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Congress tackles President Biden's agenda, the John Deere strike ends and Iowa political races are taking shape for 2022. We gather perspective with a 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, November 19th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 

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Henderson: Our guest on this program last week was Congresswoman Cindy Axne. We had planned to be having a discussion this week with Congresswoman Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Ottumwa, but she has been in Washington, D.C. casting a vote. We're going to talk about that vote in a few minutes here with our constellation of political reporters. Let me introduce them. Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the five Lee Newspapers in Iowa. Dave Price is the Political Director for WHO-TV in Des Moines. And Brianne Pfannenstiel is the Chief Politics Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Folks, welcome to the Iowa Press table.

Henderson: Dave, let me start with you. Build Back Better bill has been passed in the U.S. House of Representatives on this Friday morning. What are the political implications in the state of Iowa?

Price: I will just call it BBB so I don't get tongue-tied here. But I think this whole thing has been fascinating to me about how democrats have handled it. And we'll have to see how the Senate handles it here in the next week or two. But there's just so much stuff, they're doing these really, really big things all mashed into a big pot of stew and instead of doing things sort of separately that I think maybe the public can follow the debate perhaps a little bit more. It has been interesting how there's so much stuff and so republicans are calling everything socialist these days. And it's going to be interesting to me how democrats perhaps will maybe lean into the more popular aspects of this and see how that connects with people rather than focus on the price tag which is what republicans do.

Henderson: Erin Murphy, what is popular about this?

Murphy: Yeah, so there are elements of this when you poll them individually are very popular with people, some assistance for child care costs to help families deal with the cost of child care, the lowering of drugs like insulin, the lowering of the cost of drugs like insulin, I apologize. So there are a number of elements that individually, and this is what democrats to Dave's point will attempt to do is to go out and talk about hey, this was in this bill, I know you like that, we were glad to get that to you. And republicans, we've seen that already in the reaction this morning is they are going to focus on that price tag.

Henderson: Brianne?

Pfannenstiel: It strikes me as being really similar to the debate we saw over the Affordable Care Act when that first passed, President Obama's major health care overhaul. That was deeply unpopular broadly, but when you asked people individually do you support keeping children on their parents' health care plans for longer, people said yes, we love that. Do you support doing all of these other things individually, it got a lot of support. And so I think that's what we're seeing, what these two gentlemen have alluded to is that broadly it is going to be difficult, we're going to see republicans really messaging the socialism, the cost and we're going to be seeing democrats like Cindy Axne who was here last week saying, this does great things for Iowans.

Price: Can I P.S. one thing on this please?

Henderson: Sure.

Price: To your point about Obamacare, I think as we go forward here republicans were all about running against Obamacare, right, and those points you brought up in it they did not strip out. You can still stay on your parents' insurance until you're 26 and a few of the other things here. And are they going to, if they have a great 2022, are they going to try to individually pull some of these popular things out? Probably not.

Murphy: And to that point as well, when you called something Obamacare it polled differently than when you polled being able to stay on your parents' insurance until you're 26. So that is the challenge facing democrats now and I even saw on Twitter some saying we shouldn't call it Build Back Better, we should call it the lowering the cost of insulin act because it does now that it's, depending on what happens in the Senate, if it does become law the legislative work at that point is done and then it does become a messaging event for both sides.

Henderson: Well, and let's backtrack just a tiny bit. The bipartisan infrastructure bill which dealt with traditional infrastructure like roads and bridges and, in this instance, modern-day infrastructure, broadband, the republicans in Iowa's congressional delegation voted against that, Brianne, because they said it was linked to the bill that has passed this week. How does that impact Senator Chuck Grassley's re-election because he voted for the bipartisan plan?

Pfannenstiel: He did and it's a really interesting dynamic. I followed Senator Grassley to some of his town hall events immediately after he took that vote and it was in a very conservative part of this state. And so people who typically would have been big Grassley supporters, people who stood up and said I've been voting for you for my entire lifetime, said I was very disappointed in that vote you took because it expands the national debt, we're concerned about how to pay for it. So, Senator Grassley has really kind of split his base a little bit. But he is so popular in this state, he has such deep ties, that it's going to take a lot for him to really be knocked off his game in any kind of way that matters in an election.

Murphy: And that vote is more dangerous to Chuck Grassley in a primary, it may actually help him in the general election. You'll find middle-of-the-road voters who did like a lot of the things in that infrastructure bill as well when you tell people this is going to bring X million dollars to Iowa for roads and bridges. So maybe there was a political calculation there that Chuck Grassley feels fairly confident. He does have a primary challenger, a state legislator James Carlin from Sioux City, that Chuck Grassley feels confident enough that this isn't going to hurt him enough where he's going to lose a primary and that does seem pretty unlikely.

