Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
May 29, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we gather a panel of Iowa politics reporters to preview the June 2 primary elections. Our roundtable discussion includes Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa, Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises, and Dave Price, anchor/reporter and political director for WHO-TV.


As Iowa creeps back to a new normal amidst a global pandemic, primary elections are fast approaching. We gather an Iowa reporters' roundtable to preview June primary night 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. 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. 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 politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating nearly 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, May 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen.


Yepsen: The global coronavirus pandemic has impacted every part of daily life in American society. But it has not stopped or postponed the June 2nd primary here in Iowa. As candidates have been forced to campaign online and on air instead of hand-to-hand across the state, the June 2020 primary leaves plenty of intrigue and interest for the political reporters gathered today at the Iowa Press table. To preview Tuesday's primaries, we're joined by Dave Price, Political Director at WHO-TV in Des Moines. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa.

Yepsen: Thank you all for breaking loose and joining me here at the roundtable. I'll start with you, Dave Price. I'd like to hear from everybody. But, a primary in pandemic. How is this campaign different from all the others you've covered?

Price: What campaign rally will you be covering Tuesday night, Dave? That's the biggest one, right. As we were laying out our primary night coverage, frankly, that's the beauty of TV, right, the screaming rallies, everybody gathering around and then we're plotting out when we take that victory speech or the concession speech. This year that will be done by Zoom.

Yepsen: Erin?

Murphy: The inability to talk to the voters person-to-person has been one of the biggest changes in this and that is tangential of what Dave is talking about, these events aren't being held, we're not there and then talking to voters afterwards about how they feel about the different candidates. So being able to get a read, the temperature of the room by talking directly to voters, that is essentially gone in this primary, it's next to impossible.

Yepsen: Kay Henderson?

Henderson: The other interesting part is how many people have requested an absentee ballot to vote at home and the uncertainty that that has really injected because there's a good share of them that have never ever voted in a primary election before. And you talk to the campaigns, they have no idea how those voters are going to perform.

Yepsen: Kay, are we even going to know who has won? Dave points out there are no victory parties. But even if you had them, would we have anything to cheer about?


Henderson: Well, it depends on who you are. But we've been told that the Secretary of State has given county auditors the ability to open and count early in the same fashion that you do in a general election so they don't have to wait until everything sort of closes down on Tuesday. So they may know sooner. But you have counties that are going to be counting exponentially more absentee ballots this time around and so it's going to be a really interesting evening.

Yepsen: Yeah, and we've had all kinds of primaries, even in the old days, where remember we don't know who is going to win because they're still counting the absentees. So on top of that they've got even more absentees to count. We've got three big primaries I want to talk about. Let's start off with the Senate Democratic Primary. Dave Price, your impressions in that race? Michael Franken of Sioux City, Kimberly Graham of Indianola, Theresa Greenfield of West Des Moines, Eddie Mauro of Des Moines.

Price: Well, Theresa Greenfield is the obvious frontrunner here, you just have to turn on the TV and you can see all of the campaign commercials, especially from outside groups on her behalf. It's something like $7, $8 million running in outside super PAC ads to her benefit here. And if you follow what is going on here, here late in the game you're now seeing these ads from Emily's List. That group supports Theresa Greenfield but really coming hard after Michael Franken, which ought to tell you all you need to know about where they think the momentum is. They decided not to go after the other man in the race, Edie Mauro, they're focusing on Michael Franken of Sioux City thinking that he has found a little something here to kind of push him toward primary day and that's where the attention needs to go.

Murphy: Yeah, and you talk about another impact of campaigns during a pandemic, we don't have public polling on this race because it's too expensive for folks to do these days. So we don't have that to rely on, so we use other methods. Dave mentioned the advertising, the fundraising, that is all in Greenfield's advantage. And you look at the way the other candidates have tried to take cracks at Greenfield whether through ads or during the debates. I think it's pretty safe and clear to say that Greenfield is the frontrunner, she was picked by the establishment, by the national democrats early on in this and so this comes down to can one of these other candidates mobilize enough grassroots support to overcome that advantage?

Yepsen: Kay, why did the National Democratic Party decide to get involved in a primary contest like this?

Henderson: Well, they've done it before here in Iowa. As you may recall they picked Patty Judge, encouraged her to run against Rob Hogg who was a State Senator and still is at this time, to run against Chuck Grassley last time around. The reason they have gotten involved is because they consider Iowa to be perhaps a state where they can pick up a Senate seat. And so that's why they wanted to invest early. And I think the thinking among the folks out there is that having a woman run against a woman, U.S. Senator Joni Ernst, would be their best bet, if you will. Back to the discussion about who these people are appealing to, I think one of the interesting things about this race is that we kind of have maybe a hangover from the Caucuses. And so will Kimberly Graham be able to amass support from the Bernie Sanders wing of the party where she was clearly a Bernie Sanders supporter? It's just going to be really hard to tell what happens, again, because we don't know actually who is voting this time around.

