Podcast

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss Iowa politics at the Statehouse and beyond. 

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for the Des Moines Register, Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines, and Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for the Des Moines Register.

Program support for Iowa Press is provided by Associated General Contractors of Iowa and Iowa Bankers Association. 

RECORDED: 10/8/2021

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Fall 2021 has been dominated by a special legislative session, redistricting intrigue and political maneuvering. We gather perspective with an Iowa Reporters' Roundtable 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. 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 political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 15th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Today we bring you a discussion among Iowa political reporters. There is a lot happening and frankly not happening this fall in Iowa politics. And just for the benefit of our viewers, we are recording this conversation on October 8th. Joining me here at the Iowa Press table are Dave Price, he is the Chief Political Director for WHO-TV in Des Moines. Stephen Gruber-Miller is the Statehouse Reporter for The Des Moines Register. Brianne Pfannenstiel is also with The Des Moines Register where she is the Chief Politics Reporter. And Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the five Lee Enterprises newspapers in Iowa.

Henderson: Stephen, redistricting. Let's start with that topic. What happened?

Gruber-Miller: The big topic of the fall. Iowa lawmakers in the Iowa Senate came back into a special session on October 5th. The 32 republicans decided to vote down the first proposed maps that would have redrawn the state's four congressional districts and also redrawn the 50 Senate districts and 100 Iowa House districts. They said they had some issues with how equal in population some of the legislative districts were and also how compact they were. So that means that we're onto plan 2. And the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency will deliver a second plan on October 21st. The legislature could meet as soon as a week after that. And we'll see whether they decide to accept that plan or not.

Henderson: Erin Murphy, surprised by the failure of plan 1?

Murphy: I was not and I don't think too many people were among those of us who follow this stuff closely anyways. As soon as those first maps were proposed about a month ago you heard the rumblings within republican circles that there were concerns and Stephen listed the ones that were, the concerns that were expressed for the benefit of the public on the floor of the Iowa Senate. I think there's probably a few more beyond that, concerns with the way some of the Statehouse districts were drawn and challenges certain legislators would face earning re-election. So, as Stephen said, we go onto the second round. There's no guarantee that will be any better. We'll see how they react to that one.

Henderson: Plan 2, what do you think, Brianne?

Pfannenstiel: Well, it's interesting because by the time we got to a vote I think we were all expecting it to be voted down. But there was a period where there was kind of some question of whether this would go forward because you see a real division on the legislative maps versus the congressional ones. The congressional ones weren't great for republicans but the legislative ones weren't terrible either. They gave republicans a really good lead as far as kind of the partisan breakdown of these. And so for a while I think we saw some internal debate happening of whether we should do this and let the national republicans figure that out. But by the time we got to map 2 it seemed pretty clear. And so as we, I'm sorry, to the vote it seemed pretty clear that it would be voted down. So on map 2 we'll see how they address those things.

Gruber-Miller: And we're kind of saying the quiet part out loud here. They're not supposed to talk about the politics of it, they're not supposed to talk about which incumbents are drawn into districts with other lawmakers. And so that is why they were very careful to say, we're upset with how large these districts are or we're upset with how many people are in each district. They're worried about a lawsuit based on giving improper criteria for voting these maps down.

Price: I just remember something that Terry Branstad said to me several years back about the challenges of success in the sense that in the House or the Senate when you have so many, many members it is tough to wrangle everybody. And with such a huge majority in the Senate all along that was the chamber to watch, right, because that was the one that was going to be uncertain. Maybe the House was going to go for it, but the Senate starts this process so they didn't really have to figure it out yet. And then when it all came down you're like, yep, those words came back.

Murphy: And not only do you have more people to try and make happy, there's more of your people, your incumbents who are running into each other in this redistricting process because of they're kind of a victim of their success, like Dave was alluding to, because there's so many inevitably because of this redistricting process you're going to have a lot of republicans who are going to get drawn into each other. It sounds like there wasn't a stomach for the number that were in the first maps, we'll see what the second maps look like. I doubt it will be much better.