Henderson: Brianne, your byline has been on a story in the Des Moines Register that came out several days ago related to popularity, but the popularity of President Biden. Give us a brief, if you will, on what your polling has shown.

Pfannenstiel: Well, our polling kind of confirms what we've been seeing for a while, is that Joe Biden is really struggling in Iowa. We polled in a head-to-head matchup if there were a new election today with Donald Trump and Joe Biden who would you pick and Donald Trump widened his margin of victory from 2020. He won Iowa by 8 percentage points in 2020. If the election were held today our poll shows he would win by 11 percentage points. And so what we're seeing is both party's bases really coalescing around their people. Joe Biden wins the vast majority of democrats, Donald Trump wins the vast majority of republicans. But in the middle those independents are siding in favor of Donald Trump.

Henderson: So, what does this mean for 2022? We are so far away. But what does the President's popularity mean, Erin Murphy?

Murphy: It's always difficult for the party in control going into that first midterm. So the historical headwinds were in democrats' faces already. Now you add a President that is unpopular in this particular state, that is only going to make things even more challenging for Iowa democrats for especially those statewide races. Now, as you noted, we're almost a full year away from votes being cast and who knows what will be on voters' minds then. But at this point it's more bad news than good for democrats, especially in those statewide races.

Henderson: Dave Price, a lot of Iowans for the past five weeks have been following a story, the John Deere strike, which ended this past week. What can you tell our viewers about how that has played in the political realm in Iowa?

Price: I want to see if there is another John Deere here too. Did we just see this rising up of the workforce? That they feel like they have been squeezed for the last 30, 40 years here, the big bosses are making all the money, the stock market is going like crazy so investors are great, but having a lot of money in the stock market you're thinking where is mine? And I think people were following this. Even if you're not a big union supporter or whatever, you're following a debate where you watched where the majority of the union members said no to a 10% raise, initially, with an $8500 signing bonus plus $2000 for every year of service that would be put into your retirement. A lot of people might be thinking, holy cow, that's a pretty good deal. These folks were looking at the fact that their company might make $6 billion in 2021 and saying, we want ours and we want a guarantee we're going to get ours in the future. The political side I thought was interesting that republicans stayed away from the picket lines. We saw Cindy Axne went there, Abby Finkenaur went there, Michael Franken went there, Tom Vilsack went there and republicans stayed away. But they were among the first to send out statements after that third and final vote to approve the package to say hey, we're glad this is solved.

Murphy: And the one group that did weigh into it in the other direction was the National Republican Senate Committee, which is the political arm of Senate republicans and they were critical of the strikers of the workers. Chuck Grassley was not, he in fact talked about his experience in a picket of his own back when he was younger and before his time in political office. So it'll be interesting to see, I'm sure we'll hear from democrats about that in that campaign. But I think Chuck Grassley said just enough to distance himself from that attack from the National Republican Committee.

Henderson: Back when I was younger and y’all were on October 28th, the Iowa legislature passed a redistricting proposal that redraws the boundaries for the congressional districts in Iowa and for the 100 districts in which members of the Iowa House will be elected and the 50 districts in which the State Senators are elected. Erin, what did we learn from that process?

Murphy: Well, we learned that Iowa's process is still non-partisan by nature and it survived a threat, whether real or perceived, to that. Republicans controlled all of the levers so they could have theoretically gone to the last step and put their thumb on the scales by editing the maps, those third set of maps. They didn't. So we finished with maps that had strong votes of support from both political parties and now we have maps that kind of generally maintained the competitive nature of our congressional districts here. So we made it through with a little warning of drama, but we made it through mostly drama free. And we're done, which is fortunate. There's other states out there that are still going at this and going to end up in the courts and who knows when they'll have it solved.

Henderson: Dave, one of the last shoes to drop, if you will, after the new boundaries for the congressional districts were known was the decision from Cindy Axne.

Price: And she had speculated openly that she was either going to run against Chuck Grassley, run against Kim Reynolds or run for re-election and I think the conventional wisdom was always that she would run for re-election here and that may be her best path forward. She eliminated the Senate when she endorsed Abby Finkenaur and then it seemed like there was a part of her that would kind of jump in on chances to criticize Governor Reynolds from time to time but decided the Third District is where she wants to stay, she doesn't have to move and she's familiar with the district and it might have some numbers slightly in her favor.

