Reporters' Roundtable (2019-10-11)

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 11, 2019 | 27 min

Presidential campaigns march on while Senate and congressional races take shape. Plus, some changes at the Iowa Statehouse. We'll get insight from Iowa political reporters covering it all on this edition of Iowa Press.

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. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.  


For decades Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, October 11 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.  

Yepsen: A few presidential candidates are campaigning in Iowa this weekend, just days away from the next nationally televised democratic debate. Meanwhile, Iowa has its own high profile races for U.S. House and Senate to keep an eye on. And there has been a leadership change at the Statehouse after Linda Upmeyer stepped down as House Speaker last week. To talk about it all we've gathered a team of Iowa political reporters. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. James Lynch writes for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Caroline Cummings is State Political Reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Welcome everybody. We've got a lot to talk about. I want to go around the horn with everybody to talk about the caucuses and the status of that race. Caroline, what is your take on the status of the democratic presidential campaign in Iowa?

Cummings: Well, I'd start by saying I think it's really still anybody's race. Obviously there's the top tier versus the middle tier versus everyone else. But I think it's important to note that a lot of Iowans are not decided and they have got a couple of people that they're really considering so if there is a moment for someone to kind of etch into the top of the list it could change things. Obviously Senator Warren has had a steady rise here and it shows, the enthusiasm for her shows, at these events people say 2 cents, 2 cents as if it's a war cry of sorts. So I think that there is something to be said for that for sure but it's anyone's, it could be anyone's game.

Yepsen: That 2 cents is a reference to her tax on the wealthy. Erin, what is your take on how the race is going?

Murphy: One of the things that I'm interested to watch, especially now as folks are really starting to pay attention to this, and Caroline mentioned the different tiers of candidates, I'm interested to see that second tier and whether there's still time and space for someone out of there to jump up. So we have Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders who have been pretty steadily the top three in the polls in this race. So that next group, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar. Is there time and space for someone from that group to catch fire and challenge those people at the top? Iowa voters, Iowa democrats like all those people a lot, it just hasn't translated to the polling yet. I'm curious to see if any of them can catch fire and join that top echelon of candidates.

Yepsen: Kay, how do you read it?

Henderson: Well, the Iowa Poll that came out on September 21st said only one in five Iowa democrats who intend to attend a caucus have chosen a candidate for real. When you talk to the other four out of five when you go to these massive events or small venues and ask them what is your checklist, how are you evaluating these candidates, they each have a different way of getting to the idea of electability. For some of them it's a fresh face. For some of them it is who best can match up against Donald Trump in a debate. For some of them it is who best will carry forward the policy positions that I want to see out of the next White House. So that's why this thing is so very fluid and it's not unlike a lot of races that you've covered, David. In 2003 that's really what things felt like at this point. John Kerry was at single digits in the polls and went on to win the thing.

Yepsen: Right, and President Howard Dean -- James, I'll let you clean up on this question. What's your take on this?

Lynch: It's sort of we're at that point where the seasons are changing. Throughout the summer we saw huge crowds for pretty much every candidate every time they were in your community. I think people are starting to realize hey it's less than 4 months until the caucuses, I need to shorten my short list, get it down to one hand maybe because with this huge field people have had 7 or 8 people on their short list. Now I talk to people and they're saying yeah, I don't need to go see her anymore, I don't need to see him again. They're starting to shorten their list. The calendar is marching on and I think people are, I don't think they have made their decision. It's probably one out of five has actually made their mind up. But they're starting to realize that they need to be thinking about what am I going to do on caucus night?

Murphy: They're winnowing.

Lynch: They're winnowing, yes.

Cummings: Slowly but surely.

Yepsen: Well, let's talk about some of these individual candidates. Caroline, why is Elizabeth Warren moving up? What is she doing right here?