Gruber-Miller: And the other reason for that is because the republicans largely live in more rural areas which have been losing population over the last decade. So you have larger districts to get an equal number of people when there's fewer people in rural areas.

Murphy: Which inevitably sucks multiple lawmakers into the same district.

Henderson: Well folks, we've talked about plan 1, plan 2, there could be a plan 3 if plan 2 fails. Dave, what do you think the odds are for that?

Price: Hmm. They'd probably have to go with plan 2 here, right, just to make the calendar work? You're going to destroy this tape after this airs, right, so we don't any proof of this? But so it can go to the third round, ultimately it could go to the Supreme Court. If it ends up going that far they're going to be racing against the clock. Just at some point, to Brianne's point, you just have so many members that there's only so much you can do here. I guess I'm wondering with the second iteration of this will the congressional districts change and will that be enough to kind of make this differently? So that first district got bluer, which they didn't like, and maybe the third did as well and maybe that's inevitable in the third. But particularly the first, they don't want to lose that seat. So if this one looks better on the congressional side maybe do they have to just stomach it and take it?

Pfannenstiel: I think there's a real chance they take the second map depending on how good it looks for republicans. But the LSA is acting faster than we expected them to and this is the agency that draws the maps. They had 35 days that they could have used to draw round 2 and they're going to give us the next set of maps in 16 days. So that kind of speeds things up. The legislature has until December 1 to do this. So, conceivably we could get to a third map. But frankly, if round 2 looks good enough let's wrap it up and head home.

Henderson: Brianne, let me ask you this, how frozen is Iowa's political scene because there is no map to determine where or if you can run?

Pfannenstiel: It's very frozen. At this point I think everyone is really looking to this process to say, if I'm a candidate, where am I even going to run? We saw the first district lines shift enough that some candidates, particularly the democrats, may not have even been in that district again. And so you've got candidates who are trying to decide where should I run? Should I run? Cindy Axne in the third district is a very high profile democrat who has not said she plans to run again and part of that is these maps. If the third district comes back looking really bad for democrats she might open up some other opportunities that she has been eyeing.

Henderson: And you have Miller-Meeks, the Representative from Ottumwa, and you have Ashley Hinson, the Representative from Cedar Rapids, who have made clear they are running again. What if they are thrown in the same district?

Pfannenstiel: That's a great question. Ashley Hinson just announced that she has raised a million dollars this quarter, which is huge for a Congresswoman of where she's at. And so if she wanted to run again, would she primary Mariannette Miller-Meeks? Where is the party loyalty there? She's got to decide what she would do in that scenario.

Price: And Miller-Meeks won in her fourth attempt to get to Congress --

Pfannenstiel: By 6 votes.

Price: -- by 6 votes.

Henderson: Okay, Dave Price, Cindy Axne has a decision to make.

Price: Maybe two.

Henderson: Well, she said at the beginning she had three choices, run for the U.S. Senate, run for re-election or run for Governor. She has taken the Senate race off the table. What can you tell us about the thinking in the Axne camp about what she's going to do??

Price: And those other two options remain on the table. Not only did she take herself out of the conversation for U.S. Senate, but she went ahead and endorsed Abby Finkenauer in that democratic primary. So a source close to her says that she is still considering both the Governor's race and re-election in the Third District. The Third District, I'm just wondering if you re-map it here in the second round is it really going to get bad for democrats, just seeing where the growth has been in that district? Maybe something funky happens and it can. But I just wonder at the end of the day if she has just not let go of the thought of running for Governor and that is also at play here. The redistricting delays things because she wants to see what that Third District looks like. But democrats are also wondering, can we beat Kim Reynolds? Who is that person? Is Axne the better person? She is also the only democrat remaining in Congress. So there's a lot of pressure on her to do something. But they also don't want to lose her seat in the third for a long shot at winning the Governor's race.

Henderson: Well, let's talk about the pressure. I interviewed her earlier this month and she I guess admitted that there is a lot of pressure on democrats who are current members of the House to help hold the House. What is the balance here?

