Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Nov 13, 2020 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we discuss the aftermath of the 2020 election with Iowa political reporters: Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for Lee Enterprises; Caroline Cummings, political reporter for Sinclair Broadcasting; Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV; and Kay Henderson, news director for Radio Iowa.


(music) The 2020 Election may be in the rearview mirror, but we're still sifting through the aftermath nationwide and here in Iowa. We sit down with Iowa political reporters 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, November 13 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. (music) Yepsen: As the 2020 Election slowly fades away, the reality of its aftermath is coming into focus. President-elect Joe Biden begins an uncertain transition to the presidency, while President Trump refuses to concede. And here in Iowa a strong night for republicans as Senator Ernst is re-elected to a new six-year term, at least two, maybe three new republican members of the U.S. House won election and the republican trifecta in state government grew stronger. Yepsen: To dive into it all we're joined by a quartet of Iowa political reporters. Erin Murphy is Des Moines Bureau Chief for Lee Enterprises. Caroline Cummings is Political Reporter for Sinclair Broadcasting. Dave Price is Political Director at WHO-TV in Des Moines. And Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. Yepsen: Good to see you all again. I see you all survived. Price: So far. Yepsen: Thanks for being here. Let's go around the table. Kay, I'll start with you. What is the political effect of the COVID pandemic in Iowa? Henderson: I think it isn't that much different from the rest of the country in that you have one political party that believes one way and you have another political party that believes another way in the approach to mask wearing. Yepsen: Erin? Murphy: Yeah, I agree with that. I think I even said on this set a few months back that one of the things that has been unfortunate about all of this is that the response to this pandemic has in many ways become politicized and that is unfortunate given that people are literally dying of this disease and we have health experts that are telling us to do some things and whether or not people are following that advice has in a lot of ways been drawn along party lines. So it's going to be interesting to see as we move forward how leaders continue to try and help us to manage through this pandemic and if we can get that messaging to break through those party lines. Yepsen: Dave Price? Price: The divide is just so striking with this. And I think you have some of the population want to see the government do something to better protect people and you have the other side maybe focused on death rates and saying that between 1 and 2 out of 100 people that get this end up passing away and most of them have had some kind of other condition that they were battling and most, even more were older. And they think it is kind of overblown and probably doesn't directly impact them. And now we are seeing infection rates skyrocket all over the place. Yepsen: Caroline? Cummings: Well, I think that there was some hope among democrats going into this election that the state's rising COVID cases and surge in hospitalizations that led up, and we're currently seeing right now, but led up to the election might change hearts and minds and get people more in their camp. But as we learned very quickly Iowa, it was a great night for republicans up and down the ballot. And it's important to note that if you ask republicans they think that this election "validates" their agenda and their COVID response. Those words came from the Governor and leadership from republicans in the Statehouse as well. Yepsen: Caroline, does it validate the tactics the two parties used? Republicans were out knocking on doors, democrats didn't. Democrats lost some close races, the closest race in the country, the Second District, democrat Rita Hart is losing that by about 47 votes I think it is to Mariannette Miller-Meeks. Democrats were trying to avoid COVID, but republicans were hammering on the doors. Cummings: Yeah, I think democrats will have to have some introspection about how they conducted that type of campaigning. Ann Selzer on this program I guess it was last week said something that I think was striking and so true is that Iowans really want to see and hear their candidates. If they know their candidates they are more likely to vote for them. And so I think when you're talking about door knocking, if democrats were reticent to do that because of the pandemic that might have been the difference in some of these very close Statehouse races and potentially maybe in that Second District as well. Murphy: And the point we should, sorry Kay, the point we should make on that is there were safe ways to do that. We talk about listening to the experts and republicans described the way they approached door knocking during the pandemic, it wasn't the same way they always did. You could knock on that door, ring the door bell and then stand back if you're wearing a mask, you're six to ten feet away, you're talking to someone, you have a mask on, you're outside. That's a safe way to do that. Democrats chose to be even extra cautious for the longest time and not do it at all. Henderson: I've talked to a few democrats who say they were in a box because they were making the argument that you needed to be safe. But by not campaigning and not having political events at which people were gathering it made their party look weak. And when you're running for re-election or you're seeking an office for the first time you want to be seen as strong and that was something that they were unable to do effectively because they were essentially just sort of hiding from voters and trying to make connections on Zoom or we were told they were doing thousands, 1.2 million phone calls. Those phone calls weren't answered. I mean, how many of us answer a phone call if we see a number on our screen of our smartphone that