Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, Jeff Kaufmann, chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa, discusses the party's election successes in 2020 and former President Trump's impact, and looks ahead to 2022 and the 2024 Iowa Caucuses.

Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are 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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The historic pace of 2020 has only continued into a tumultuous New Year of 2021. For Iowa republicans, it's a tale of two worlds, a Democratic Party regaining control in Washington, but wins across-the-board in Iowa for the GOP. We discuss the path forward with Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann 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, January 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.

Yepsen: The election of 2020 and the months since have been a roller coaster journey for Americans. President Donald Trump's impeachment, a democratic takeover in Washington is contrasted by the solidifying republican control here in Iowa. To talk about it, we're joined today by Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann. Mr. Chairman, welcome back to the show.

Kaufmann: It's a pleasure to be here, David.

Yepsen: Always good to see you. Journalists also joining us across the table, Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa.

Henderson: Mr. Chairman, the day you were re-elected a couple of weeks ago you said that the Iowa Republican Party is Kim Reynolds' party. What role does Donald Trump have in the future of the Iowa Republican Party?

Kaufmann: He has broadened our tent, there's no doubt about that. And he certainly had coattails in the last election. And so I think he is a major player in the Republican Party. What his future holds I do not know. But my reference to Kim Reynolds, I firmly believe, I always have, that whoever the Governor is, that party that they share, that makes them the head of the party.

Murphy: What is your gut telling you about President Trump in the next three or four years? Is he going to run for re-election again?

Kaufmann: Boy, Erin, if I knew that I could do interviews all day. The honest answer is I don't know. I was encouraged that he was going to, it sounds like he's going to be helpful in 2022. He and Kevin McCarthy had meetings. I have not talked to the former President since the election. I don't know. I can say one thing as Chairman of the party, one of the two parties in a first-in-the-nation state, everyone is welcome and I hope we're going to have a very vigorous process. I'm going to be neutral.

Yepsen: Does that include Ben Sasse of Nebraska?

Kaufmann: It does, it does.

Yepsen: You were pretty critical of him early on.

Kaufmann: I am and I was and I still can be. But no, everyone is welcome here, David. Look, when you're Chair of a party, and that goes with not just a presidential candidate, there are a lot of candidates -- I don't love every single member of the Republican Party. But as Chair of this party, if I want us to remain first-in-the-nation, I'm going to have to welcome everyone.

Yepsen: I want to go back to Erin's question. If Donald Trump runs, does he clear the field? Is it just why bother? He's going to win. Do these other candidates, Mike Pompeo and all these people that have been here or are coming, is it just over?

Kaufmann: I don’t think so. I really don't. There's going to be -- we're definitely going to have a vigorous caucus. I don't think it's going to be like our previous one if he chooses to run. But I'm going to put the welcome mat out for every single candidate that wants to come into this state.

Murphy: Is the Republican Party facing another civil war right now? Or is there unity within the party? You mentioned President Trump speaking with Leader McCarthy here in an effort to move that, but you also have Representative Gaetz going to campaign against republicans. More broadly and within Iowa, is there a fracture within the party?

Kaufmann: I really don't see it in Iowa. I firmly believe that democrats have always been better at keeping their arguments quiet. They're just better at that. Our arguments are usually very public, very loud. And we fully expect that. If you're President, even though he did well in Iowa, if the President of your party does not win, you're definitely going to have a very vigorous conversation after that. I truly believe that what we're going to be seeing coming from Washington, D.C., I hope I'm wrong, but from the Biden campaign, and now the Biden presidency, I think there's going to be a lot for us to unify around.

Henderson: You said there are republicans that you love and those that you don't. Do you love Donald Trump? And do you agree with his analysis of the election being rigged?

