Iowa Legislative Elections

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 9, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Pat Rynard, founder and managing editor at Iowa Starting Line, and Craig Robinson, Republican political strategist discuss the 2020 campaign for the Iowa legislature and competitive races in the Iowa House and Iowa Senate.

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 the Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.


(music) Races for the presidency, U.S. Senate and U.S. House dominate the headlines. But the battle for the Iowa legislature is also competitive. We dive into Statehouse election politics with Pat Rynard of Iowa Starting Line and republican strategist Craig Robinson on this edition of Iowa Press. (music)        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 (music)      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, October 7 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: While most voter attention is focused on close presidential, senatorial and congressional races in Iowa, local politics is also important, specifically control of the 100-member Iowa House of Representatives. Republicans currently hold a 53-47 vote margin over democrats in the Iowa House meaning democrats have to flip 4 seats to take control and end republican trifecta control of the House, Senate and Governor. Over in the Iowa Senate, republicans have a stronger advantage heading into Election Day as they hold a 32-18 seat margin over democrats. Yepsen: Here to discuss the heated battle for the Iowa legislature, we have gathered a pair of Iowans closely following these races. Pat Rynard is Founder and Managing Editor of Iowa Starting Line and Republican Strategist Craig Robinson. Pat, Craig, thanks for being with us today. And I want to remind our viewers that we're taping this program on Friday morning. Yepsen: Journalists joining us across the table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Henderson: Gentlemen, we live in a highly partisan era. Let's just start with the top of the ticket and what impact that may have on races down below it. Craig Robinson, what are your thoughts? Robinson: Well, I always kind of go back to 2008. We had the 2006 election cycle that was really tough for republicans and then '08 with Obama was going to be even worse but the tie that carried Obama and democrats nationally didn't really pull that much in the Iowa House. I think there were 800 votes from regaining the majority that year. I think we'll see something similar. There’s a lot of attention to these top races on the ballot, but I think local races matter and I think local candidates matter and so I don't think we'll see wave elections all the way through these Statehouse and legislative campaigns. Henderson: Pat Rynard, is all politics local or have elections been nationalized/ Rynard: It's still a little bit of both. In any of these state legislative races a republican or a democrat can only over perform top of ticket by so much. But I think they can do that a little bit better than say Joni Ernst or somebody like that. And so obviously this is going to be a lot different year than it was in 2016 when Trump carried the state by 9 points. It's looking like the two candidates, Biden and Trump, are tied in the state and maybe Biden even has a slight advantage where he could actually end up winning this state. How that matters for a lot of the Statehouse races is where is that actually coming from? Is that Northeast part of Iowa, rural Northeast Iowa that is kind of traditionally swingy, is that what is swinging back? If so, that is good for some legislative races. Or is it the democratic margin in urban and suburban areas are just shooting up so high that that's what is changing it? And if that's the case then that is less good for democrats. Murphy: So we're going to get into some of those races and some of those areas specifically. But first we wanted to get you both on the record, start with the big picture prediction. The Iowa House, as David mentioned, 53 republicans, 47 democrats going into the election. Who will come out with the majority? Craig Robinson? Robinson: I think republicans hold it. Rynard: I'm going to go 52-48 democrat. Don't ask me each specific -- Robinson: Don't ask him how to get there. (laughter) Murphy: Well, we were actually going to do that. Henderson: Let's talk about the suburbs. Craig Robinson, there are some key races in the Cedar Rapids area. You have Ashley Hinson who has given up a seat in the Marion suburb and you also have John Landon who is an incumbent in your neck of the woods, Ankeny, who has been targeted by democrats. So, what are your thoughts about how the suburbs play in maybe those two races in particular? Robinson: The top targets for democrats are in the suburban areas, it doesn't matter if you're in the House or in the Senate. I think it's somewhat interesting that Landon is the top target in that