we don't know? Those messages were not being answered and there was no human interaction. Yepsen: Dave Price, how is the Governor handling this? She's taking a lot of flak from a lot of people. Price: No doubt. One quick thing just to add onto what Kay said. I had a conversation with Linda Upmeyer, the former House Speaker. She said she pressed hard with her republican candidates running for the legislature about the importance, and to your point about listen, this is the way to do it, you can still go out there and door knock, you have to have that human interaction. Mask up, wear your shield, whatever you think is necessary, knock on the door and then back off. You don't have to stand on the porch and lean into the door when they open the door. And democrats were so hesitant to do that. And she really thinks, Upmeyer really thinks that was a huge advantage. As far as the Governor goes, she has tried to thread this needle about how to handle this pandemic, perhaps taking her lead from President Trump frankly with some of this about her messaging is we can't shut the state down, people are suffering all over the place. She has resisted and resisted to follow the recommendations from health experts in our state and across the country, from the Trump administration, from the Coronavirus Task Force, from the CDC, about a statewide mandate and has now done this partial mandate in limited situations. So it's basically big groups and you can start picking apart about what will this even help and frankly where did you get the guidelines which we have all asked. We were in the room about, where did you come up with it's got to be more than 25 people inside and more than 100 people outside? I don't know where that came from. They have not told us. Yepsen: Caroline, what do you think of how the Governor is handling this? Cummings: Yeah, so like Dave mentioned, it is the first time she has issued any mask requirement since this began, which is much to the dismay of democrats, and puts her in a small sliver of Governors in this nation who haven't issued a mask mandate. To Dave's point about the effectiveness of that, it's for social and recreational gatherings. There is religious exemptions, if a business were to conduct a sort of meeting at a hotel ballroom it wouldn’t apply there. So some doctors and public health experts are expressing some concern about we're at the worst part of the pandemic we have ever been at, what is this going to do to actually bend the curve, squash the curve, whatever verbiage you want to use there, to keep hospitalizations from going on the trajectory that they're going and keeping this explosiveness of cases from going and that is what remains to be seen and what we'll be watching for in the next few weeks here. Murphy: And I think part of the trouble, and Dave and Caroline have both alluded to this, is the kind of mixed messaging and the complicated way this latest mandate is constructed where you need to in these situations but not in these situations. Yepsen: It helps to have a law degree. Murphy: Right. And for something that really almost all public health experts would tell you is it should just be much more basic and everybody should be doing it any time they're in public, when you create this kind of mixed messaging that opens the door for people to ignore it if they want. And I think that's part of the problem here is that there's just not a consistent message top to bottom that people should be doing this whenever possible. Henderson: Part of the mixed messaging here is we heard early on that you wore the mask to protect other people. And then we just hear this last week that hey, yeah, if you wear the mask that also protects you. So it's not just the fact that some people say wear a mask and others say don't wear a mask, it's that the research and the science behind this keeps changing because we didn't have the coronavirus this time last year. We're learning new things through the pandemic and that changes the public health message and that confuses the people who are receiving that message. Price: But who is sharing that information from the Governor's administration? The Governor doesn't share that. Nobody from her administration does in a public way. So to communicate your point about here's what we now know, I don't know where that has been shared with the public. Yepsen: Well, she has been through two spokespersons on that Department of Public Health. Dave, is the game changing? You've had the Iowa Board of Health now say, wear a mask. You have republican boards of supervisors in Greene County saying, wear a mask. The Governor of Utah is now saying it. I wonder if this isn't changing as these hospitals fill to overflowing? Price: I have wondered throughout this if she would move to where she would allow locals to do their own thing, maybe not do the statewide mandate like health experts all over the country were asking for, but would she at least let locals do it. Locals have done it but there's no enforcement mechanism. The one part about enforcement that I couldn't get a clear answer from her this week is that for months we've been hearing from her you can't do a statewide mandate, she has cited, how would you enforce it, it can't be done, and also First Amendment violations. Now with this limited, partial, in certain situations, she is saying there will be some enforcement, whatever that is. Yepsen: Erin, is it a matter of enforcement or a matter of leadership? Murphy: That is such a great point. Wisconsin right next to us has a statewide mandate but they don't have the virus under control there either and part of the reason for that is there is mixed messaging among the leadership. The democratic Governor has instituted the mandate but the republican leaders in their Capitol have tried to push back against it if not get it thrown out altogether. They have taken it to the courts. So that creates, again, that comes back to mixed messaging, our leaders aren't all on the same page on this, we're not getting a consistent message like we are from the public health experts. Yepsen: Kay, Erin mentions the session. What about our session coming up here in