Henderson: Brianne, you are the Chief Politics Reporter at the Des Moines Register and Iowans just voted in what is an off-year election to elect members of city council, city mayors and local school board members. What did you see in that election that may portend what is going to happen in 2022?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think what we saw was a real focus on some of these, I don't want to say smaller issues in the sense that it diminishes their importance, but much more tangible. And these school board elections we're talking about what our kids are learning in classes, we're talking about really kind of cultural issues, culture war issues, things like critical race theory and whether that should be taught in classes, things like that. And so that to me really speaks to what the electorate is talking about right now and whether we're going to see some of these more statewide races carry those cultural issues forward and whether we're going to be focusing on the big issues like Build Back Better and infrastructure or whether things like critical race theory are going to surpass them.

Henderson: Erin, a lot of the stories that were written about the Virginia governor's race, and none of us wrote any of them, but were about the focus on schools and having schools open. Didn't we see sort of the opening gambit on that here in Iowa in the 2020 election because viewers of this program heard House Speaker Pat Grassley say, their focus on having school open and some of the early legislation that we saw last year sort of was on that same vein.

Murphy: Absolutely, and now that has shifted to now that schools are open and staying open by and large that has shifted to mask policies in schools. And that was more the hot button issue in this election. There were some school board elections, including in Ankeny and one of the Des Moines suburbs here, where a number of candidates were swept in basically on that one issue. So that has transitioned from schools being open to schools' mask policies. But it was not unanimous in that there were similar elections and similar issues raised in Waukee where the candidates that were against face mask policies did not win there. So it was interesting to see it happened in some places but not others.

Henderson: Dave, a city council race in Des Moines attracted national attention because it seemed to run counter to what was happening in other parts of the country.

Price: Right, and Des Moines itself may be a little different. You had a prominent supporter of the BLM movement who talked frequently about this concept of defunding the police in whatever form that would be and a very outspoken critic of the Des Moines Police Department and law enforcement overall who won a seat on that race. So maybe that stuck out. In the school board races the one thing we noticed, like Waukee for example, no mask mandate there. Those who ran on the concept of not having one didn't win. A couple of those other jurisdictions where there were mask mandates, that is then where you saw some incumbents bounce --

Murphy: And Ankeny is an example of that.

Price: Ankeny and Johnston.

Henderson: Let's turn to 2022. It's going to flip on the calendar pretty soon. Brianne, what in your view will be the most interesting race to cover?

Pfannenstiel: I think there are going to be a lot of interesting dynamics happening in 2022 and at the Des Moines Register we pay a lot of attention to the Third District because that is where we're at, Central Iowa, Des Moines. I'm really interested in the Third District primary race among republicans. We've got a really kind of wide group of republicans who have thrown their hat in the ring to compete against Cindy Axne. This is going to be one of the top targeted races in the country. We're already seeing a lot of outside money coming in to try and shape the views around Cindy Axne, the democrat. And so we've got State Senator Zach Nunn, we've got Nicole Hasso who is a political newcomer, she has never run for public office before but she is getting a lot of attention.

Henderson: She had Ted Cruz campaign for her.

Pfannenstiel: She was endorsed by Ted Cruz, Ted Cruz came and had a fundraiser with her. We've got Mary Ann Hanusa who is a retired state legislator who is still considering whether to run in the Third District. So there's a lot of really --

Price: But lives in the Fourth.

Pfannenstiel: But lives in the Fourth right now as a result of redistricting, as we talked about. And so she is going to have to decide exactly what she is going to do. We've got Gary Leffler who is an activist, a republican, a big Donald Trump supporter who could kind of divide that base a little bit too. So there are a lot of really interesting dynamics as we think about the future of the Republican Party.

Henderson: Well, speaking of dividing the vote, somebody has to get 35%. Might we see in this particular area a nominating convention if none of those candidates reach 35%?

Pfannenstiel: That is certainly a possibility. And we'll see how many of them move through into June, the primary is in June so we still have a lot of time. We're excited, I'm personally excited for the New Year to see them actually get out and kind of start campaigning. We've been in a real fundraising mode for the last several months. And so now we're really going to start to see where they stand on the issues and how they talk to voters.

Henderson: And for the benefit of viewers, the reason we say we'll see if they're on the June ballot is because they have to collect petition signatures, a certain amount in order to qualify for the ballot and the deadline for submitting those is in March. So people may say at this point that they're running, but until they submit those signatures they are not a "official" primary candidate. Erin, tell us what your favorite race ahead might be.

