Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Oct 30, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we preview the 2020 election from the perspective of Iowa's political reporters. Joining moderator David Yepsen at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises; Caroline Cummings, political reporter for Sinclair Broadcast Group; Dave Price, political director for WHO-13 in Des Moines; and Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.


Down to the final days of Election 2020 here in Iowa. We sit down with Iowa political reporters to preview Tuesday's matchups on this Reporter Roundtable 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 30 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: More than 650 days ago the race for President began in Iowa with January 2019 campaign events. 22 months later and we have tight races for the presidency, the U.S. Senate, Congress and the Iowa Statehouse all hanging in the balance. To preview Tuesday's matchups, we have gathered a panel of Iowa political reporters. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Caroline Cummings is Political Reporter for the Sinclair Broadcast Group. Dave Price is Political Director for WHO-13 here in Des Moines. And Kay Henderson is News Director for Radio Iowa. Yepsen: Thanks for being here, everybody. I know it's a busy time. Let's just go around the table very quickly. I want your handicap on how the race for President is going here in Iowa. Caroline? Cummings: Well, we know that it's neck and neck and that's not something that people maybe had predicted at the beginning of all of this. I think that it will really come down to if democrats can turn out people and crunch those numbers in some of the suburban areas to potentially put Joe Biden over the edge. And I know that the President's campaign would really like to keep Iowa in its column because of how close this race is here and also kind of the symbolism of what Iowa means to the campaign when the Trump campaign won it by 9 points 4 years ago. Yepsen: Dave Price, how do you see it? Price: In January it wasn't a race, now it is and that is despite the Trump efforts to tend to the soil the entire year long. The have been here non-stop. They had Pence here twice in a month. The President came. In a month-long stretch he sent 6 of his cabinet secretaries here on official visits that just happen to happen right before the election. But they're working this hard. But there's almost been it feels like this late realization by democrats that it's still winnable here. Yepsen: Erin, to Dave's point, what happened that took this thing, it was going to be a Trump blowout, nobody was paying attention, to now we're in the toss-up category? Murphy: Yeah, I think that's an interesting question and real quick to go back, Dave, you mentioned 650 days. I've got to say as a reporter who has been on the ground like this it feels like you're missing a zero at the end. (laughter) Murphy: But yeah, that's very interesting to me, the polling has been pretty consistently close on this race throughout and yet Iowa wasn't getting the attention, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, North Carolina were. And now suddenly we see at the very end a lot more attention. Donald Trump and Mike Pence have been here in the last couple of weeks, Joe Biden over this weekend. So it makes me wonder if the campaigns see the map changing, and maybe especially from the Trump campaign side they are fearful that they need to play some defense here that they were maybe hoping to not have to. And from the Biden campaign's perspective, I can't imagine that they need Iowa to get to 270 so maybe it's a case for them for an opportunity to really run up that score and pick off another 6 votes. Yepsen: Everybody was sick of Iowa after the Caucuses, nobody wanted to come back out here. Kay, what is your take on why this thing is so tight? Henderson: Well, just step back, maybe go up 30,000 feet, maybe Barack Obama and Donald Trump were anomalies because if you think back 1996, Bill Clinton and Bob Dole were both here on the eve of the election making that last pitch to Iowans, in 2000 both George W. Bush and Al Gore were here making their final pitch, as were John Kerry and George Bush again in 2004. So maybe we're just back to what's normal and just a razor thin edge here in what is a purple state. You've had the Chairman of the Iowa Republican Party on this program saying Iowa is a purple state, you've had the democratic chair saying Iowa is a purple state. I'm wearing purple. Maybe we are. Yepsen: There's one theme through all of this. Obama represented change in 2008, people weren't happy. In 2012, he was doing okay. In 2016, people wanted change. Hillary Clinton was the status quo, Donald Trump was change. And now people want change, they want change in Washington and Joe Biden represents that change. People, Iowa voters evenly