Price: And her performance in the debates, I think this was her introduction to a lot of people for all the reasons you've already discussed here about how this is different. But she has performed well for a rookie candidate. She stands up there, explains very coherently and concisely her positions on things, perhaps her experience as an attorney here, and that translates.

Murphy: And you talk about contrasting with Joni Ernst as a candidate, that is the case that Michael Franken's campaign and some of his supporters will make is that his military experience, running a veteran up against Joni Ernst and her military record, and also he's the only candidate not from Des Moines, which some people think could be an attractive quality in a general election candidate.

Henderson: You also forgot the pig thing, which is what he likes to bring up. He worked at a meat processing facility as a kid and he comes from an agricultural area of the state.

Yepsen: And, Erin, to that point, that Polk County point, democrats just haven't done well fielding Polk County candidates in Iowa elections. Whether you like it or not there is a bias against big cities.

Murphy: And that is with an eye towards the general election, that maybe a candidate from outside of Des Moines when you get to the broader electorate across Iowa, not just the democratic primary voters, you're talking about general election voters, then maybe a candidate outside of the Des Moines bubble, as it is derisively called, would be a more attractive candidate.

Yepsen: Kay, so Franken retired three star Navy admiral, no slouch as a candidate. How is he doing? Again, we have no polls.

Henderson: Right, he has interesting experience in that he was in the military and involved in the Ebola response. So sort of that puts him at the edge of the news of our time. He, as a first time candidate, doesn't appear to stumble that much on the stump, albeit the stump being a video Zoom camera. And again, it's important that he comes not only from not Des Moines, but he also comes from the Sioux Center area, which is sort of the epicenter of red republican Iowa.

Murphy: And the print guy on set will point out that to whatever degree those help anymore, he earned the Des Moines Register's endorsement in this race.

Yepsen: Which in the past has been, had some impact on competitive democratic contests. Dave, there is a law in Iowa that says you've got to get 35% to win a primary outright, otherwise it goes to a convention. Is this democratic primary for the U.S. Senate headed to a state convention?

Price: It's at least mathematically possible for all the reasons Erin is pointing out. We don't have a heck of a lot of polling to look at here. So it's more challenging when you're talking about only four people dividing up this 100% pie here. But you can, if perhaps Graham and Eddie Mauro perform well enough and if this Franken thing is real that clearly some people sense, maybe they all get their numbers up high enough, nobody wins it outright and then it goes to convention. Of all the races it might be the more likely one to end that way.

Yepsen: I was struck by the fact that Greenfield has got a mailer out in which she is attacking Eddie Mauro for allegedly taking a pro-life stance. I say allegedly because I won't let Theresa Greenfield speak for him on that issue. But he has bene very aggressive, Erin, in the contest. Is he making some headway here that is prompting her to need to knock him down?

Murphy: Well, that's what makes you wonder. And does Theresa Greenfield's campaign look at the field and maybe to this point about the 35%, does she need to suppress any potential support for these other candidates, make it as much of a binary choice as possible, which increases her chances of getting above that 35%.

Henderson: The other thing is people are watching TV more than ever and this campaign has largely been waged through advertising and Eddie Mauro bought ads that attacked her and if she didn't respond to it I think her campaign thought that would just sort of leave that out there in the ether and people might try to interpret it and so they thought that she needed to respond.

Yepsen: One thing primaries often do is let candidates emerge, somebody doesn't necessarily win but they do well enough that they live to fight again another day. Well, in 2022 the Senate seat held by Chuck Grassley is up and there's a lot of speculation that despite what he says he may not run again. Erin, who out of this democratic primary field may live to fight again another day?

Murphy: It's not difficult to envision any of the four, depending on who wins, still being around and given another look in two years. Theresa Greenfield is already an example of that. She early on was in the 2018 third district democratic primary until she had problems with her campaign and had to drop out of that race. So she is an example of someone who had already run and is trying again. And open seat race, if Chuck Grassley does retire, is even going to be more attractive to democratic candidates. So yeah, Michael Franken you could see sticking around, Kimberly Graham you could definitely see sticking around and running in her lane again, easy to imagine any of these candidates giving it another go in two years.

Yepsen: Kay?

Henderson: Two years is an awful long time, number one. But number two, you have a history of Iowa of people being successful on a second chance, aka Tom Harkin.

Yepsen: Dave Price, let's switch races, the fourth district, republicans, Steve King, a nationally watched race. How does that race feel to you? I've got Randy Feenstra from Hull, Steve Reeder of Arnold's Park, Bret Richards of Irwin and Jeremy Taylor of Sioux City all running to knock off King.