Murphy: They're all my favorites, it's like picking amongst your children, right? The one I'm curious to see how it plays out is the race for Governor. We have obviously Kim Reynolds, who had not made it official yet, but is widely expected to run for re-election. On the democratic side we have Ras Smith, who is a state legislator from Waterloo and Deidre DeJear, who is a Des Moines businesswoman, ran for Secretary of State four years ago. Those are names that are popular within democratic circles but need to do a lot of work to earn enough statewide recognition to be competitive against an incumbent. It will be interesting to me because that race, as you kind of step back from it, Kim Reynolds, Governor Reynolds has had some decent polling numbers but she also won last time by about 3 points. She is far from invincible and that was before the pandemic and any number of other issues that democrats will raise on this campaign trail and try to open up some criticism that could maybe weaken her. So it seems like an incumbent Governor who should be vulnerable but it's just as we sit here right now, and again it's a long, long time until the election, it just doesn't feel like there's a momentum in that democratic side yet in that primary. And of course part of what is hanging over that is the potential decision of Auditor Rob Sand and whether he is going to run in that race or not. Maybe that is what is kind of slowing that primary for now and once that decision is made does that start to pick up steam?

Henderson: Dave, do you have a township trustee race that you're sort of looking forward to covering?

Price: Very much so, yes, really digging into that quite a bit. Although this last election should show that we should really, really pay attention to these uber local races seeing how those school board races played out. As the TV guy here, I'm going to focus on the match of former TV competitors. So, primarily what we're talking about is the current First District, which will become the Second Congressional District, kind of the northeast part of our state. So you really do have, what's interesting to me is you have two women running, which is not even really a unique thing anymore because of what we've experienced in the last couple which I think is kind of an interesting footnote. So we have Ashley Hinson, the incumbent up there, the republican and Liz Mathis, the State Senator, the democrat. They both used to work together in television and they both have been legislators as well. So that one kind of intrigues me. The numbers are pretty close in that newly-drawn Second Congressional District. And just throw out all the R&D stuff, it's just interesting that you have two women that used to work together and now they're running against each other for Congress.

Henderson: Brianne, when you look at these districts, other than the one in which Congressman Randy Feenstra of Hull will be seeking re-election, the Fourth, which stretches from parts of northeast Iowa all the way to northwest Iowa and then picks up a tiny bit of southwest Iowa, how do these look in terms of voter registration? Are they sort of swingy?

Pfannenstiel: They are kind of swingy. And what is really interesting about the map that we ended up with is it is very similar in terms of republican, democrat voter registration numbers in each district as we had previously. So I think a lot of voters can kind of expect the same dynamics to exist in all four of the districts really. The Fourth District is still extremely republican, it is very conservative, it covers much of the state as you just mentioned. The Third District, again, is very similar to the Third District of before, it is very closely divided between republicans and democrats. And the other two districts as well I think will also be quite competitive. And a lot of this of course depends on the dynamics of the year and the election and fundraising and what all happens. But I think these are competitive districts and I think overall democrats were quite happy with the way this map ended up.

Murphy: And the way they are very close in voter registration between democrats and republicans, within a few percentage points of each other, and then those independent no-party voters make up a significant share, a big enough share in each of those three districts where they will help, that's what makes them swingy in nature is how those no-party voters go each election will have a huge say in those outcomes.

Henderson: We've got just a couple of minutes left. But folks, this week Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy announced he would not seek re-election. If Chuck Grassley is re-elected he will become the longest-serving current member of the United States Senate and none of you mentioned his race. Why?

Murphy: Well, history has proven that Chuck Grassley is very tough to beat in Iowa. He has been winning elections since James Dean was making movies. So it has been a while. That is plagiarizing myself, I've written that.

Henderson: Folks, we have about a minute left. I'll let each of you tell our viewers, is there a story that you're working on that they should pay attention to? Erin, let's start with you real quickly.

Murphy: Yeah, I've been talking to folks, we talk about the shipping issues that are happening right now and everybody is worried about their Christmas shopping, how that is affecting agriculture here in Iowa and there's some real serious issues going on with that. I talked to Chad Hart among my interviews, he has been on this show very recently, a great source. So it should be an interesting story.

Henderson: Dave Price?

Price: Something that personally affected me, though that's not the reason we're doing this. My children got an email to say, be prepared the bus routes might change, because it's still tough to get bus drivers. And we're working on a story this weekend with the human resources director from Marshalltown schools where they are having a problem that they have not had like this before with staff shortages. Usually this late in the year they may have one full-time opening that is unfilled. They have 20 right now. Haven't had to shut down classes any day but they have been teetering right on the edge.

Murphy: And some schools have.

Price: And some have.

Henderson: Brianne?

Pfannenstiel: We're continuing our run of polling at the Des Moines Register. I've got a Sunday story coming where we polled Iowans on how they felt about the January 6th attacks on the U.S. Capitol and kind of how they view that now close to a year out.

Henderson: Well, thank you all for joining us here and giving us a preview of coming attractions. And thanks to you for watching this episode of Iowa Press. You can watch us anytime over the air at 7:30 on Friday nights, at noon on Sunday and you can watch this program and all the programs before it on iowapbs.org. On behalf of 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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