Kaufmann: I certainly, and obviously I don't mean love literally -- but do I respect Donald Trump and what he did for our party? Yes I do. He had coattails in Iowa. I know there were some states he didn't. I know there were some states that maybe there was a backlash. But in Iowa's it's irrefutable. And so in terms of his role here in Iowa, he helped us. We would have still -- let me give you an example, Kay. I firmly believe that Pat Grassley would have still held the House majority. I do believe that Donald Trump added a few to that majority in terms of his coattails. So I think that was -- I think in that sense I am grateful for that. I want to hold the Trump voters, most of whom, the vast majority of whom believe in the same things that republicans believe in and are very peace-loving individuals.

Henderson: They also believe the election was stolen. Do you agree?

Kaufmann: I believe that we have a lot of work to do in a lot of states in order to make the election integrity believable. In politics it's all about perception and wherever the truth lies, we all know that we have problems in various states, we all know that Iowa did a pretty darn good job, some of which extended from what the legislature did at the end of the session last time. But we also have a perception issue. We have tens of millions of people that believe that Donald Trump, that the election was stolen from him. I think the easiest -- is for the various states to actually tighten up the election integrity.

Murphy: But we only have that perception because President Trump is making these claims without evidence. Is that a reason to overhaul state election laws just because one candidate made unfounded claims of voter fraud?

Kaufmann: Well, I think Donald Trump -- Donald Trump's claims that were controversial is whether the election fraud and the election irregularities actually cost him the presidency. I don't think there's anybody that seriously doubts that in states like Georgia and Pennsylvania there were problems. I mean, in Iowa we had a good election. I'm here to tell you that I am satisfied with what we've done. But I'm also here to tell you that I hope that Jack Whitver and Pat Grassley take some leadership role in making it even better.

Yepsen: I want to put a finer point on this question. Is Joseph Biden the legitimately elected President of the United States?

Kaufmann: Oh, as soon as the Electoral College was certified, yes.

Yepsen: And Donald Trump is the loser?

Kaufmann: Donald Trump did not win the Electoral College vote. That makes him, in American politics that makes him the loser of the 2020 election.

Yepsen: Don't Republican Party leaders like yourself have a burden here to explain that to people because other conversations are undermining the legitimacy of our democracy?

Kaufmann: But David, in terms of that explanation, to me it's so obvious that Joe Biden took the oath of office, there's no turning back from there. But here's what I worry about, if we say that Joe Biden won, if I say that there was absolutely not election problems, there was no fixes that are needed, then all of a sudden we just continue to do the same thing. And we don't work on voter identification, other states don't work on ballot harvesting, and those are all issues that we were working on long before Donald Trump was talking about losing the election.

Henderson: On the day that you were re-elected you said that your goals were to get Kim Reynolds re-elected in 2022 and to get Chuck Grassley re-elected. Is he running?

Kaufmann: Well, if he chooses to run, nice try, Kay. No but truly, I don't know, and I think Senator Grassley had talked to a reporter and said that he would make that decision. I will tell you this, that if is he does run, I'm going to be smiling. But I don't know, if Chuck Grassley does not run then obviously my goal slides to a fair and neutral primary to see who is our candidate and then getting that candidate to victory.

Henderson: Do you have any idea how big that primary might be and who would be in it?

Kaufmann: I think it was 5 people that Senator Ernst emerged from. I would assume that it will include several people and we have a large bench. You folks have asked me about that before. We're very pleased. We've got a Capitol full of candidates and we have a lot of successful businesspeople. So I think it will be bigger. But I want to make sure I'm crystal clear here today, and that is Senator Grassley, if he makes that decision, the Republican Party is behind him. Look, the guy can outthink me, outwork me and outrun me, literally. I'm sure that he can be a United States Senator for six years. And I mean that sincerely.

Murphy: How about the other half of that team that Kay was talking about, Governor Reynolds? We have every indication that she is going to run for re-election. Handicap her, not knowing who here opponent might be, but how do you feel about her prospects?