Cummings: I think central to Elizabeth Warren's rise is that she has this central message that drives her campaign. It is combatting government corruption at every level, any answer to any question on policy she can usually weave that central message of corruption is the root of all evil to that and I think people resonate with a strong message even if that same Iowa Poll Kay talked about people want to see work with republicans and not see the party go so far to the left and she's got obviously a lot of left wing policies yet people still like her and I think it's because of that message. She obviously has a very strong ground game here and that is very meaningful obviously when you're talking about caucuses. So I think that the message and coupled with her ground game and also that selfie line. You can't put it past how much that resonates when people are taking those photos, when she stays for every single one, and then put it on their social media after, it's like free advertising. So I think all of those things together can definitely be chalked up to some of her rise.

Yepsen: Erin, we should specify that to talk about a September poll ordinarily would be okay but in this campaign with things changing so quickly pollsters can't keep up with it. Erin, talk about Joe Biden. Things seem kind of flat for him.

Murphy: I think flat is a good way to put it right now. As Elizabeth Warren has been rising there has been concern is Biden falling? I don't think he's falling. If you look at the polling data that backs that up. He just hasn't been rising either and he has to find a way to expand on his base of support so far. The one thing Joe Biden has going for him is when you talk to people who are in his camp they are firmly in his camp because they believe, many of them believe that he is the one who can beat Donald Trump as Kay alluded to earlier. That is his best argument right now is in a general election I am the guy that can go across this country in places that democrats aren't maybe as plentiful and be the best candidate for our party.

Yepsen: Kay, is the Ukraine business taking any toll on Joe Biden?

Henderson: Well, this is a very interesting period and we don't know how it's going to shake out right now. But one thing that could be happening is this is a Joe Biden versus Donald Trump moment and the rest of the field is unable to sort of break through and talk about their own message and how they would combat Trump. So this time could benefit Biden were he to show that he is an effective campaigner against Donald Trump.

Yepsen: James, Bernie Sanders, heart attack. What is the effect?

Lynch: Well, I think it remains to be seen. He is going to be back on the campaign trail soon he says. But I think it really reinforces the questions about his age, which probably also raises more questions about Joe Biden's age and Elizabeth Warren's age and Donald Trump's age. But I don't think it helps him at all that he has had a heart attack. He can point to Dick Cheney, how many heart attacks did he have and he served eight years in the White House. There have been other politicians who have had heart attacks and continued to serve in office. He ran a very aggressive campaign schedule, four events a day and those sorts of things. So I think it will focus a lot of attention on him to see if he looks like the old Bernie Sanders, if he sounds like the old Bernie Sanders, if he has the energy level that he had before. If he doesn't it could be damaging.

Yepsen: Kay, Bernie Sanders' heart attack, as James mentioned, calls attention to the age issue. But does it also help Elizabeth Warren in the competition that she is having with Bernie Sanders for that left hand lane? She has already been taking support away from him and after this will that not accelerate?

Henderson: Right, the snapshot that we saw in the Iowa Poll showed that among people who caucused for Bernie Sanders in 2016, only 25% were committed to doing so again in 2020. Warren, even before this episode, weeks before this episode, had already a third of the Sanders supporters lining up in her camp. The other thing that she has going for her according to polling data from the Register and CNN and Mediacom's poll is that among all of the candidates she has the highest favorability rating. She has a 71% favorability rating, which is really extraordinary given the fact that she is not that well known of a character as is Joe Biden. She has really introduced herself to Iowans in the past 10 months.

Murphy: And what's interesting about that is that has actually increased as her exposure has increased. Usually that goes the other way, as a candidate gets more attention the favorability rating goes down.

Cummings: And I would just say the age argument, I find even though Elizabeth Warren is in her early 70's I believe she has never, I never hear from voters that they're concerned about her age and I don't know if that's because she shows a lot of vitality and she's running up on stage and running to her events, but also in that same snapshot Joe Biden got less than 10% of people under 35 supporting him where Warren had the highest markers there. So clearly among young voters who might say we need fresh blood or I want someone like me, they don't seem to mind with Elizabeth Warren.

Yepsen: Does anybody hear concerns about the electability of a woman? Or are they past that now?