seat. There's a 1,500 republican voter advantage in that district. But I think why these suburban areas get into play is there is so much going on in these suburban areas and in my neighborhood there's just constant people moving in, building houses, Ankeny expanding. And so the power of incumbency doesn't carry as much as if I think you're in rural Iowa with a real static population. So I think there's opportunity in these suburban areas and that is why you see democrats targeting it. But John Landon has worked incredibly hard and done some really smart things in this cycle. He has taken it seriously. I think republicans struggle when they get caught off guard and are surprised by these democratic challengers. John Landon has known he has had a target on this back from day one and he has taken the appropriate steps. Henderson: Pat Rynard, what is your analysis of what is going on in suburban races? Rynard: Well, I think there's one other to mention and that is the Bettendorf one with republican Gary Mohr and the democrat Marie Gleason who ran for Senate last time, came close and now is running for that House seat. Bettendorf has kind of under the radar been shifting very strongly towards the democrats in recent years but it hasn't quite reflected it on the state legislative races yet. I think this is going to be the year that that happens. But you're right, those are the, those three places I think are the ones where democrats have their best pick up chances, Eric Gjerde I think is easily going to win the Ashley Hinson seat. And in all three of those you also have the dynamic of democratic candidates who are running for the second time and we saw a number of races in 2018 where that turned out well. Phillips, Gjerde and Gleason all are running for their second time. Yepsen: Why are democrats doing better in suburbs? Rynard: It was a revival by Donald Trump. They're sick of the chaos that he has caused -- Yepsen: Is that younger women specifically? Rynard: That's a good chunk of it, yes. And just how sort of far to the right the Republican Party as a whole has gotten. Yepsen: You mentioned the turnover, but why specifically this season do you think democrats are -- Robinson: Look, Donald Trump is polarizing and I think in suburban areas I think there's a little bit more outrage. I think geography matters. There are democrat held seats that are in trouble this cycle. Even the House majority leader Prichard who doesn't have a top notch candidate running against him but he's in trouble, he's spending serious money on TV to hold his rural seat because we've seen that switch. So the advantage, there's just not that many opportunity I think for democrats to grab a hold of in this cycle because they did so well that last time. And so they also have to hold these rural seats with Donald Trump on the ballot who has performed really well in those rural areas. Murphy: We'll get to those too. Before we move out of the suburbs, real quick, you mentioned 2018 big pick-ups for the democrats. Real quick, I think there's four or five first-term incumbents in the Des Moines suburbs. Democrats hold all of those, Pat? Or are any of those in -- Rynard: I think so. I have been surprised that the one that Eddie Andrews is running for the republicans are not up on TV in that one with Karin Derry, the first-term incumbent. So if they're not playing for that one I don't think they're going to. Murphy: Craig, what do you think? Robinson: I think that's the one to watch. Henderson: And that one is in Johnston, right? Robinson: That one is in Johnston and you have a voter registration advantage for republicans and you also have Brad Zaun running a contested State Senate race there as well so you have a lot of activity right here and supervisor races. The republican ballot in that district is strong enough. So I agree that the TV spending is interesting to watch. But I've been told Eddie Andrews has worn out two pair of shoes going door-to-door and that's another advantage that we've seen republicans still continue to do this door-to-door door knocking to reach voters and democrats are staying at home and doing things virtually. We'll see if that has an impact on Election Night. Rynard: But that is, real quickly, why those suburban pick-ups were so important last cycle for democrats because those are ones that you can hold without having to spend tons of money on them given the way the trends are going. Murphy: Another kind of category of close races that are out there are ones created by retirements, open seat races, a couple we wanted to talk about specifically. Over in the Council Bluffs area, Mary Ann Hanusa, a republican, has retired. The candidates there are Brent Siegrist, a republican who is a former House Speaker actually, and Jen Pellant, forgive me if I'm mispronouncing that name, is the democrat. How about that seat over there in Council Bluffs? Craig Robinson? Robinson: I was surprised to see Brent Siegrist mount a