Price: Specifically one in the San Francisco area to make sure they hold that? Yeah, they can't lose this seat. She is the only one they have. They have lost both Senate seats, she is the only one in the four of the House seats that they have, so there is a lot of pressure and she has been getting that. And frankly if you watch the airwaves on the commercial TV side you're seeing the pro-Axne ads and the anti-Axne ads already way a year ahead of time.

Pfannenstiel: When you talk about this race being frozen, this is something that hasn't stopped is the outside money coming into the Third District. This is a top targeted race by national republicans regardless of what it looks like. They want to take out Axne, they see her as vulnerable. She won by a very thin margin in 2020. And so we're seeing this money come in and we don't even know what the district looks like, we don't even know if she's going to run yet, but they're not waiting to try and take her out.

Henderson: For a while we didn't know if U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley would run again. Brianne, you spent some time with him and one thing that stood out for me in the piece that you wrote was that he didn't really have an idea of what he would do were he not to be a Senator.

Pfannenstiel: That was really striking to me too because you ask him, why would you go back? What do you have left to do? And he's got a list, right, he's got prescription drugs he wants to talk about, he wants to talk about the cattle markets and possible anti-competitive behavior there. He's got a long list of things he wants to do in the Senate. But you ask him what would you do in your retirement? And it's, I don't golf, I don't play tennis, and so it's really interesting to talk to him about what he enjoys doing. So I wasn't entirely surprised to see him say that he wants to take on another race.

Henderson: Erin?

Murphy: And he's going to face a republican primary challenge, which will be a really interesting litmus test to see the state of the Republican Party in Iowa these days. Jim Carlin, a State Senator from Sioux City, jumped in this race early before Senator Grassley had made his final decision and has pledged to, in fact he recently said that he is considering resigning his State Senate seat so he can focus a hundred percent of his time on the campaign and not come back for next year's legislative session. So, obviously we talk about how hard it is to defeat Chuck Grassley in Iowa in a general election much less knocking him off seems really unlikely for a republican to knock him off in a primary. And I would say that is still the case. But it is going to be interesting, there are factions of the Republican Party that probably wish Chuck Grassley moved more to the right than he has. So what percentage exactly that is within the voting republican primary? We'll find out eventually but that is going to be interesting. I don't think Chuck Grassley is in danger of getting primaried out of office like Steve King was. But it's going to be interesting to see how that unfolds.

Henderson: Dave Price, what is the conventional wisdom on the democratic primary for the U.S. Senate nomination?

Price: Can I do a P.S. on the republican side?

Henderson: Oh sure.

Price: I just think a wild card to watch would be Donald Trump, what does he do on that Senate race? Would he actually once he learns who Jim Carlin is and anything about him is he going to jump out and try to punish Grassley for a few of the comments Grassley has made post-January 6th about the former President's involvement in that? That could just be kind of an interesting thing to watch.

Henderson: And for the benefit of our viewers, we're taping this program on October 8th, so in the intervening week we could hear from the former President. We don't yet know.

Price: Very much so. As far as the democratic side goes, I don't think that you feel a lot of optimism oozing from the activists that they are going to knock Chuck Grassley out of office. They have a small handful of candidates and one who is about to be in the race as well with Michael Franken. But Abby Finkenauer maybe has some of the endorsements and such and has been raising money, but when you talk to activists they know this is an uphill climb to say the least.

Henderson: Well, let's have a show of hands maybe, is this a marquee race? Does anyone think this is one of the races that will determine whether republicans win back the Senate?

Gruber-Miller: I think the best chance democrats had was that Chuck Grassley would decide to retire and that hasn't happened.

Henderson: Anybody else?

Murphy: Yeah, never say never, but it's going to be such a challenge. And democrats are going to invest money where they think they have a realistic chance. They're not going to pour money into a pipe dream and trying to knock someone off from the national level I'm thinking specifically here. And so I have a hard time seeing the NSCC, which is the National Democratic Senate Campaign Committee, I have a hard time seeing them pouring a ton of money into this. If this thing goes on into next summer and something is going on and Chuck Grassley is having a hard time and his numbers are tanking and Abby Finkenauer's or whoever it is, is climbing, then maybe at that point they get in. I don't see this as a primary national target early on.