Cummings: The Iowa Poll electability numbers they didn't I don't think ask that. But I know Senator Harris this week, she has been kind of seizing on that a little bit, will people say they're not ready for a woman of color, they're not ready and she likes to clap back and say, well that's what they have said every race and here's the operative word that I have won every race they've said that about me. I feel like I don't really hear that much at all in terms of we're not ready for a woman or not even ready for potentially a gay man to be President.

Lynch: Yeah, not as much as in 2016 when Hillary Clinton was on the ticket, I don't hear that argument as much. I think one of the key things to watch as we go forward now is where do people go, who is their second choice? Is their second choice Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren? As Sanders, if Sanders doesn't come back strong, if people don't see him as a viable candidate do they go to Elizabeth Warren or where do they go? Where do Steve Bullock's 1%? Where do Pete Buttigieg's 3% or 5% go? And that could determine who the nominee is, the second choices.

Yepsen: One of my favorite stories in covering politics was the 1982 democratic primary for Governor. Roxanne Conlin was running and there were a lot of questions. Can a woman win? Are people ready for this? And all these labor guys started showing up with buttons on saying I'm ready for a woman.


Yepsen: Erin, talk about Pete Buttigieg. What is he not breaking out?

Murphy: Yeah, that's, he is one when I talked at the top of the show about the candidates in that middle tier, that second tier that I'm interested to see, he is one of them I've been watching closely because he also had high favorability ratings in the polls. A lot of people when you talk to them at crowds he is on a lot of those short lists, just maybe he's not the number one right now. He is also building up the campaign organization that the Buttigieg campaign is kind of catching up to the Warren's and the others who got started here early. So they have the boots on the ground, I didn't do that on purpose by the way, boots on the ground, for Buttigieg. So they have the people that can capture a moment if it happens for him. It just hasn't yet. I think it's a case of this unwieldly field. There's a lot of candidates that people like. He's on the list, he's just not number one on enough.

Henderson: And we're at an interesting moment, we're beyond the Polk County Steak Fry which had 12,000 people outdoors on kind of a misty day and Buttigieg had a ground game there that he exhibited. He had more people there, his speech was among the best if not the best received, and we're heading into this huge event, which we have all covered over the years. It is now going by a different name but it's the annual fall fundraiser for Iowa democrats and it's a deciding, it's a dividing moment for the race.

Cummings: And he is well-resourced and maybe that money helps push him over and edge out there.

Yepsen: He may be following I call it the Dave Nagle rule, Dave Nagle is a former state chairman who said the key to Iowa is organize, organize, organize and then get hot at the end. So maybe Buttigieg will --

Lynch: We hear that from his campaign as well as the Booker campaign who keeps referring back to John Kerry and Barack Obama as people who were not frontrunners at this point in the campaign but came on strong --

Yepsen: Talk about that, James, because Buttigieg has clearly got something going. Booker doesn't seem to have anything.

Lynch: Yeah, it's interesting. He gets a great response from his crowds. He is a very good speaker. At times he reminds me of Barack Obama in the way that he can talk about policy and politics, faith, philosophy and poetry and weave it all together. And he really gets a response from crowds. His numbers aren't that great, he just had this sort of come to Jesus campaign fundraising event where he said I need to raise $1.7 million or I'm going to drop out and he raised $2.3 or something like that. But the numbers aren't showing it for him. He is confident it's going to happen.

Yepsen: Caroline, what about Kamala Harris?

Cummings: She, like we talked about the short list, she usually makes the short list for people. When I covered her she has kind of shifted her stump a little bit and I covered her in the summer, she was I'm going to prosecute the case, pouncing on that prosecutor background. This most recent trip she did a lot of for the people, for the people, which is her campaign mantra and also what she would say before the court. So I think people see her as strong. That's usually what I get. With Booker it's usually inspirational is the buzz word. And again, it's not translating. So it's a matter of what makes it last.

Yepsen: Kay, Amy Klobuchar, Midwesterner, spent a lot of time here, but she's not breaking out either.

