Craig Robinson and Pat Rynard

May 10, 2019  | 27 min  | Ep 4635 | Podcast | Transcript


As the number of official candidates for President continues to grow, the state races heat up too. We get a pulse on the caucus field in Iowa politics with Pat Rynard and Craig Robinson on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 10 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


A few months ago Iowans had to make a valiant effort to keep count of how many presidential candidates had traipsed into our state. With the current number of democratic candidates now north of 20 it's still hard for even the experts to name them all. For a caucus campaign trail update and a check on the pulse in Iowa politics we're joined by Pat Rynard, Editor of the Iowa Starting Line and Craig Robinson, Editor of Also joining the conversation are Iowa political reporters Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson, News Director for Radio Iowa.

Henderson: We will delay the quiz about the number of candidates because that would take the whole show. But, Craig, let's start with you. This past week on a local issue, David Young, republican Congressman, two terms, lost in 2018 to Cindy Axne, announced he would try to regain that seat. What are his prospects?

Robinson: I think they're good actually. If you look at how David performed in 2016 and compared it to 2018 you see that there was about a 13 point drop off in the part of the district that he won in 2018. So there's plenty of I think votes out there for him to get that could help him recapture this seat. Republicans don't have a problem I think with who David Young is, the type of campaign he runs, it was just kind of the perfect storm that knocked him out and I think if there's ever an opportunity to have, to give someone another shot at getting the seat back, I think this is a good one for David to take on.

Henderson: But he may have a primary, he may have to run against newly-minted State Senator Zach Nunn, who was formerly in the Iowa House and an Iowa National Guardsman. Can he win that primary?

Robinson: I think he can. I think David has the advantage in that race. Strong name ID, his constituent services were outstanding and look, he's got a good report with activists. He has worked hard, he was in a difficult primary and won that contested convention. Zach Nunn I think is an impressive, upcoming leader in the Republican Party, but David Young has an awful lot of name ID and an existing campaign apparatus to strap right into and start running again.

Henderson: Pat, Congressman Young, former Congressman Young made the point that when he runs in 2020 the Trump voters that your colleague just referenced will turn out. Do you think that's a legitimate argument?

Rynard: They very well might but the entire third district, especially the Des Moines suburbs, has been trending toward democrats for quite a few years now, especially under the Trump presidency. So I think that is certainly in Congresswoman Axne's advantage. The way that the district is moving is going to keep getting better for her. And democrats are still going to be fired up for this go around as well.

Murphy: Pat, democrats also have to talk about the second district now this year with Congressman Loebsack announcing his retirement. Is the field going to clear for State Senator Rita Hart?

Rynard: For the most part I think whenever she jumps in, if it's this next week, she is easily the odds-on favorite to win that primary and has a, at least starts with an advantage to probably win the general. I'm sure we'll get some activist or two out of Iowa City. There's the Scott County Supervisor who is thinking about it. But Rita Hart has one of the perfect profiles you can, a former State Senator, a farmer, well liked with the party activists and donors in this state and she fits the district well.

Murphy: Are democrats not a little gun shy about clearing primary fields after I still hear about Bruce Braley in 2014? Would a competitive primary not be a good thing then?

Rynard: It certainly could and it's not like the state party is coming in and saying hey you should run, it's just folks kind of deciding on their own and realizing that Rita Hart would be a very formidable candidate to run against and you may not want to spend that much of your life going into something that you know you're probably not going to win.

Murphy: Craig, how about the republican side in that race? Are we going to have a rematch with either Mariannette Miller-Meeks or Chris Peters, or might we see a --

Robinson: I think we might have a primary between the Bobbys. We might have Bobby Kaufmann, a state representative, and there's Bobby Schilling, who is a former Congressman in Illinois that has moved to LeClaire and has been out there meeting with county central committee members and activists in the party to introduce himself to them. And look, he is someone who won a seat that was held by a democrat for 28 years. He knows exactly what he's getting into, even if the territory might be a little new to him.

Yepsen: -- the same media market though when he was in Congress --

Robinson: Absolutely, just across the river.