divided, there's only 13,000 votes difference separating the party registrations. It's a good color to be wearing, we are purple. Price: But Joe Biden representing change is interesting for a guy who has been in there for half a century. But it could be just pushing Trump out. Henderson: The other thing if you dial back to 2016, if you look at the 9% margin you've got an abnormal amount of Iowans who cast a vote for a third party candidate, or 1.3% of them wrote in somebody else's name. So there's also that factor at work. Yepsen: Kay, let's go through the Senate race. We'll start with you this time. Handicap the race for Senator. Henderson: Very tied to what is happening at the top of the ticket. Both of them sort of rise and fall, I think, based on how Donald Trump does if you're Joni Ernst and how Joe Biden does if you're Theresa Greenfield. Yepsen: An incumbent republican, Erin, is in trouble in Iowa. What has happened to Joni Ernst? Murphy: That doesn't happen very often. 1984 was the last time that happened that Iowa booted a sitting U.S. Senator -- Yepsen: Roger Jepsen was defeated by Tom Harkin. Murphy: And then we had Tom Harkin and Chuck Grassley for almost four decades. Yeah, I think Kay nailed it. This race has become very much a snapshot of the national picture and the national mood and you see that in polling. Most polls on the races in Iowa, Joni Ernst and Theresa Greenfield run very, very close to Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Yepsen: Dave? Price: To pick up after Encyclopedia Henderson over here with her historical knowledge like no one else can. The one thing though that I think is interesting is that Joni Ernst is very much running attached to Donald Trump whereas Theresa Greenfield is not doing that with Joe Biden. Greenfield's whole message is I can work with anyone. She has radio spots saying that she could work with Trump. You don't have Ernst airing spots saying I could work with Joe Biden. So that part is interesting to me about how they have decided here at the end to align themselves. Yepsen: Caroline? Cummings: I echo that of all my esteemed colleagues across the table. But I also think there could be a very real situation, albeit very slim margins, where perhaps the President wins the state by razor thin margins but perhaps Joni Ernst loses by razor thin margins. And again, I just think that has to do with people's attachment to the President himself. There's plenty of voters I've spoken to in some of these Obama/Trump counties, the mythology of the Obama/Trump counties, that they're not tethered to republicans and they don't feel an allegiance to electing republicans down the ballot. Of course, the Republican Party is really trying to do that. But they are tethered to the President and it's the buck stops with him and that's who they care about. Murphy: And real quick, to Caroline's point, you do see that in that polling that I mentioned that the races are similar. But regularly Joni Ernst has actually polled behind Donald Trump in Iowa, which is kind of surprising to me, but supports the point that Caroline is making. Henderson: And the other weird thing about this, if you think about after Grassley won election, he has just had cake walks, but the junior senator in Iowa has always had, and for years that was Tom Harkin, always had a competitive race. So maybe this is just normal for the junior senator. Yepsen: Dave, why didn't Joni Ernst expand her base? The Republican Party is obsessed with firing up the base. Well, that's probably not enough. In 2014 she gets elected as the outsider, a Tea Party candidate, poor democratic opponent, poor campaign and she wins in that Tea Party surge. There is no evidence that she has expanded that base. She's out there riding a motorcycle trying to fire up the republican base. Price: And that part is her tradition. If you look at the TV ad strategy, the first one was masterful right, about making them squeal. She was riding a Harley on that one, she was shooting a gun and she was talking about cutting spending in D.C. Contrast that, and she was the military veteran, now contrast what they're doing now, it's a very softer side of this. She has her daughter doing commercials for her. Obviously she has a different look than she once did. But it's just a different feel. She has stood up there to talk about I myself have been a victim and now she's trying this broader appeal, pushing how she has worked on some bipartisan things, but she just hasn't been able to have that message throughout her 6 year career. Cummings: I was going to just add to the point about polling where Joni is going a little bit behind the President in some instances. The Ernst campaign does believe that there are people who, like suburban women, we talk about they are the key to this race, the Ernst campaign does believe that they can win back some of those women. I was just in a room this week with Joni speaking to women