comeback. If you know anything about him, he will take this seriously or has taken it seriously, he can raise money, he's a known entity over there. Pottawattamie County is also an area that the Trump campaign has spent a lot of time in. You've seen a lot of political activity over there. And that will help not only in that congressional district and statewide but I think those local candidates. So I expect him to be back in the House. Rynard: I think that's a really good under the radar one for democrats that could be a surprise flip. My first job was out in Council Bluffs as a field organizer, it has been fascinating watching the trends change there, the white working class on the west end used to be democrat, now republicans, those hills and that is the district that is now trending democratic. Murphy: As Craig noted, democrats are on the defense in some places too including in an open seat race, Bruce Barringer's retirement up in Northeast Iowa, Fayette and Buchanan Counties. The republican there is Chad Ingles who ran for State Ag Secretary here. The democrat is Jodi Grover. Pat, are democrats going to be able to keep that seat? That is in, you mentioned, Northeast Iowa. Rynard: I think that is one of those that is like, what part of Iowa is moving back in democrats' favors? If it's the swingy area of Northeast Iowa then democrats have a better chance of holding that. But I think you're right, that is probably the hardest seat for democrats to hold onto. So that's the thing, democrats have got to pick up 4, but if they lose any of their ones already then it's more. And there's a couple of those places out there, there's that Andy McKean seat in Jackson County that Trump won by 20. I think Trump won Prichard's seat by 19, I don't remember exactly what it was in -- district Barringer's but it was a decent amount. And so that is really going to turn on the probably quality of the candidates in those districts. Robinson: See, this is why it's so hard to regain a majority when you're the minority because you can have good targets, you can have good opportunities, but if you lose one of your own all of a sudden, man, it is a much bigger lift. And again, republicans are on the offensive in some of these areas with really good candidates. And so you flip one of them, you make that chore of regaining the House even more difficult Henderson: Pat just mentioned Andy McKean who is a longtime politico in the Anamosa area who switched parties. He was a longtime republican, now he is a democrat. He endorsed Amy Klobuchar during the Caucus season. Is that, you're suggesting, Pat Rynard, that that's a pick up opportunity perhaps for republicans? Robinson: Yeah, I think it is. And I think that -- I grew up around there, that district also I think includes part of Jackson County. I grew up thinking Jackson County was this democrat stronghold and it's not. It has trended red and pretty significantly. So yes, he's a longtime office holder and yes that has some advantage, but republicans have a good candidate there and that district leans in their favor pretty heavily. Rynard: It's a fascinating run because usually when you have a party switch it is an incumbent who is switching to the party that has better chances in their district. Andy McKean switched to a democrat in a Trump plus 20 district, but he is beloved there as well. So it will be interesting to see how well he does. Henderson: There are some interesting rematches that also play into this idea of whether democrats can eke out a majority control. Down in the Fairfield area Phil Miller held the seat after a special election, then he lost to Jeff Shipley in the general in 2018. What does that race look like, Pat Rynard? Rynard: It's going to be very highly contested. That is one that democrats very much want back. It seems like every cycle there is a surprise down in Southeast Iowa for some democrat. But Shipley has really damaged himself during his short two years in the legislature, said some very weird and some just downright disturbing things. The reason why he won in the first place is because he has a bit of base of support among the transcendental meditation folks in the Fairfield area that usually go democrat but because they know him personally -- but he has said so many very odd things including that all these COVID deaths aren't real type of stuff and some other things that we're working a story on right now. It's going to be hard for him. Robinson: Shipley is a young guy and very energetic but he's not your traditional republican, he is much more of a libertarian and in that, if there's any county in the state to be a little bit more libertarian it's that one. And so I agree, the rematch makes sense, I can see why democrats would be excited about it. But I wouldn't write off Jeff Shipley down there at all. Henderson: We had a race in 2018 that was not decided in November, if you will, it wasn't decided until 2020, 2019. The House District 55 race