Murphy: Maybe just real quickly each one of you handicap that race, it's an open seat race now. Dave Loebsack had been pretty solidly in that district. What does that look for each party?

Rynard: I still think Rita Hart has got the advantage, but a lot of it is going to really depend on who the democrats' nominee is and how well they play in a lot of those blue collar towns --

Murphy: Presidential nominee?

Rynard: Sorry, presidential nominee. How they play in those blue collar towns like Muscatine and Burlington and Fort Madison.

Robinson: I like this seat for republicans. I think it might be their best chance at a pick up in Congress. You have a seat that Trump carried significantly in 2016, you have a lot of rural territory to make up ground that you'll lose in Johnson County and maybe Scott County. I like this seat for republicans and it's trending, again, I think the republican way. If you look at Southeast Iowa, Ottumwa, that has become more and more republican over the years. I like this district for republicans in 2020.

Henderson: Let's talk about the district that Abby Finkenauer won in 2018. Representative Blum is active on Twitter, appears to be doing the kind of events that one would do if you were contemplating another run. Craig, do you think he'll pull the trigger and run again?

Robinson: I think so. It's kind of odd for me to sit here and kind of taut all these advantages for these former Congressmen, but I do think he will probably pull the trigger. Again, I think he might have to face a primary challenge. Ashley Hinson from the Cedar Rapids area has made a lot of indications that she's looking at running for this seat as well. But again, I think Blum, when you're talking about a low turnout primary, and I think that's especially going to be true for republicans, this name ID is a huge thing to look at. Blum and all these guys bring a lot of name ID to this race. And so I do think he's going to look at it and I kind of think he's probably going to pull the trigger.

Henderson: What will that race be like in a general, Pat?

Rynard: Democrats would only be too lucky if Rod Blum runs again because he, like David Young, still has a lot of those bad votes on health care and on pre-existing conditions that's going to be a key talking point in this race again. Finkenauer has been very quietly kind of moving up the ranks in Congress, has been impressing a lot of folks there, been getting back to the district enough and been doing a lot of good constituency work. That's a story I've been meaning to write and I'll get to it sometime. But she fits the district incredibly well in the same way that Axne fits the third district well. Finkenauer comes from a blue collar background and that's what that district is.

Murphy: Over in the fourth district, Craig, Steve King is facing a primary from a couple of challengers. First we have State Senator Randy Feenstra and Jeremy Taylor, who is a former state legislator and county supervisor. There are a few more that have talked about getting in the race. Do you see that as basically a three person race between Feenstra, Taylor and King?

Robinson: I think so and I think it ultimately might perform more like a two person race between Feenstra and King. Feenstra's initial fundraising numbers were impressive, raised about a quarter of a million dollars in his first filing period, significantly outraised King. And so I think by the time we get to the end of the year I think people will realize that if you're not voting for Steve King your option might be Randy Feenstra.

Murphy: And how will that, you mentioned the fundraising, but if you talk to people, voters up there in the area there's still a lot of support for Steve King on the ground, at the grassroots level. What will it take, how vulnerable is he in this primary?

Robinson: Well, I think that Randy Feenstra has to continue to raise money in order to run a significant, almost general election style primary campaign against King. King raised $68,000 and spent $70,000 some, most of those dollars went to his son and daughter-in-law. Randy Feenstra needs to keep having big quarters so he has a million bucks so he can be up on TV and running an aggressive name ID campaign.

Yepsen: Don't republicans, though, have to clear out all but one opponent? The Republican Party leadership is for Feenstra. Governor Branstad gave him $1,000. So that signal is pretty clear. But if you get Steve King in a three-way or a four-way race, doesn't he win in a convention just like he did when he got to Congress in the first place?

Robinson: I think so but I think, again, I think if Feenstra is able to continue to raise this type of money and run a legitimate campaign, let's not forget --

Yepsen: But I mean it has to be a head-to-head race, does it not?