in Des Moines, a lot of this demographic we're talking about, and she really heeded to that bipartisan credential. She cited a Georgetown University study that showed her as among the top bipartisan senators. And I think that is a clear message to say, hey look, I'm a little bit different than the President in my rhetoric and that might appeal to get some of those voters that aren't the MAGA people. Price: But she didn't push back, she probably didn't push back that message the last couple of years the way she is right now. Cummings: And certainly appearing at the Trump rally too. Price: Exactly. Murphy: And there may be some inherent challenges for the Ernst campaign in this particular race too. She's the incumbent now, she is the one with the record, she has a list of votes that her opponent can hammer on, especially on health care, which they have done relentlessly versus the challenger, Theresa Greenfield, who is not only not the incumbent, she's not a career politician. She doesn't have those votes and that political record that the Ernst campaign can attack. They have tried to do that on her business record as a real estate executive. I don't know that that has resonated with voters the way attacking a voting record would. So I think that the incumbency may have actually come with some disadvantages in this race. Yepsen: Well, and Greenfield -- there has always been a view that Polk County liberals who have not run for office before are jinxed and she has clearly overcome that hurdle. Now whether she goes across the line or not we'll have to determine. Kay, I want to go to Congress before we run out of time here. Any surprises in any of these congressional races? Henderson: Well, I think, we're sitting in the Third Congressional District, I think the thing I want to watch on Election Night is what happens in Dallas County. 16 counties in this district, Axne won Polk County, she lost the other 15 two years ago. There has been a huge early vote in Dallas County. Those are the western suburbs of the Des Moines Metro. If those are suburban women who have a propensity to vote for the female candidate it will be a good night for Axne. If those are the traditional republicans that Dallas County folks have been turning out for decades, then it's going to be a good night for David Young, the former Congressman. So that is the county to watch on Election Night. Yepsen: Dave Price, what about the Fourth District? I tune into your station, all stations, wallpapered with TV ads, but low and behold I see an attack ad from Randy Feenstra on J.D. Scholten. This was supposed to be a cake walk for Feenstra. Price: I'm going to sound like a candidate because I want to go back to Kay for 10 seconds. I totally agree about Dallas and if you talk to Young's people that is where they know they underperformed in '18 and really need to try to push it back up to be competitive there. The Fourth District, J.D. Scholten money wise probably would have rather run against Steve King because it would be a lot easier. But that race doesn't feel like it's a blowout. The fact that Randy Feenstra agreed to do our debate, frankly, and I think that was the only TV debate he agreed to do, perhaps shows that they do expect something competitive, unless they're just trying to check a box that hey, yeah, we debated here. But yeah, there is a negative one up there against Scholten and Scholten has gone to literally every town in that Fourth District in all of those counties, every single town. I don't think the Full Grassley has ever accomplished that. It's kind of an astounding accomplishment and he started it the last cycle as well. So he has really, really worked it. Yepsen: The democrats may regret having not put more into J.D. Scholten than they did. They sort of wrote that off too. Moving right along, Erin, the legislature, the Iowa House. How do you see that? Murphy: Very much in play. The democrats believe they have a chance to flip that chamber and I think there is a very real shot of that. We'll obviously see. But republicans have a 53-47 seat advantage, so a net 4 seat gain is what democrats need between a few races left in those suddenly famous suburbs, some republican retirements that created open seat races in some competitive districts. I think there is definitely enough opportunity that there is a very real, very good chance here that we will have democratic control of one of the three legs of the trifecta at the Statehouse for the first time in a few years. Yepsen: Caroline, how do you see that race for the legislature? Cummings: I agree with Erin. And I feel like it is certainly seen as a real threat with republicans. Governor Kim Reynolds on two occasions this week, a Joni Ernst event I covered and at the Trump rally, excuse me, the Pence rally just on Thursday, she made a pitch to voters saying, if you want my agenda to continue to happen we need to retain the House, we need to have the