between Kayla Koether, the democratic challenger, and Michael Bergan, the republican incumbent, the main community in that area is Decorah. What are your thoughts on that rematch? Robinson: I think Bergan holds this. I think he has done a good job and I think that he has campaigned hard and done everything he needs to do. It was a slight victory, but again, he won that district in 2018 in a really difficult year for republicans. I think having Donald Trump on the ballot where the rural parts of that community will have increased turnout, I think it will boost him. So I think republicans expect to hold that. Henderson: Pat, we're talking about Northeast Iowa again. Rynard: Right, and perhaps Decorah is my favorite small town in the whole state, it's a special case that I think kind of has been operating a little bit like the suburban areas of the state in recent years because you have a lot of retired teachers, a lot of educated folks in the area. Democrats came in somewhat late I think in advertising for Koether last time so I think having a full campaign operation this time all around, that is one that democrats feel pretty good about. Yepsen: I want to go back to the Todd Prichard race, House Minority Leader from Charles City, likely to be the next Speaker of the House. Pat, what is your take on that? Craig mentioned it as a thing he thought democrats could lose. What is your take on that? Rynard: You're not going to find too many people who are harder working than Todd Prichard and who is very well known and well liked in the community. He survived in some of these other years, although they didn't have good candidates in those cycles. But it takes a lot to knock off the leader of a party as we saw with Jack Whitver in Ankeny last time around. Yepsen: Almost got beat. Rynard: Almost but beat. Yepsen: Mike Gronstal though did get beat over in Council Bluffs, so it can be done. Rynard: It can be done. It would cause a lot of chaos if it that happened. But they're going to spin what they need to do to keep Prichard there. Yepsen: Craig, are republicans particularly interested in him because he might be a pretty good candidate for Governor? Rural, lawyer, record in politics -- Henderson: A soldier. Yepsen: -- yeah. He thought about running for Governor once before. Is part of the republican equation wanting to take him out early? Robinson: We always, people like us talk about that stuff. I don't think that's the real thing here. I already think it's a victory for republicans in the sense that you have a sitting minority leader and he has to spend a lot of money defending his rural seat. This is why you go after a Jack Whitver the last time, because you're spending resources you wish you could devote elsewhere. Look, it's always tough to unseat an incumbent like that. It's an area that is trending the right way. But again, like Pat said, Prichard has held that seat for a while and he isn't going to let it go very easily. Murphy: Pat, you mentioned that there's always the one surprise it seems like. I've got the prediction questions, I've got the crystal ball questions. Give me one surprise that you want to predict that will come out of these House races. Rynard: I'm trying to run through in my head real fast. I don't know if it would be a surprise if Christian Andrews wins that rural Linn County seat, but I think that is an interesting mostly rural seat that democrats could flip, and again, a second time candidate running again, a public works guy -- Murphy: And running against? Rynard: It's an open seat. Yepsen: Craig, what is your -- Robinson: I'm kind of like Pat, I don't know if it's some grandiose prediction that people are going to think I'm smart about, but I think maybe something we'll be talking about after the election is Mark Cisneros in Muscatine where republicans will elect the first Latino to the legislature. And I think that is noteworthy, I think it's important and I think it would be great if it happened. Murphy: Kay mentioned the District 55 race that was so close and questions about the ballots, whether they should be counted. There was a legislative fix that was made to that, proposed and passed into law. I wanted to ask each of you gentlemen, do you believe that has been fixed? If we run into a similar situation will that law take care of that, Pat? Rynard: I certainly hope so with the number of absentee ballots that are going around this year. My hope would be that there is so much excitement for this election that people get their ballots back in a much more timely manner this time around. Murphy: And I should back up and clarify for viewers that what happened is we had absentee ballots that came in and there was question over when they arrived and whether they should be counted and that went through litigation and ultimately lawmakers had -- Robinson: The law said there needed to be a postmark on it and what we know about mail today is that there is an intelligent mail barcode and the