Robinson: It doesn't have to be in terms of there can only be two people on the ballot and we have a long ways before the ballot is final. But I think the pressure might be on a Jeremy Taylor to either step it up or step out. There might be some pressure there to get out of this race so it is a cleaner shot for a legitimate challenger. But I think at the end of the day we've got to remember, this is the first real primary challenge of Steve King. Other people have done it before but it has been almost a protest effort, very little money raised, very little campaigning going on. Feenstra is doing something different.

Yepsen: But we've got to remind our viewers that you've got to get 35% of the vote in an Iowa primary to win it outright or it goes to a convention.

Murphy: Pat, how about the democrats in this race? The big name is J.D. Scholten. Does he run again? And if he doesn't, who does, in what democrats have to feel like is still another possible opportunity to upset a long-term Congressman?

Rynard: We do think it is. Everyone is waiting to see what J.D. ends up doing, if he wants to do a rematch with Steve King or if he wants to try the U.S. Senate race against Joni Ernst. It has been amusing to me to kind of see how opinions get made about this race because I kind of feel like in the last couple of months people have felt like this race is moving back in King's direction for the general anyway because they saw some stories from town halls where constituents would come up and say, oh we like what you're doing Steve King. But I don't think that you're going to need to see hundreds of people to come out and protest King at his town halls for the dynamics of this race to be like what it was near the end of last cycle where he only won by three points, where he constantly creates controversies that blow up on the national level.

Murphy: But if it's not J.D. is there someone else in that district?

Rynard: There could be. There's a former football player, there's a former ambassador, not ambassador, a former admiral, whose name has been tossing around. But I think there's not a lot of infrastructure for anybody yet if it's not J.D..

Yepsen: When does Mr. Scholten have to quit playing the Hamlet routine, to be or not to be? He's not, the field in both the Senate race and the race for Congress is being plugged up by him. So at what point does he have to clear out of the way?

Rynard: Soon, very soon. Democrats would feel much better if we had some candidates for Senate and some candidates in the fourth district.

Robinson: He can take his time, David.

Rynard: And they should because with all the caucus attention right now you could be raising all kinds of money and getting national profiles because all the national reporters are in town.

Yepsen: Craig, Senator Ernst, has she got a free ride here? There's no leading democratic challenger, safe in the primary?

Robinson: I think she gets stronger and stronger by the day. I think when Cindy Axne decided that she's going to run for re-election in the third district instead of taking on Ernst I thought that was significant. And again, running for statewide office in this state is not easy. And so I think whoever is going to take her on needs the time to do it and as the clock keeps burning I like her chances.

Yepsen: Pat, Ernst safe?

Rynard: No, I don't think so and it's part of a necessity for democrats nationwide because you've got a lot of these other Senate races that we thought were going to be competitive where the top potential candidate decided not to run so the party is going to have to focus in on Iowa and find a way to bring down her positives.

Yepsen: One of the things, Craig Robinson, that was talked about, been a lot of talk about election law changes. There was talk in the legislature about not allowing students to vote on campus, about adopting a sore loser law where if you run in a primary and lose you can't run as an independent in the general, and then to change the poll closing times from 9 to 8. Did any of those make it through the legislature?

Robinson: Boy, now that's a quiz. I don't think so.

Rynard: No, but what I do like is that they actually got to the right decision on absentee ballots to where all the auditors are now going to use those bar codes. So I think we won't have a lot of absentee controversy in the future thankfully.

Yepsen: Well let me ask my reporter colleagues. Did any of those measures make it through?

Henderson: None of that made it through and that is correct, county auditors will have to spray this code on the envelope so that they can tell when the envelope was mailed back to the auditor's office.

Yepsen: So we'll never have a repeat of the House 55 situation out of Northwest Iowa?

Henderson: Allegedly.

Murphy: Theoretically.

Robinson: Until we do.

Henderson: Exactly.

Yepsen: Let me ask just one quick question about the turnout. It came up earlier. This could be a good year for Trump in this state. We used to say that presidential year turnouts were good years for democrats because blue collar, rural people, less informed voters, less well educated voters always turned out and they didn't in the off years. That's, I've just described, Pat, a Trump voter to you. So do we see a scenario where there's actually a surge in support for Donald Trump in this state because those are his kind of voters now?