Kaufmann: Once again, the success of Donald Trump, aside from the controversies that you have asked me about, the bottom line strength of Donald Trump in this state has been following through on campaign promises. I have always believed that, that that was the strength. I think he was able to acquire votes from people that didn't even necessarily agree with some of the policy issues, but it was such a relief and such a welcoming kind of message that he was following through. I think Kim Reynolds is doing the same thing. Today we're going to see that she is going to follow through on a promise that kids were going to have in-school learning. She is doing that right now, she's following through, and she is rural and small town Iowa and we all know that is an area that is problematic for democrats. I like her chances.

Murphy: She is also the face of the state's response to the pandemic and people have their varying opinions on that. As a campaign issue, how do you think that plays in her favor?

Kaufmann: Well, even though 2020 was all about Trump in many ways, when it comes to the legislature there was also overtones of Kim Reynolds' leadership. And I believe the outcome in the legislature is indicative of the same -- the outcome of the legislative races is indicative of how she is going to do as well. I think many people -- there's plenty in a pandemic, there are no right answers often times and there is a fine line you walk. I truly believe that people do not doubt the sincerity of here and I truly believe that she walked that line between keeping the economy open and the safety and health of our citizens.

Yepsen: But to Erin's question, you've got to agree, her handling of the pandemic is probably going to determine the outcome of the election?

Kaufmann: I think it will be a major factor. But these issues right now that she's dealing with about bringing kids back to school, I think Iowans are very, very relieved of what she's doing today.

Henderson: Paul Pate, the Secretary of State, has I guess emerged as a potential for a primary challenge. I see people who were involved in the challenge of Steve King talking about challenging his re-election. Is that going to happen? Is that helpful to the party?

Kaufmann: So Kay, you're wondering if Paul Pate is going to have a primary.

Henderson: Correct.

Kaufmann; I have heard -- no one has talked to me about running in a primary against Paul Pate. Here's the thing, as the Chair of the party, I definitely have two phases of a campaign. The first phase is the primary where I wait, I wait to see what the people give me. The second is whoever would emerge, if Paul Pate wins a primary, whether it is contested or not, I'm going to be on the Paul Pate team.

Murphy: There will be on the ballot not just elections for offices but also a proposed constitutional amendment that would put language similar to the federal Second Amendment for gun rights into the Iowa Constitution. Having that on the ballot, the question here is, does that help republican candidates in your estimation?

Kaufmann: I think it does, Erin. And let me put on just my mask of an observer, let me take off the republican mask for just a second and say, I love our process for amending our Constitution. I've got a little populous strain in me and I think it's wonderful any time we have the people weighing in on things. Do I hope in this particular instance, do I hope and do I think it will help republicans? Yes I do. We will be 45 states out of 50 that have this in our Constitution. 44 states already have some form of this amendment.

Murphy: And real quick before we move on from 2022, you had talked about Donald Trump brought in some new voters to the Republican Party. Can you keep them in a mid-term when he's not on the ballot, he's no longer President, people don't know whether he'll run again? Can you maintain those?

Kaufmann: Excellent question. The honest answer is, we're going to try. That is imperative. In fact, in some ways that is aside from the fact of whether Donald Trump decides to run again because what we have to appeal to is the issues and what he stood for. I think the Republican Party reflects what those individuals like and we just have to educate them and we're going to try, we're going to try.

Yepsen: Isn't the party, though, have the two parties’ sort of changed positions with blue collar Iowans? It used to be the Democratic Party was the blue collar party, republicans were urban, well-educated party. Hasn't that changed?

Kaufmann: David, I think when we look back on this period of time, there's going to be a lot of things that we're going to note, but I think one of the things we're going to note is possibly that very rather transformational change in the two parties. And I think we saw it very clearly here in Iowa. So I would agree with the premise of your question and your conclusion.

Yepsen: So, in 2018 that is probably why you lost some of those voters, they stayed home. But in 2020 they were coming back out and you had some political success. If that's the case, is 2022 there could be a constitutional amendment, I'm sorry, 2024 there could be a constitutional amendment on abortion. Is that the same thing, gin up the base?

