Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Jun 16, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, we convene a group of Iowa political reporters to discuss the Iowa Supreme Court ruling on abortion, the Iowa Caucus campaigns, and other political news.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief politics reporter for The Des Moines Register, and Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio.



A big decision for Iowa's republican Governor and GOP lawmakers. It's the lead topic of discussion on our Reporters' Roundtable on this edition of Iowa Press.


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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, June 16th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: Big news on this Friday from the Iowa Supreme Court. Iowa's law regarding abortion remains the same. Abortions are legal up to the 20th week of pregnancy. To provide context, we have assembled a group of reporters to talk about this issue and others facing politicians in the state of Iowa. We're joined by Brianne Pfannenstiel, she is the Chief Politics Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Clay Masters is the Morning Edition Host for Iowa Public Radio and its lead Political Reporter. And Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. Erin Murphy, you have written about the Iowa Supreme Court ruling. What did it say?

Murphy: Yeah, so I'll give you the short version first because I'm about to then go into a much longer explanation about how we got here. But, essentially there was a 3-3 decision, split decision on a case that was before them. And what that ultimately means at the end of the day is that it's a status quo ruling that current law remains in place. And what that means is that in Iowa, abortion remains legal up to the 20th week of pregnancy. So, how we got here, as fast as possible because there's a lot of background, in 2018 the Iowa legislature and Governor Reynolds signed into law a bill that would ban abortions after a fetus' heartbeat can be detected, which people say is around 6 weeks. That was immediately stopped by the courts, a court ruled it unconstitutional in 2019 and that ruling kind of held. It has been, the law has been blocked since then. Then after last year's Supreme Court, U.S. Supreme Court and Iowa Supreme Court rulings that sort of reset the landscape for abortion laws, Governor Reynolds asked the Iowa courts to reinstate that 2018 law. The District Court reaffirmed its decision, it got appealed to the Iowa Supreme Court and we're here on Friday morning, this morning's ruling was the ultimate answer to that question. With the 3-3 tie nothing changes, that lower court ruling stays in place, the law is blocked.

Henderson: So, Clay, surprise? Expected?

Masters: Well, it's very rare anymore as a morning host on Iowa Public Radio that I actually have to break in with breaking news because a lot of stuff is kind of set in the morning. But, I was surprised this morning to be breaking in to regular programming with this decision. We have a Supreme Court in the state of Iowa, all are republican appointees. The three that upheld the lower court ruling were Justices Christensen, Waterman and Mansfield. Both Waterman and Mansfield were Terry Branstad appointees and Christensen, the Chief Justice, was a Reynolds appointee. I'm just so used to so many things going a certain way with such a republican majority in the state, granted the courts are separate from the politics, of course, but their appointees do get politicized as people are campaigning. So, I was surprised this morning by the ruling. I think people thought that this could be an option. But to see it this morning it was a surprise to me.

Henderson: Brianne, we saw statements from the Governor and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and House Speaker Pat Grassley expressing disappointment at this ruling and saying, we're weighing all of our options. So, let's clue people in. What might those options be?

Pfannenstiel: Well, I think one thing here at this table that we're all interested in is whether there is going to be a special legislative session, whether the Governor pulls folks together and says, let's get to this before January when they're set to reconvene already. And so, I think that is certainly on the table. And when they do that they could create new legislation, they could pass something like this again, start from scratch and get this whole process moving again or they could look at passing a constitutional amendment, something that they did in the 2021 legislative session, passing a constitutional amendment that would say there is no right to an abortion in this state. They did that in one General Assembly, which is two legislative sessions. They would need to do that again either in 2023 or 2024 to get that on the ballot. If they did that in 2023 they could move pretty quickly to put that in front of voters. And that is an interesting question of how Iowans would respond to that.