Iowa? Henderson: Well, republicans will have a super majority, if you will. They gained seats in the Iowa House of Representatives and they have the same majority in the Iowa Senate coming up in January. The same folks are going to be in leadership. Pat Grassley, the grandson of Senator Grassley, will be leading the republicans in the House and Jack Whitver, who has been on this program, from Ankeny, a republican, will be leading the Iowa Senate. The dynamic here is what do they have left? And at the top of their agenda, welfare reform and tax cuts. It's going to be interesting to see if the Governor reworks what she called her Invest in Iowa program, which she rolled out last, early last year, which called for cutting income taxes by 10% and raising the state sales tax in order to provide property tax relief and you do that by having the state pay more for mental health services and having the state invest in water quality. Yepsen: What does COVID do to the session? Anything? Cummings: I don't think much, at least for now. We asked leadership just this week and they said they have no inclination or plans to pause the session, delay the session past January, even if numbers, Erin I think you asked this of them, even if numbers were similar to those now or would numbers change anything, and again they didn't make any commitments. So it seems to me that it's going to be full speed ahead for the legislative session come mid-January. Yepsen: Is the public going to lose access, this is closed and meetings, there's already plenty of that going on at the Statehouse with the trifecta, the Governor and a couple of legislative leaders can get together and cut a deal and it's law the next day. But what about public access in the COVID era? Murphy: It's going to be interesting. And we don't have an answer on that yet and that is a question that I'm sure those of us at this table will be asking legislative leaders in the coming weeks what the structure of the session will actually look like. When they came back last year after they took the break when the pandemic first hit and then came back to finish the session they did have some security measures where media were moved up into the gallery, they stopped using committee rooms. It doesn't sound like they're going to take as many of those steps this year and part of that could be a concern about what kind of access we have. Yepsen: Dave, all political is local, as we know. What about school politics? Has the Governor’s handling of this schools, on again, remote learning, in class, has her handling of that hurt her? Price: Well, I think the one thing that she has left in this is that at the end of the day parents can decide. So if you don't feel like it is safe for your child to go to school, your child can stay home or stay at grandma's or wherever your child is going to learn while you're at work, which is the case for a lot of people here. If you notice this past week in the two briefings the Governor has had, she had Dr. Ann Lebo up there, the Director of the Department of Education, and she is trying to stress to schools that yes, the administration put out this guideline about this needs to happen and this needs to happen, and then you can request a waiver. She's saying, you actually don't need to wait, here is what the thresholds are, keep those in mind school boards, school administrators, but if you see that you're headed toward that way, get the application in to us and we will probably approve your waiver. Yepsen: Caroline, go ahead. Cummings: I was just going to say, to the point about the schools, a lot of them are already meeting those thresholds without even having to request one not meeting them. We had 28 schools and/or school districts since Sunday request and get approved for online waivers. Yepsen: Let's switch gears and get back to the campaign. I want to go to politics in the Second Congressional District, the closest race in the country. What's happening there? Cummings: So right now Rita Hart has requested a full recount of every county, I think 27 in that district, and that is because these numbers have been just so tight and fluctuating. On Election Night I believe it showed Mariannette Miller-Meeks ahead, then there was some discrepancies in a couple of counties and that put Rita Hart over the edge. And again, we're talking dozens of votes. And so at the most recent recount, or recanvas if you will, in I believe Lucas County it put Miller-Meeks over the edge again. So she was quick to declare victory, the Hart campaign is saying it's not over yet and we are going to look at a full recount. And of course Iowa doesn't certify its elections until November 30th. So that is kind of where we are right now. Murphy: To your point, Dave, almost 400,000 ballots cast in that race and right now they are separated by 47, just remarkably close. We had a state historian tell us that it's the closest race in Iowa in at least a century, congressional race. So just remarkable. And as Caroline noted, it looks like that 47 is probably going to stand. As we're taping this on Friday they are doing the last recount of some counties that there were some errors made but the Hart campaign has requested a full recount and that will happen over the next couple of weeks. Yepsen: And democrats as they do their post-mortem on this can also remember they need to tell people to vote the whole ballot. John Deeth, a political guru and thinker and data geek in Iowa City said in his blog that there were 3,900 under votes in the race for Congress compared to the race for President. Murphy: People who voted for Joe Biden but didn't vote in the congressional race. Yepsen: And there was the game. Kay? Henderson: And this race is so close that both of these candidates, Rita Hart and Mariannette Miller-Meeks, flew to Washington, D.C. this week to participate in orientation sessions for new members of Congress. Murphy: Did they take two different group photos? Yepsen: Photoshop it in. Let's go down, back to the Statehouse. We've got way too many questions and not enough time. Kay, Janet Petersen, the Senate democratic leader said she's out. That's the end of her political