Kaufmann: No, I don't think the timing, you know how much they tried to get that bill through last session. So I don't think the timing is planned like that. But let me connect the two questions that both you gentlemen just asked me. I think the fact in 2022 that we do have a Second Amendment on the actual ballot, I think that helps us bring some of those voters, some of those blue collar voters you're talking about, I think that helps us to bring them out. So I think the two complement each other in that way.

Yepsen: Talk about this last election tactics. What did you do, what did the republicans do that the democrats did not do? Is there anything -- what was the key to victory?

Kaufmann: It's very stark. This is a textbook case of why Iowa should remain first-in-the-nation and it's a textbook case of small state you can make it personal and that is the republicans' campaign. The democrats came on too late and honestly there was a very safe way, by anybody's definition of safe, there was a safe way to campaign. And our candidates were wearing masks, our candidates were sometimes a lot more than six feet apart. Very, very few, I literally can count on both hands the amount of complaints I received for doing that. The other thing, David, to complement that -- this is a lesson that woe to any chair that does not take this lesson to heart -- and that is also if we've shown that you cannot buy Iowans. In legislative race after legislative race we were grossly outspent. But we had our candidate out on the ground and we had the other candidates, Fred Hubbell was dumping in money and the former New York Mayor was dumping in money and it just did not -- in some cases we were outspent 5 to 1. Joni Ernst is another situation. So the two lessons are, face-to-face campaigning, it still works, I think that is a good thing for our democracy. And number two, I don't think Iowans can be bought.

Henderson: After the 2020 election there was a recount in Iowa's Second Congressional District. Regardless of the outcome, I wanted to ask you, do you think election law should be changed? God forbid there is a statewide recount. How would it happen under the current rules?

Kaufmann: Well, and I don't -- I'll be honest, Kay, I don't know enough of the details of how that has proceeded. I know it was certified, the election, Mariannette Miller-Meeks won. And I know it was certified with both republican and democratic support. And I know that Rita Hart did not go to every single step she could, including the last step of the Supreme Court. I would be, I do not have any inside information on this, but I would very much assume that the legislature is going to take a very long look at that whole procedure. It's one of those things that so rarely happens. There could be some things to tweak and they've never looked at it because there's so many things on top.

Yepsen: But is it so rare? A few years ago we had House District 55, a handful of votes could have made a difference there. This state is, despite our conversation about how well republicans did, the voter registrations in this state are pretty close. You guys have, the last time I looked, about 16,000 more than the democrats. It's very close. So logic tells me that you're going to have more of these situations that Kay is talking about. I'm curious as to how do we cure that? We cured the problem in House District 55. How do we cure the problem that is happening in the congressional districts?

Kaufmann: Well, and the cure is certainly, is not when you have republicans and democrats both certifying that election, to take it to Nancy Pelosi and put it in a purely partisan framework. We all know -- Cindy Axne who is trying to straddle the fence on this, cannot absolutely look us in the eye and as that this isn't going to be pure power politics. They are going to find -- if Nancy Pelosi takes this, that Raskin committee is going to find some votes someplace, somewhere. That is not the way you fix these problems. This is the wrong way to go. And the next time it could be a democrat that is being threatened.

Yepsen: The question though is, the voters in that congressional district, different voters had their votes counted differently and there is an equal protection issue there that ought to be fixable.

Kaufmann: I don't disagree. And the other thing I would say, David, is that we need to make sure of the consistency, and I also believe how can we fully make an assessment on that case if Rita Hart is not accepting those results, if she didn't go every single step? We have a Supreme Court and there's a step there and she has just negated that. It makes it a little harder to access the process.

Murphy: So we want to make sure we talk about the Iowa Caucuses while we have you here. This is more happening on the other side of the aisle from you, but democrats have a new State Party Chairman in Ross Wilburn. They're coming off a caucus cycle where they had some issues and kind of reignited that conversation about whether or not Iowa should be first. What is your hunch? What does your gut tell you? What are you expecting is going to happen on the democratic side?

