in-the-nation caucuses. I'm not sure about the democrats.

Yepsen: Well, is Iowa a good place for republicans to start their contest?

Mahaffey: That is an argument that has been going on for years in terms of the fact that does it seem to skew more towards the more ideological aspects or wings of the party? But I think the fact of the matter is in 2024 you're going to have people that are going to be more center right and then more right. So I think it will be a good contest, David.

Henderson: Dennis Goldford, would it be wise for democrats nationally to choose to start their contest in a place like Arizona?

Goldford: Well, there's this argument of America becoming an increasingly majority minority country and Arizona speaks to that issue. But notice that President Trump increased his share somewhat among Latino voters, among African-American voters this time. I think the democrats would have more trouble looking as though they were bailing out of Iowa rather than saying, look, we can reach some democrats who are pretty white bred as opposed to what we find in more ethnically diverse states.

Henderson: Why wouldn't it be in their interest to say, Iowa went republican, let's go somewhere else where it may be purple?

Goldford: Because they've got to win in, just as we see here in statewide elections, they have got to win in areas that have been republican for quite some time.

Henderson: One of the things that was heard by people who were listening to the radio and watching television was the argument among republicans that democrats are Socialists. I was in a situation in Grinnell, at Grinnell College where people were arguing that, well people know a democratic Socialist is different than a Socialist. Do they?

Goldford: I don't think so. To be blunt about it, in American political culture calling someone a Socialist is the political equivalent of calling someone a child molester. It's that incendiary and inflammatory a term. Now, I think it's nonsense that democrats are Socialists but it's a charge that republicans and conservatives have made about them for years as a way of delegitimizing them. There are democrats who talk in that direction like AOC and Bernie Sanders and so forth like that. They're not the majority of the party. But democrats, I have argued for a long time, since Ronald Reagan, have not figured out who they are and how to explain that to the country and I think we still saw that this time which made them vulnerable to that.

Henderson: Mike Mahaffey, there is a great debate going on nationally about the 2020 election results. How is that going to impact your party in the future?

Mahaffey: Well, Aaron Burr once said that the law is something that can be boldly asserted and plausibly maintained. There's a lot of bold assertions about the election. The plausibility or the probability of this being overturned I think is very minimal. And one of the things that I think is unfortunate is that there is some talk about state legislatures having electoral votes go for somebody other than the person that won that state. I don't think that is helpful to the Republican Party, I don't think it's helpful to republic. I think that cooler heads are going to prevail and I Think when this is all said and done there will be a peaceful transition of power and it looks right now as if it's going to be Joe Biden and that will be fine and in terms of presidential races republicans will live to fight another day.

Yepsen: Dennis Goldford, we've got 30 seconds left. Do you think, you're a professor, do you see students coming here and then leaving Iowa?

Goldford: Many go elsewhere certainly.

Yepsen: Does that leave Iowa in a more republican, being a more republican state, because younger people, democrats leave?

Goldford: Well, remember, there are republicans among college-aged students as well, there's no question about that. They may be a smaller group than generally most college students consider themselves independents but they tend to be more liberal. But you certainly have Iowans leaving Iowa, students, but you also have other students who come to school in Iowa and actually stay in Iowa.

Yepsen: And I've got to leave it there. Thank you both for joining us today. And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at Noon on Sunday. Kay Henderson will host the program with a special roundtable of small town reporters and editors focused on the issues facing journalism in Iowa's rural communities. Joining the panel with Kay are Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times, Ty Rushing of the N'West Iowa Review, Bob Leonard of KNIA and KLRS Radio and Doug Burns of the Carroll Times Herald. 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. Small businesses are the backbone of Iowa's communities and they are backed by Iowa banks. With advice, loans and financial services, banks across Iowa are committed to showing small businesses the way to a stronger tomorrow. Learn more at IowaBankers.com.

Iowa Bankers Association
Associated General Contractors of Iowa