Rynard: We very well could. And again, I'll kind of go back to that a lot of it will depend on who the democratic nominee is and whether they are able to make inroads with those kind of voters. If they are then I think it's much more of a mixed bag of what turnout means for the parties in a presidential year. We'll have to see with who the democrats nominate and how well they play in Iowa.

Henderson: Craig?

Robinson: Well, I think if you look up and down the river, go to Eastern Iowa and look at where Trump performed in Dubuque and Burlington and the Quad Cities, this is why I think what you're saying is true, is that in a presidential year republicans, especially with Trump on the ballot, Trump was on the ballot in 2018 too, he just, his people didn't turn out because his name wasn't on the ballot, but we were voting on him.

Yepsen: Who's the toughest democrat, democrats could field in a general election?

Rynard: For Iowa, I think Biden would be helpful. I think any of the Midwestern candidates like Klobuchar and Buttigieg would be good.

Yepsen: Who does Donald Trump worry about most? He seems to tweet a lot about Joe Biden.

Robinson: I don't know. I think that's a really tough question. I haven't given it a ton of thought. There's not, I think it's wide open. I'm not overly worried about Biden. I understand today when we look at this race that it looks formidable. But talk to me in eight months and let's see how he's doing.

Henderson: Well, in less than nine months Iowans will be holding caucuses, Pat. The process has changed. There will be virtual caucuses in advance. And then Iowa democrats for the first time ever are going to release raw vote totals. How is that going to change this process?

Rynard: That might change how the media interprets it on caucus night, which could be very interesting to see how that plays out to say the least.

Henderson: Well, could we have two winners?

Rynard: You'll have candidates sending out different things on their press releases that night, if they did better in the raw vote they'll taut those numbers if they did better with that. It is going to be fascinating to see how it changes the campaign caucus strategies. Do you have people who are less likely to turn out to the caucus that you try and shuttle into a virtual caucus and then your communication strategy is to hype up the raw vote numbers instead? And then it's all going to be weird because you're going to have so many candidates, there's not a single candidate I don't think, not even Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders or whoever ends up in the top of the polls on caucus night, not a single one of those candidates is going to be viable in every single precinct all over the state. So we're also going to have to explain to people how all those viability and second choices went for everybody.

Yepsen: Will the Democratic Party report the raw body count on caucus night?

Rynard: I believe that's what they have said, yes.

Yepsen: But it's my understanding in the rules they don't have to do it on caucus night, do they?

Henderson: They have agreed to.

Rynard: Yeah, I think they've agreed to that.

Yepsen: So, if those are reported on caucus night, what do you mean it might affect how the media reports it? It will affect how the media reports it because those are the first numbers. It's not this goofy delegate equivalent thing that nobody understands --

Rynard: I think the idea is to put them both out at the same time. I would bet that we don't get that until very early the next morning.

Yepsen: The delegate equivalent count.

Rynard: Both of them probably.

Robinson: The headline will go to the top vote-getter.

Murphy: Craig, how about the republican caucuses? We have at least one primary candidate against the President and Governor Bill Weld, another Governor Larry Hogan has said he has given serious thought to it. Will there be a caucus tally?

Robinson: There needs to be. And the Republican Party of Iowa is foolish if they think they can go without it. It would be a drastic mistake to not release a hard vote total on that and I understand the predicament they're in, but when you work for the Republican Party, or any state party in Iowa, for a caucus you're an election official. Number one, that is your job. And so r the integrity of the caucuses they must report actual numbers for those candidates.

Henderson: So what's going on inside the party? We've heard from the party chairman that they are going to have a vote. Is there huge pressure to not have a vote?

Robinson: Look, I've heard that we're going to have a vote, maybe we won't release it. I don't know, I think you've just got to be by the book on this.

Yepsen: Why would Hogan and Weld waste their time out here participating in an election where the vote counting was controlled by your opponent? You've had the state republican chairman trashing Ben Sasse, it's pretty clear that the Iowa Republican Party is a Donald Trump party and they're counting the votes.