Price: Well, the attention is clearly between Steve King and Randy Feenstra. King has been around forever getting elected in 2002, has obviously said a lot of things that have made some of the Republican Party uncomfortable and you're seeing that the way this support has lined up behind Randy Feenstra. Start going through this campaign donations and you see a check from Terry Branstad. You've got Chris Rants, the former Speaker of the House leading one of the super PACs. There are either five or six super PACs I think all together that have helped out Feenstra in this campaign. So clearly that is the kind of marquee of the two. The question for me would be the other three who really come in here at a disadvantage. But can they get high enough to make this a more competitive race so that it's not just a King/Feenstra showdown with the higher of those two the ultimate victor?

Yepsen: Erin, what is your take on this race?

Murphy: Yeah, and to the degree that happens that would seem to benefit Steve King the more that anybody other than Steve King vote is split up, the more that actually helps Steve King. I mentioned kind of the Theresa Greenfield versus the other democrats as kind of an establishment versus the grassroots race. This is even more so and to follow up on Dave's point on that. Steve King again has not done well fundraising, has not had hardly any advertising, he is relying on the people who know and like Steve King, despite everything that he has been in the news for, to turn out for him and be enough to win in this primary now versus the advertising and the money and the establishment support is all going to Randy Feenstra. It's going to be wildly interesting to me. I can't sit here and predict who will win that. It's going to be really interesting to see who comes out on top in that.

Henderson: Well, Dave, I covered the nominating convention when Steve King won his nomination in 2002 when no one won 35% in the primary. So wouldn't that be interesting if in the 10th term he's seeking he has to go back to a convention? And to Erin's point, he has a long history with a lot of people in this party and some of these people in the party have depended on him to pull people along. I'm remembering that when Mike Naig was in this situation just a couple of years ago, Steve King was the guy who gave a nominating speech at the republican state convention for Naig to pull his people along. And then there was something really interesting that happened this week, the King folks announced that a group of conservative legislators from that district were publicly backing Steve King and they were not backing Randy Feenstra. One of them was Jason Schultz who is a State Senator who serves alongside Randy Feenstra. Another one was Steven Holt who is well known within party circles now, a State Representative, and he actually called Randy Feenstra out for some of the things that he has said in the debates. So that core group at a convention can help organize the floor. 

Yepsen: We could really get into the weeds on this race. So it's a distinct possibility, Kay, that nobody gets to 35% so it's got to go back to state convention. As you pointed out, that's how King got to Congress in the first place. With everybody split his forces could easily rally and renominate him. Is there any sign that Feenstra is succeeding in consolidating the anti-King vote here?

Henderson: Yes, because Jeremy Taylor, who had been a Woodbury County Supervisor, seen as a conservative and had a conservative voting record when he was a member of the Iowa House, had to resign because he changed his residence and there was a question of whether he was eligible to be a county supervisor anymore. So his star, which had been sort of hanging in there, really took a hit. So that is what has made this a two person race, it had been sort of a three person race before that.

Murphy: Yeah, and the other thing I'll add to that is I agree with Kay, it's largely those two, Feenstra and King have pulled away from the pack and the other two, but if it's a close enough race between Feenstra and King, if it comes down to literally a couple dozen votes, which is possible in a primary, even a congressional primary, then are there enough votes that go to those other people that might have swung it otherwise? That's where it could still play in.

Yepsen: Dave, Iowa has what is called, does not have what is called a sore loser law and that is a law that most states have that says if you run in a race and lose you can't run as an independent. You can do that in Iowa. So there is a scenario isn't there where either King or Feenstra, whoever loses to get the nomination could conceivably run as an independent or a third party candidate?

Price: There is. During the debate we held this past week with the candidates we specifically asked kind of in a lightening round setting at the end here, would you support the eventual nominee? And Steve King was the only one of the bunch who did not say, yes I will. The way he phrased it was, I will be the nominee. Good answer. Nice confidence in himself here. But he also left himself that pathway. I don't have any insight as to whether he's looking at that alternative route, but he did not eliminate the chance of that.

Yepsen: He has been talked about as maybe on the Constitution Party line or some independent party line, which wouldn't that almost surely mean that J.D. Sholten, Erin, the democrat who is unopposed for his nomination and came lose to King last time?

Murphy: I think if that were to happen behind closed doors and off the record you would see and hear some celebrating from J.D. Sholten's campaign offices.

Price: Maybe not even off the record. It might be publicly.