career or what? Henderson: Well, she brought a very interesting statement that seemed to be looking toward the future. And if you read the tea leaves there it appears that she may be looking to run for something else. She has been a legislator for quite some time. She served in the House before she served in the Senate. And so it looks as if she may be examining whether she might run for something in 2022 and she would have the luxury of doing so in the middle of a term if she lost whatever bid she makes, she would still be a State Senator afterwards. Yepsen: Dave, is Iowa a republican state? Price: Right now it would look so. Yepsen: We talked beforehand, oh the democrats are close and Theresa Greenfield didn’t do very well. What happened? Price: Well, if you look, I'm a TV guy, right, so I'm thinking about the ads and democrats know their weakness would be where Kay grew up, right, Southwest Iowa, small town Iowa, which is the bulk of our state. And so if you look at, I'm not picking on Theresa Greenfield but most of her ads she's there in a flannel shirt, she's out in some kind of rural background, Rita Hart the same way, which is obviously very legit since she is a farmer, but so they put the backdrops on this but what I had talked to people about in the four to six weeks before the election was, what is a democrat and what does a democrat stand for, just on the most basic level. And it felt like most of the ads were these biographical about Rita walking with her husband, again totally legit, she and her husband farm, but there's a certain image they wanted you to see, especially in the Greenfield race where they spent $125 million or whatever it was on her behalf. But what was the messaging about? Henderson: And the other thing, Andrew Yang said this and tweeted about it, I know we aren't supposed to live on Twitter, but J.D. Scholten said, that's absolutely right. Andrew Yang said, when he would walk somewhere and tell someone he was running for President, they would say which party, he would say democrat, and they go oh because democrats have a reputation among some voters of being Socialists and that stuck as did the defund the police rhetoric. Yepsen: Just a few minutes left. Erin? Murphy: Yeah, the only thing I'll add to the whole red or blue question is, I think we're close, what Dave is saying we definitely look like a republican state, it has been trending that way in the last few elections. I think we need maybe one or two more cycles, and especially Donald Trump has been such a unique force at the top of the ticket. So a couple of cycles without him maybe at the top, although we may not get that as we hear that he is considering running again for re-election. Cummings: I think that right now Iowa is decidedly red but it's not to say that it can't be purple again. I think democrats were optimistic that they could flip some of those mythical Obama-Trump counties. Instead, the President improved his margins there in all but a handful of counties and Joe Biden only crunched less than one percent or something, very miniscule. So I think, like Erin said, kind of the buck stops with the President, at least from voters I've spoken with in these places. They have a loyalty to him. So if he is not out of the picture I think republicans are going to have to look introspectively about seizing on that base and can they maintain it. And if they can't I think there is a space for democrats. Yepsen: Isn't Iowa headed to becoming more republican because of the nature of population changes? Young people, the fault line in American politics right now, one of them is education. So we take our children, we give them many of them college educations and they leave Iowa and become democrats someplace else leaving behind what, an older, rural, non-college, white electorate, more republican. Price: And that may be. I guess I'm thinking bigger messaging looking at how this last election played out. Republicans effectively I think looking at a lot of these big, high-profile races were able to typecast the democrats as they want to defund the police, they want these riots in the streets -- Socialist, environmentalist, far left where the candidates probably weren't even frankly there, but did not push back on that. And to Kay's point earlier in the show about the failure to getting out to people and talking like this did them in because they weren't able to communicate well what do you believe and do you have the confidence and the comfort level to actually say what it is without alienating -- Yepsen: -- a Socialist from Des Moines. Murphy: And that gets at, and I wrote about this recently, shameless plug, there's the very cementing rural and urban divide right now in Iowa votes. Democrats used to, Chet Culver and Tom Vilsack and Barack Obama won dozens of counties across the state in their statewide election, recently democrats are winning six, eight, ten counties and Des Moines, Ames, Davenport, the big cities, Iowa City, there's just not enough votes there for them to overcome those big losses in those other counties. They have to figure a way out of that. Henderson: And, David, the meek may inherit the Earth but the strong who have a gun in a campaign ad are probably going to win a Senate race. Yepsen: 2022 -- Price: No way to top that. (laughter) Cummings: What an astute comment. Yepsen: Redistricting occurs, they get the census numbers next year, they redraw the lines. Dave, how is that going to change the game in Iowa? Price: Sure, maybe that redraws it, maybe that gives democrats some more hope here. But the point about where the legislative makeup is right now, these aren't squeaking majorities. Republicans have huge majorities in both the Senate and the House and it looks like they have three of the four U.S. House seats. Murphy: And it doesn't change the challenge for those statewide races, which there will be two big ones again in two years for Governor and Senate. Yepsen: And one thing that doesn't change is the clock and we're out of time. Thank you all for your help during this campaign. It's good to see you all. Murphy: Thank you. Yepsen: 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