Henderson: Brianne, the Iowa Poll has shown that Grassley still is popular or has a good favorability rating. But it's not as good as Donald Trump's.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. As we're talking about a possible primary challenge, this is a really interesting segment of the republican electorate, the group that thinks very favorably of Donald Trump but thinks less favorably of Chuck Grassley. Among republicans Donald Trump is rated favorably by 91% of Iowa republicans, which is about on par with Kim Reynolds. We're seeing Kim Reynolds do very well. We're seeing Donald Trump basically keeping up with her. Chuck Grassley is pulling about 10 points behind that right now among republicans. And so there is some dissatisfaction. We saw that with his vote to move forward the infrastructure proposal. There were a lot of republicans who were upset with that. So it's going to be really interesting to see how that plays out. And I think if you're looking at Abby Finkenauer she's saying, this is a long time before November. There's a lot of space for Chuck Grassley to make mistakes, for us to catch up, for us to really contrast a young woman who comes from Dubuque with working class backgrounds with a Senator who has been in Congress for as long as he has been. So this is a very long race. To Erin's point, I don't think we see the national money come in until they prove they can close that gap a little bit.

Henderson: Let's talk about the other marquee race, statewide race in Iowa, the one for Governor in 2022. Kim Reynolds has not officially said she is running but in June she said she intended to do so. Dave Price, earlier this month you accompanied or I guess observed the Governor taking a trip to Texas. What is her role in the national conversation?

Price: It seems like her focus is to be part of that. She has made numerous appearances on Fox News, on Newsmax, has a very limited public schedule in this state, the state she represents, especially the last two or three months she has had very limited public appearances. She went to Texas along with 9 other republican governors who took part in this news conference that was primarily focused on the surge of migrants coming across the border, it's Joe Biden's fault, it has gotten a lot worse since Joe Biden has been here, why is he not doing anything, we want to put some attention on here. And they're the minority, so to speak, where democrats are controlling D.C. But it feels like she's running against Joe Biden right now. That is who she speaks a lot about and she'll talk about national things that have a way to kind of ding democrats and her focus seems to be nationally.

Henderson: Well, Stephen Gruber-Miller, I remember a lot of people on the democratic side made the last election a referendum on Donald Trump even though they weren't Joe Biden running against him. Isn't that the smart thing for a republican to do now is to make the next election a referendum on the incumbent President?

Gruber-Miller: Right, we often see presidents who are in power, their party losing seats in midterm elections. And we were talking about the Iowa Poll a minute ago and that poll showed that Joe Biden is very unpopular in Iowa, something like 62% disapprove, 31% approve. Those are terrible numbers, that's way worse than his national polling average. And obviously the election is not tomorrow, things can turn around. But he's not doing so hot right now. And so I think the Governor maybe looks at that and says, there's a lot of energy of people who are frustrated with what Joe Biden is doing and she can tap into that.

Price: I just wondered to play off that, Iowa's economy is faring pretty well. Now, maybe people are crediting the Governor, not giving any credit to Joe Biden for the economy doing well whereas he is just nose diving here and obviously didn't perform well in the last election, didn't perform well in the Caucus, has never performed well in a Caucus. But they are very much rebelling against him but supporting the republicans.

Pfannenstiel: When we talk about key dynamics in this state I think we have to look at his vaccine mandate for federal employees. That is something that Iowans kind of broadly and republicans specifically have really rejected. And you look at where the Governor is on that issue. I think we're going to see that be a key issue for her re-election campaign.

Henderson: Erin, we have some democrats who have announced they are running for Governor. As Dave mentioned, Cindy Axne might "bigfoot" in, become the big name that enters the race. How would you analyze what is going on, on the democratic side of this equation?

Murphy: Yeah, it has kind of been a slow roll out of candidates. You mentioned too Ras Smith, who is a state legislator from Waterloo and Deidre DeJear, who ran for Secretary of State four years ago and you mentioned Cindy Axne considering it, Pam Jochum, another state legislator from Dubuque is considering it.