Yepsen: We'll stay tuned to that one. Let's go to the third big primary race that we have, second district republican congressional. Tim Borchardt, Steve Everly, Mariannette Miller-Meeks, State Senator from Ottumwa, Rick Phillips from Pella and Bobby Schilling, former Illinois Congressman, now moved to Iowa. This race is generally thought of, Erin, as a Schilling versus Miller-Meeks race. How do you see it?

Murphy: Yeah, that's right, similar to the fourth district race there's other candidates but this has essentially boiled down to State Senator Mariannette Miller-Meeks versus former Congressman Bobby Schilling. And that has gotten contentious, those two have traded barbs and attacks. Bobby Schilling has pointed out some of Mariannette Miller-Meeks' past tweets where she was critical of President Trump. As you mentioned, Bobby Schilling has kind of been classified as the carpetbagger, although in fairness it's not like he moved across country, moved from one side of the Mississippi River to the other, but was a former Illinois Congressman. So that has been a contentious and competitive primary and I think the sense is that Mariannette Miller-Meeks is in a little bit of a stronger place. But not knowing what we know about what turnout will look like in this election it will be interesting.

Yepsen: Kay, is this a referendum on Governor Reynolds' clout? Did Governor Reynolds endorse Mariannette Miller-Meeks?

Henderson: I do not believe so.

Yepsen: She's staying out of this.

Henderson: I think she's staying out of all of the primaries.

Yepsen: Good, I'm glad you corrected me.

Henderson: But, the thing that we haven't yet mentioned is that people may be familiar with the name Mariannette Miller-Meeks who live in that district because they've seen it on the ballot. This is her fourth try in this district for Congress. So that may help or it may hurt. And then sadly Bobby Schilling recently had a cancer diagnosis, he's off the campaign trail, his son is campaigning on his behalf. You don't know how many people had already voted who were planning to vote for him, you don't know how that news may play in the district. So this is a really interesting race.

Yepsen: Dave, Schilling is attacking Miller-Meeks for allegedly waffling on anti-abortion issues. Is he making any headway?

Price: He, look, I'm going to go back to what Erin said earlier on, it's hard because we're not out there at rallies and such talking to as many people as we normally do. So frankly most of my interaction is over the phone and through social media and things. But it has gained some traction with people who perhaps don't know everything about the candidates now saying, oh wait, did she say that? And they've tried to push back at that now. But it has made an impact with some, we'll see if it's enough.

Yepsen: Just a couple of minutes left and I want to go to the general election real quickly. This is our first roundtable since Joe Biden won the democratic nomination or clearly is going to be the nominee. Kay Henderson, Trump versus Biden in Iowa.

Henderson: Well, Trump won the state by 9.5 points in '16, he carried it with just a little bit more than 51%. Two years ago, Kim Reynolds won this state by about a little more than 50%. So if there is any drop-off on that republican core voter and if Biden doesn't get bitten by this idea that we're going to vote for the Green Party candidate or some other candidate, or if you go back and look at 2016, 1.13% of votes cast in the presidential race in this state were write-ins. So if Biden can somehow consolidate democrats, energize democrats, we might be back at 2000. Remember that when Gore won the state by 2,000 votes? It could be that close again if that scenario were to play out.

Yepsen: Go ahead, Dave.

Price: I was just going to say to Kay's point that would seem to be his challenge because he did not energize democrats, he frankly never has in his history as he has run through Iowa and clearly didn't this last go around in the Caucus. So many other candidates connected so much better than he did. It's not impossible that he finds a way to do it for all the points you make here. But that would seem to be a challenge of he has to try to bring back all those, or at least some of those people who went the Obama to Trump counties to try to get them back to their side, but he has to get that core base of democrats, traditional democrats excited about him willing to do all of the hard work, the door knocking, all that stuff to drive up turnouts.

Yepsen: Erin, his vice presidential pick, we've got just less than a minute. Any one of the democratic contenders, which candidate could Joe Biden pick that would do him some good in Iowa? Any of them?

Murphy: I think you could make a case for a few of them, especially talking about the ones who ran in the primary. Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar, you could make a case for any of those three, the different kinds of voters they could bring along and help him. So I think that choice is going to be very interesting to see. Does he pick any Amy Klobuchar type who is similar to him and appeals to those Obama/Trump voters that Dave is talking about? Or does he pick a Warren or a Harris who maybe fire up the democratic base in different ways? That choice kind of gets to the point that Dave was talking about.

Yepsen: But if he picks Warren and they win, Charlie Baker, the republican Governor of Massachusetts fills the Senate seat to make it difficult --

Murphy: -- when they're trying to win back the Senate too, yes, absolutely.

Yepsen: Okay. I'm getting a little guy in my ear telling me we can wrap it up. Thank you all. It's been a great conversation. I look forward to talking with you again. And we'll be back next week for another edition of Iowa Press at regular times, Friday night at 7:30 and again at 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. 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. 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.