trifecta. But republicans on the other hand, Speaker Grassley, feels that Trump has put some seats that are open or currently held by democrats, on the map. So it's not all wave a white flag, if you will. Republicans definitely are really putting money into certain races they see they can flip. And they still think that there is an avenue where even if democrats make some gains, like that one I think Ankeny seat that is still held on by a republican, if they can flip that and maybe some others, that there are some opportunities and other avenues for republicans to grow their majority and then keep retain control of the chamber. Yepsen: One thing I have noticed in all these races is the democratic advantage in money. That is a real switch in Iowa political history. You look at the spending in the legislature, democrats outstripping republicans, Theresa Greenfield and that Senate race. It used to be that democrats are the blue collar party and didn't have any money and republicans were the wealthy party. That has flipped too. Murphy: At the Statehouse level too. We've got national groups investing in those Statehouse races trying to help the democrats, EMILY's List, in every town a gun safety group. So the money, and I think that to a certain degree shows there is an enthusiasm and a passion in this cycle for democrats opposing the President and his policies. Cummings: And leveraging small dollar donations from across the country via ActBlue. I talked to a national campaign finance expert just speaking to the fact that democrats have excelled in that area, republicans have WinRed and they're trying to do the same thing. But that is much to the dismay and criticism of republicans who are like, well look at all this outside money coming from other states. Yepsen: ActBlue and WinRed are sort of clearinghouses for the two party's money. Kay, moving right along, the pandemic. How did the pandemic change the way we campaign? Henderson: It changed the way that democrats campaign in the state in that they went online for several months and it wasn't really until September that candidates like Theresa Greenfield and Rita Hart in the Second District and Abby Finkenauer started having debates in which they were physically around people because they were, they said, following CDC protocols. So it will be interesting after Election Day to see how effective new ways of reaching voters turned out to be. Text message, engaging in Zoom calls with multiple people from different parts of the state and then a lot of this is person-to-person contact. So you're telling someone, you're in charge of talking to all the people on your block and convincing them to vote for X candidate. Whereas republicans have been going door-to-door, door knocking, doing the traditional things and even have hired people to sign more republican voters up as the fall progressed. Yepsen: Did democrats make a mistake? Henderson: Well, we had Pat Rynard from Iowa Starting Line, the blog, here a couple of weeks ago saying that he thought perhaps that had been a mistake. Murphy: And this matters because all these races we're talking about are expected to be close from the top of the ticket down, the President, the Senate, some of these Statehouse races will determine control, these close races that get-out-the-vote machine could matter and that could make a difference and if republicans have done a better job of that than democrats then that could matter when the results come in. Henderson: And the problem here is that there's no straight for democrats, there's no straight ticket voting, so you have to know people's names to count them on the ballot. Yepsen: And it seems to me, Dave Price, that you can't do straight ticket voting, but in all this gloom and doom for republicans they do have a registration edge, at least they did as of October 1st. We won't see the next numbers until earlier in the week. Is that the payoff for republicans in going in and digging out all of these new voters? Price: We'll see, and of course we need to see where those swing voters go here and it just seems anecdotally they may be leaning left looking at some polls and some other things. The one thing I'm going to counter argue really fast on the Zoom way. Totally agree about the get-out-the-vote ones. The one thing that perhaps it could help would be the use of the candidates' time. Now, I don't know if anybody has done it effectively enough. But it's a lot easier to sit somebody in an office and Zoom like crazy because you're not driving all over the place. So you can go boom, boom, boom, boom. It's just whether you can connect with as many people as you could when you do a bigger rally like this. Yepsen: Caroline, are we seeing the end of the 99 county tour as important, as something a politician has to do? Cummings: Well, republicans have leaned in on that heavily criticizing Theresa Greenfield for not going to all of the counties in Iowa. And