Henderson: She has put a lot of time in here way before this year. It's just hard with so many names and faces if you don't have that sort of viral moment. She has never had a viral moment online and I think that's what is the key for people like Booker and Harris and Klobuchar is they have to have a moment in this debate next week which sort of shows the nation that they have what it takes to be the party's nominee.

Yepsen: Kay, switch gears to the general election. Are any evidence yet that Donald Trump is in any trouble here in Iowa because of the Farm Crisis?

Henderson: Well, he dodged a bullet, if you will, recently by announcing a different kind of policy from his administration in regards to biofuels. I was on a conference call with a group of ethanol and biodiesel folks and was really surprised to hear a fellow who was on the board of one of these plants in Northwest Iowa say, I looked at the members of our board, every one of them I believed to be a republican, and none of them were enthusiastically saying they were going to vote again for President Trump. So while everyone sort of focused on the tariffs, it was that particular policy that was really tripping him up in rural Iowa.

Lynch: And this week the Hill had a report basically asking that question and they quoted a Northeast Iowa corn grower who has been part of the Corn Growers Association and he said he was irritated by Trump and he has cost me a lot of money. And if that catches on I think a lot of farmers will find themselves in the same position and that definitely could hurt him here in Iowa.

Cummings: I would just add that kind of to Kay's point, I've heard more I will stick with the President by the tariffs than the ethanol issue. It seems like the more immediate feeling and people are not receptive to that at all.

Henderson: And the problem for him, this is the problem for him, republican voters probably are not going to go in and cast a ballot for the democratic nominee. What they will do is they will what we call undervote, they just won't vote for a candidate for President and that is what killed the Clinton candidacy in many states, people who were democrats voted for other democrats on the ballot but they didn't vote for their presidential candidate.

Yepsen: Well, and if some of these people just stay home it could kill a lot of other republicans too. James, or Erin, switch gears here to the impeachment issue. It strikes me that the impeachment debate puts three Iowa members of Congress in a real bind, Joni Ernst in the Senate, she would be a judge, and then you've got two new freshmen democrats, Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer, who are going to have to vote on this, first-termers. What is the effect of all that?

Murphy: Yeah, and what's interesting about that and it's perfect that you list all three because there's two democrats and a republican here. What has been clear and interesting just for me to observe is that both political parties see this as a winning issue for them. The republicans are pushing democrats to go on the record about impeachment because they think voters don't care or think it's wrong that democrats are going after the President. Democrats want republicans on the record about impeachment because they want to get as many people out there saying bad things about Donald Trump. And look, we're more than a year out from the general election, there's going to be so much more that happens between now and then on this front and we may have a more crystal view of which party this actually benefits.

Yepsen: James, what is your take on that?

Lynch: I've been talking to democrats who want to see the President impeached and they want to see him impeached quickly and they say if democrats can't get it done by the end of November it's not going to happen, they should just let it go and let the election decide this issue, which I find to be a very interesting position for partisans. But they're saying you've got to do it, you've got to do it now.

Yepsen: Another hot topic, race in Iowa is the battle for 4th District Congress, Steve King's district. He is getting a primary. Four challengers?

Murphy: Up to four challengers now, yeah.

Yepsen: What's going on?

Murphy: So, as we've talked about on this show before, Steve King has found himself in hot water many times over comments that he has made in interviews and to the point where he only won by 3% in a super heavy republican district in 2018. That gave enough cover for some republicans to come out of the woodwork now and give him a serious primary challenge. We have Randy Feenstra, Jeremy Taylor, Bret Richards and Steve Reeder, who are now all in this race. Now, not all of them have done the legwork to get on the ballot yet and there's a possibility that not all four may. Randy Feenstra has had some really good fundraising efforts.

Yepsen: He is the favored candidate.

Murphy: I think because of that, between fundraising and endorsements he has garnered the most attention in that way. Jeremy Taylor and Bret Richards have been active and trying to be competitive but I think it's safe to say that Randy Feenstra --

Yepsen: A reminder, you've got to get 35% in an Iowa primary to win a nomination outright. If you don't, it's got to go to a convention.