Robinson: And I'll be honest, I think Iowa is solidly in Trump's corner. I don't think there's much inroads here for either of those two candidates.

Yepsen: What ever happened to the level playing field Iowa was supposed to give candidates?

Robinson: My point is it should be a level playing field.

Yepsen: Do you think it's a level playing field now?

Robinson: Look, I think the way that parties are conducted these days it's tough. They're spokespeople for incumbents. And I think it makes it very difficult. And it's one of those things though, you have to think beyond your job here and think about the integrity of the Iowa Caucuses. Too much is on the line for both parties and the state moving forward. So I hope they do what's right.

Henderson: Pat, what happens to the chances of the caucuses staying first in the future if republicans don't have a tally?

Rynard: Probably it's not too helpful but in this kind of situation I'm not sure the folks who get too upset with it have that much influence in the party. The caucus stays where it is because of who wins the presidency or the nomination.

Yepsen: Pat, if the Iowa Democratic Party is reporting raw body counts on caucus night, will that upset New Hampshire? Will they say you've now turned the caucuses into the functional equivalent of a primary and we're going to move our primary date?

Rynard: No, supposedly they have already had all those conversations and their Secretary of State is good with where they're at.

Yepsen: Speaking of reporting results, Pat, are there concerns about the reliability of the counting on caucus night? We've seen, there's a phenomenon going on in American politics of outsiders, Russians, just mischief makers, hacking results, manipulating results. It's kind of a whole new world for American politics. Can we have confidence in the results that are being reported on caucus night?

Rynard: Well, I would say that I have confidence in the Iowa Democratic Party's staff and the team they've got over there to put together a really good operation, to get a good vendor in. I'm sure they will have the best online security you possibly can have for some of these virtual caucuses and whatever else. But they're also doing, they have also implemented a method in where they can do a hand recount of what happens in those precincts. So that should hopefully help with some of the --

Yepsen: Craig, what about these tabulation issues and computer security?

Robinson: Look, having gone through this before being at the state party in 2008, after that experience I quietly, and it wasn't a popular sentiment, I think just, the caucuses have gotten bigger too. Everything you said is true, but they've gotten bigger too. I think it's time to look at the Secretary of State and our county auditors being formally involved in the counting process here so that we can have, so that we're not building, republicans are doing it this way, democrats are doing it that way, this is important to our state and I think we should use our poll watchers, our volunteers, our whole voting apparatus that we do really good work at here in the state and we use it for the caucuses.

Yepsen: Do you think republicans in the legislature are willing to appropriate funds to help protect the caucuses?

Robinson: How much are the Iowa Caucuses worth to our economy?

Murphy: Or does New Hampshire, are they going to be okay with something like that because that's always the concern --

Robinson: It's all how you count it I think.

Rynard: And that's all for the next cycle because we've got this cycle set.


Henderson: Let's talk about this field of, I think as of right now 21, 22 people. Who has surprised you as you've seen them out on the campaign trail, Pat?

Rynard: Well, it's a good question. You could tell from very early on that Pete Buttigieg was going to have a breakout moment, you could tell that before he even got into it. After that, Beta O'Rourke has been very impressive. Kamala Harris has been bringing in very large crowds the times that she has been out here. I think Kirsten Gillibrand has impressed me. She gets kind of midsize crowds and she's not one of the most talked about, but when she's there in the room she's one of the most persuasive people I think.

Henderson: Who has surprised you, as a republican observer, from afar?

Robinson: Oh, that's a good question. I think Buttigieg is someone that I think his ability to communicate is really impressive. He has a different style about him.

Murphy: Craig, how about President Trump going into this? How is he doing in Iowa? Is this still the economy is good, unemployment is low here, but the trade issue is hanging out there.

Robinson: The trade issue isn't just hanging out, we have more tariffs on soybeans today so it's an issue.

Yepsen: I've got to leave it there. We're out of time. Thank you both for being with us. And thank you for joining us. We'll be back with another edition of Iowa Press next week at our regular times. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.



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