Kaufmann: I don't know. And I am going to -- all three of you have been following me enough to know how serious I take this and how bipartisan I am in this entire process -- we must keep first-in-the-nation. We must keep our caucus. And we must keep the carve out process. There are three goals here. So Iowa is a little different than New Hampshire. They want to keep first primary and they want to keep carve out but they don't have to worry about a caucus. So we have three battles to fight. And the answer specifically to your question, I will still double, triple and quadruple down that the Democratic Party was fed a whole lot of ridiculous demands at the very end of that process. And so I actually stand by my colleagues, I may disagree with them on a lot of things, but I stand by them in this. I believe that Ross Wilburn, he has already reached out to me, we are going to have the same trusting relationship on this issue that I did with Andy McGuire and Scott Brennan and Troy Price, and I fully believe that he is going to be able to make that case. Where I stand in terms of him making his case is, Ross, you tell me when I can be helpful, because I can also be not helpful even when I'm trying in that situation. From my perspective, Erin, if the democrats can't hold it, my job gets much more difficult too because then you're looking at can the republicans have a caucus without the democrats. So we survive or we sink together. And I'm going to stand, we're going to stand together and I look forward to my first meeting with Ross.

Murphy: Do you have to wait to set your calendar to see what happens on the democratic side?

Kaufmann: I don't think so. We will, in terms of the dynamics here at the RNC, we're not going to have a voting meeting until summer. We had a very good meeting, had a really great meeting with Ronna Romney and had a great meeting with our new RNC Co-Chair Tommy Hicks, and we had a good meeting with all of the carve out states. I like where we're at right now. I won't lie, it would have been much easier if Donald Trump were President because we wouldn't have had a fight. That's not in the cards. So I can cry over spilled milk or I can do what I need to do, and I'm going to do what I need to do.

Henderson: Would you oppose having all four carve out states have their contest on the same day, which is something democrats have begun to discuss?

Kaufmann: I think, Kay, it defeats the purpose. The purpose of starting with Iowa is so that a Rick Santorum or a Barack Obama can actually go out there and actually campaign face-to-face. If we load up four then we're back to starting, the equivalent of starting in a state like, maybe not like California, but in a state that is much larger. Also, New Hampshire would have a huge problem with that because they have in their Constitution that they've got to go first.

Henderson: One of the reasons we're talking about this is because the Democratic Party's app, the application on a smartphone, failed. You folks used an app in 2016. Are you already just lying awake at night worrying about the app you're developing for 2024?

Kaufmann: And I just want to qualify that the difference there is that we were able to us the app that we wanted to use. Troy Price had a huge problem in that he was already on his way to a successful caucus, I firmly believe that, and Troy was handed something at the last minute from the DNC. I think that is part of the issue. But do I worry about it? You bet. The eyes of the world are on us.

Yepsen: More immediately, we'll be talking about the Caucuses on this show a lot, census data is coming back late. I believe the latest numbers the states get census data at the end of April. What does this do to our redistricting process? Have you talked to your leaders in the legislature? How do the parties draw lines, recruit candidates, with this ambiguity?

Kaufmann: Sure. There is a lot of ambiguity and I know that there is pressure being placed on Legislative Services because we have a non-partisan process here in Iowa, a good process I believe in Iowa and so the two leaders I assume will have to come back and deal with this because we cannot let something like that go until the next session. But yeah, this is one of those cases where COVID is getting in the way of what needs to be done in view of both parties.

Yepsen: Special session?

Kaufmann: I haven't -- I don't have the ability to call one but I would assume that Jack Whitver and Pat Grassley are discussing that.

Yepsen: Mr. Chairman, we're out of time. Thank you very much for being with us.

Kaufmann: Always a pleasure to be here with all three of you.

Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press with our guest from the other side of the political aisle, the new Chair of the Iowa Democratic Party Ross Wilburn. He'll join us to discuss how democrats in Iowa can regroup in the years ahead. That's IDP Chair and State Representative Ross Wilburn on Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and again at 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. 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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