Henderson: State Auditor Rob Sand's name is bandied about.

Murphy: Still waiting, and he's the one everybody kind of assumed that he would be one of the first in and we're still waiting to hear from him one way or the other. So it's just kind of interesting and my gut tells me that that's a sense that maybe democrats aren't excited to jump right into this race. If they saw a Kim Reynolds who they felt was weak and vulnerable and ready to be knocked out of office I really believe you'd see more democratic candidates in this field than are right now. So maybe that is a sign that as of this moment they feel that that too, I wouldn't say it's as big an uphill climb to knock off Chuck Grassley, but maybe democrats for now see this as a challenging race and that is why you're seeing some apprehension to a certain degree.

Henderson: Brianne, mentioning The Des Moines Register Iowa Poll here and the Governor's favorability rating in that is maybe dissuading democrats from jumping in. Is that it? Or is it the health of the party?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think if you look at the results of the Iowa Poll pretty broadly, we've referenced several pieces here, and so to put it all together Joe Biden is not doing well, Chuck Grassley is leading the person presumed to be his best democratic challenger, Kim Reynolds is doing quite well. The subtext of all of this is that republicans are pretty healthy in this state, they have got leaders that they like, that they want to support, that they're excited about. And democrats are either not known or people are feeling kind of lackluster about them. So there's a lot that the party needs to do to get itself in a position to really compete in 2022.

Price: You can recite the numbers in your sleep with the Poll, but I thought that maybe underscores the disconnect here. There is that section of the democratic base that despises Kim Reynolds. She's COVID Kim, doesn't care about people, prioritizes businesses over people, wants vaccine mandates, wants mask mandates, doesn't approve of the way she has done things and divvied out the COVID-19 money from the Feds. But you start digging into your poll and talking to people anecdotally and it's different. That almost hatred, that's probably a bad word, but that intense dislike that those activists have of Kim Reynolds may not be shared by those independents that could largely determine whether she stays in office.

Gruber-Miller: And so the point Erin was making a minute ago, four years ago we did see a huge number of democratic candidates lining up to challenge her when she was seeking her first full-term. And so it is kind of striking to look at the difference, what were there like 10 or 12 democrats running that year, and this year we've got 2 and maybe a couple of others are thinking about it. So I think that kind of illustrates the point of her being perceived as a little bit of a longer shot.

Murphy: And to your point about the strength of the party, that's an interesting point and part of it is the whole success begets more success thing and the issue you have when you're a party out of power for an extended amount of time. The last two republican governors were both lieutenant governors before they were elected. Kay, you'd have to tell me, what was Tom Vilsack doing before he got elected Governor?

Henderson: He was a State Senator.

Murphy: Yeah, so that is where you need your bench to come from and we do have a couple running. But that may be part of what is going on here too when you look around who are the democrats to run and challenge Kim Reynolds? And the first names that pop off the list from the start were Rob Sand and Cindy Axne and we're still not sure what they're going to do. And then after that, to Brianne's point and that showed up in the poll, it's just people who regardless of their qualifications they're just people that Iowans just aren't familiar with.

Pfannenstiel: And we started this conversation talking about Kim Reynolds at the border. She has really raised a national profile. That is going to help her raise all kinds of money. She has been on Fox News, she's on Newsmax, she's got a national profile that she didn't have the first time and that is going to be incredibly difficult to compete with.

Murphy: That is the other thing about this phase right now is Kim Reynolds doesn't feel challenged, that is why she hasn't announced her re-election campaign yet. So instead of making it official and going out and doing events and traveling the state, she is sitting on the telephone raising gobs of money.

Henderson: Well, I am sitting in a chair and the only thing I control right now is the time and we are out of it. Thanks to all four of you for joining me for this conversation. And thanks to you for watching. Join us again next week at our regular times, Friday at 7:30 and Sunday at Noon or anytime on iowapbs.org. For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.

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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. 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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