Murphy: And there's a train of thought that the more this primary stays crowded the more that benefits Steve King because that essentially splits up the anybody but Steve King vote.

Yepsen: Caroline, switch to the Statehouse, a new Speaker, Pat Grassley. What happened?

Cummings: I guess Speaker Upmeyer announced maybe two weeks ago now, time really flies, that she was stepping down and she was citing she wanted to spend more time with her family and that she wasn't seeking re-election in 2020 and I think that's the big reason why she stepped down now because obviously the Speaker has a big fundraising role for other candidates in the House races. So I think she wanted changing of the guard so that person could take that role on to help fundraise for 2020 House races. Pat Grassley, the new Speaker, we spoke with him after it happened, didn't weigh into any agenda he might be pushing but we'll have to see what happens.

Henderson: One of the things that is a dynamic here is that legislators who run in 2020 sort of have to make a decision about 2022 as well because district lines will be redrawn and as the leader she was sort of, if she had stayed in the role, committing to electing folks in 2020 and dealing with reapportionment. And so I think when she decided I don't want to stay that long, that was the time when she made the decision to announce that she was not seeking re-election.

Yepsen: James, are we getting a political dynasty going in the state? This is Senator Grassley's grandson.

Lynch: There's a lot of speculation, yes, there has been a lot of speculation for years that Pat Grassley was being groomed to succeed his grandfather, Senator Chuck Grassley, and certainly his elevation to Speaker of the House only fuels that. Whether that's true or not remains to be seen. He has never sort of acknowledged that, but at the same time I think there's a lot of republicans who would like to see that happen.

Yepsen: Erin, where does this leave republicans? They've got three people in leadership who come from rural areas. I thought republicans had a problem attracting votes of suburban women.

Murphy: Yeah, that's going to be really interesting not only agenda wise in the House where your leadership team is all from rural areas and they have that perspective. But as you noted, going into the election they took a huge hit in the suburbs in '18 and now none of their leadership is from any of those areas, the one that was, Chris Hagenow, was not retained in any of the leadership posts.

Henderson: One thing that Grassley said right after he was elected was that basically Chuck Grassley is not the boss of me. He said it in a different way, number one. He referred to it as a conspiracy theory that people have been grooming him to run for the U.S. Senate.

Yepsen: But do you think this leaves the republicans as too rural?

Henderson: Well, in the Iowa Senate you have suburban leadership in Jack Whitver from Ankeny and Charles Schneider from West Des Moines. So you do have this dynamic.

Yepsen: We've only got 90 seconds left. I want to ask about a hot topic in Madison County, wind turbines. The county put a kibosh on it for a year. Are we losing favor with wind turbine, wind energy in Iowa?

Henderson: I covered a public hearing in Madison County and there are some really worked up people about having wind turbines in their neighborhood. They don't like the sound. They don't like the light that blinks on top of it at night. And they don't like the idea that this is taking productive farmland out of production. The other dynamic here is that the State Fair we asked Governor Kim Reynolds if she would support statewide standards for where these turbines may be placed and she said it's up to the counties.

Yepsen: So, Caroline, has the wind gone out of wind energy?


Cummings: I think it remains to be seen if this gets popped up anywhere outside of Madison County and how the Governor continues to respond if it becomes a growing issue because I think people were disappointed with her answer that was kind of non-committal.

Yepsen: Erin, what do you think?

Murphy: I think it's one of those things that as of right now it probably doesn't rise to the issue at a state level until another county jumps in, then another county jumps in, and those legislators start hearing from their people back home.

Yepsen: Well, not in my back yard, NIMBY. Let's all keep our pictures of President Howard Dean clearly on the wall as we cover this campaign. We're out of time. Thanks everybody. We'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at our regular times, 7:30 Friday night and Noon on Sunday. For all of us here at Iowa PBS, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


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. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are, there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.