I think that the idea though that Iowans like to see their politicians in person is not going to go away. Even if the pandemic has changed it for the meantime, I do think democrats and republicans will have to continue to show up to those places. If Theresa Greenfield wins and is in office, she will have the expectation of going and seeing those people across the state. So I don't think it has ended. Murphy: It might be a difference to Caroline's point about governing versus campaigning. There is a very real strategy question there about why would a democrat spend time in some of these counties to get a dozen votes, it makes no sense. Yepsen: Dave Price, you mentioned polls. Your organization released a poll last week on Kim Reynolds' job approval dealing with the pandemic. Has that left Kim Reynolds a little sick politically? Price: Red America Blue America Research did the statewide research for us so I'm going to answer this empirically and anecdotally. First the numbers, the approval rate of the Governor 42 approve, 44 disapprove and then you can tell that leaves a chunk there who are unsure. I would just say anecdotally, specifically about the way she has handled the virus, I'm not sure in my career if I've ever received so many passionate emails, messages, conversations, from a distance, at the grocery store and everywhere else, in criticism of the way she has handled this pandemic and the fact that she has largely discontinued her weekly news briefings as things got worse here, something she had originally done five or six times a week, and instead went three weeks without doing a traditional news conference that had been, thanks to this organization, broadcast statewide. I have, and we carried those as well at my station. That has disappeared and in its place she has gone out focusing the last two or three weeks on campaigning instead. We will find out if that will be to her detriment. Yepsen: For a republican Governor to have a job approval under water in Iowa she's going to wind up being a republican Chet Culver, someone brought in by a popular predecessor who dropped the ball. And, Erin, won't that encourage democratic challengers in two years? Murphy: You're going to have that anyway, but yeah I think it's safe to say that democrats are going to feel even more emboldened going into that gubernatorial race, assuming Kim Reynolds runs again or depending on what happens with the presidential race, if maybe she gets a post in the administration like her predecessor did. But yes, I think this pandemic, as much as we're talking about this now and will continue to, we're going to have that discussion all over again in a couple of years during that gubernatorial campaign, there is no doubt about it. Yepsen: Kay, in addition to the gubernatorial campaign in two years, one big question is does Senator Grassley run for re-election? What is your sense? Henderson: I have no idea. Number one, I think it does depend upon the outcome of this year's U.S. Senate race. What was really interesting was the moment that Tom Harkin said he wasn't going to run, just a few minutes later Grassley said he was going to seek re-election because seniority in the U.S. Senate was so important. Yepsen: So if the republicans lose the Senate, Grassley is not too keen on running for re-election? Henderson: We'll see. Yepsen: Erin, doesn't this encourage this tight race, Governor's job approval is not good, doesn't this encourage democrats to be all fired up to take on that Senate race? Murphy: Yeah, so that is going to be interesting to see how that shakes out because there will be two races on that ticket that will be begging for a strong, each to have a strong democratic candidate in what could be two very competitive races. Again, it also depends on how the presidential race goes because depending on which party has the White House that historically has an effect on that first midterm after the presidential election. So a lot of political winds that we just don't know which way they'll blow. Yepsen: And we have one minute left. It’s not an official Iowa Press Reporter Roundtable if we don't talk about the Caucuses. Dave, has 2024 started already? Price: I think we've seen with Tom Cotton's visit, Ben Sasse's visit, Ted Cruz scheduled to come this weekend, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence -- perhaps yes. Yepsen: And everything is going so well in the world that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo can come to Iowa to talk to the Family Leader. Price: Exactly, he found some time for that. Henderson: All roads lead to Iowa. Yepsen: That's right. Listen, thank you all. Good luck on what is left of the trail and on Election Night. Yepsen: And we'll be back next week with another edition of Iowa Press as we sift through the aftermath of 2020. That's 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) 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