question is, is can we use the intelligent mail barcode, which tells, you when it was in the postal system. Yepsen: Has that been resolved? Robinson: I think it has been resolved and I think moving forward we'll be fine. But I am concerned with the amount of, just the amount of absentee ballots that will be voted this year. It is a huge chore for every one of these county auditors, it is a lot of work. Yepsen: But they know it's coming. It has been obvious for weeks now, months. Robinson: They know it's coming but you're taxing a system and it's one thing when is Polk County ready for it? I have no doubt. But are these rural counties that don't have huge staffs and huge budgets, are they ready to have a 3X or 4X absentee ballot counting process on Election Night? Yepsen: And you have Story County, for example, auditors sent the wrong precinct ballots. Robinson: Right. I have a friend in Ankeny who got their absentee and there was no ballot in it. You're like -- I'm sure it will be worked out and it will be fine. But that's what happen when you tax the system and put it all on these absentee ballots. Yepsen: Pat, you're nodding your head. Are you worried about all these absentees and the capacity of the system? Rynard: Two sides to it. So one, if you look at the overall absentee numbers on a partisan type party issue democrats far, far are outpacing republican requests and they are continuing their lead as we get closer to Election Day as opposed to past cycles where republicans usually narrow that. But, my other concern is there are some things that can go wrong with absentee ballots, they usually don't in Iowa, other states are a little worse off and it does concern me a little bit that democrats are relying so, so heavily on that this year. Yepsen: Well, I think I read in your newsletter, democrats always have a big margin over republicans in absentees, they did in 2016, republicans come back and still win by 9 points. So does it really mean much that the democrats have a big absentee ballot -- Rynard: I would feel a lot better if in some of these counties democrats are going to bank 70% to 80% of their total vote from last time as opposed to some of the republicans who in a pandemic year have only banked 30% to 40% of their vote and have to go vote at the polls. Yepsen: What do you make of it? Robinson: Look, there's 430,000 Iowans who voted on Election Day in the last two election cycles that haven't requested absentee ballots. So that looks good and the advantage for them is huge in terms of republican leaning votes. Those people are still going to be there. Democrats, what you're seeing is they are converting a higher percentage of people who went to the polls in the last two elections, they're getting them to vote early. It's great to have them in the bank but I don't necessarily know if you're gaining votes. Henderson: What is the impact in Linn, Johnson and Woodbury Counties by the confusion created by forms that the county auditors in those 3 counties, just those 3 counties, sent out? Rynard: So far from the numbers I looked at it doesn't look like -- it's not like those 3 counties their requests are significantly lower as a percentage of their voters as others. So I'm not too concerned about it at the moment. Henderson: We spend a lot of time talking about the Iowa House. There is another chamber, the upper chamber, if you will, the Iowa Senate. Craig Robinson, what is your prediction? Robinson: I think at the end of the night republicans will still have a majority that starts with the number 3. So they could maybe lose a couple here or there but they like their chances, they're feeling good. Yepsen: We have just a minute left. I want to go back to tactics here. Students, campuses disrupted. Pat, what has that done to the efforts to get out a big student vote, which democrats rely on? Rynard: Sure, they certainly do. Fortunately, young people are more excited than ever to go vote this year. So I am optimistic that they're going to get there. I've seen much less cynicism from young people about this race as opposed to 2016. Yepsen: 30 seconds left, Craig. Door knocking. Republicans have done door knocking, democrats going virtual. Does that give the GOP an edge or is that a mistake? Robinson: When you see doors I think it does. Republicans have a money advantage, a grassroots advantage and typically that is an area that democrats really beat us up on. Yepsen: What about that? Rynard: I'm a little concerned about it because I think democrats are not getting some of those drop-off voters less likely to vote if you don't actually go to their doors. I think there is probably a way that you could have come up with that would have been safe and they haven't done that. Yepsen: Thank you both for being with us, appreciate it. And we'll be back next week with another edition of 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. (music) (music) 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