Murphy: And I could see -- and this isn't based on any insider info, this ruling just came down, we haven't had a chance to talk to people about this -- but just kind of based on history, I could see a universe where that is the route, the latter, the constitutional amendment is the route they choose to take because that is sort of similar to the route they chose to take with challenging the fetal heartbeat bill. This was already in the system so let's try and see that through. That didn't work out. I could see them saying, well we already have the constitutional amendment in the works, let's see that through and get that and then put it to a vote of the Iowa people. And the other reason that could work is what that does, if it were to pass, is that kind of resets the legal landscape all over again because if it passed and it went into the Iowa Constitution, the Iowa Constitution would then say the right to an abortion is not a guarantee and that might give them a little more legal wiggle room to then down the road pass another kind of abortion restriction. But again, this is just my take based on how I've seen these groups operate in recent years.

Henderson: The loyal viewers of this program, a few weeks ago we had House Democratic Leader Jennifer Konfrst on the program and she said, yeah, do it, I want you to put that constitutional amendment on the 2024 general election ballot because we saw what happened in Kansas. What do you think? Does Iowa's political landscape line up the same way?

Murphy: Well, that would be super interesting. You mentioned Kansas where they tried to put that on the ballot and it failed. We had a recent Wisconsin Supreme Court election, which in a vacuum maybe doesn't sound like it's relevant to this, but in the exit polling and studying of that election it turned out that abortion was a huge motivating factor in that election and the more liberal justice won in that state, which has been a very purple state lately, so that was a very significant outcome too. So, when abortion has gone before voters in states, including some very purple or even conservative-leaning states, the voters have sided with abortion rights over restrictions. So, it would be fascinating, is Iowa the same mix of voters? We wouldn't know for sure. I believe Brianne's team has done some polling on that.

Pfannenstiel: Right, I think it would be a big risk honestly, as democrats have said, for republicans to put this on the ballot. When it's a single issue, a majority of Iowans say that they support abortion rights. Des Moines Register polling shows that 61% of Iowans favor access to abortion in all or most cases. 61% is a pretty solid majority and that has held for years. 35% oppose access to abortion in all or most cases. So, when it's a single issue I think Iowans pretty consistently have shown that they favor this. But, when you put it into the mix with everything else, when Iowans have to weight it against other issues like the economy, like inflation, it becomes more complicated. So, that might be a reason we, in fact, see this thrown into the mix later in the legislative session perhaps.

Henderson: Let's take a little time travel back. Kim Reynolds became Governor in the middle of 2017. This was among the first laws that she signed in 2018 and when she signed a ban on most abortions after the 6th week of pregnancy, there are some exceptions in this particular law that has never gone into effect, it was the toughest one in the country, Clay. But the landscape has changed now.

Masters: Yeah, the landscape has changed quite a bit. We have seen a much more republican-dominated legislature than it was then. And also, the thing that this makes me think a lot about too is what does this do for candidate recruitment? I think we're going to see if the politicians are doing what I assume they're doing this morning, they're thinking about what does this decision mean for the 2024 election? You had the democratic Senate minority, the whip, Senator Sarah Trone Garriott, immediately putting out kind of a wakeup call for democrats saying, now is the time to defend our rights, raise your voice and rally your friends and neighbors to do the same. This could be a call to arms for the democrats to try to win back some ground in the Iowa legislature. But on the same side too this makes me think back to the Varnum v. Brien decision in 2009 that legalized same sex marriage in the state where that activated a lot of conservative groups and you could see people rallying around that for legislative races in 2024. And, to Erin's point about Wisconsin, you saw a lot of outside money go into that race for that judicial nomination and you didn't see the same kind of outside money going into the gun constitutional amendment that came up in this 2022 midterm election. So, there is a lot at play right now. We're very much in the early stages of the Supreme Court speaking on this issue. So, it remains to be seen as everything seems to be.

Murphy: The other thing I'll just add to this is this morning's ruling, Friday morning's ruling didn't add a lot of legal clarity to the issue either, the split decision didn't answer the question of what standard do future potential restrictions need to be held to, so that is an interesting element to me of all of this too and a question that needs to be answered going forward is obviously at some point we assume the republican majorities in the legislature and the republican Governor will attempt whether to do a constitutional amendment or eventually some kind of legislation. Again, on abortion restrictions, clearly they're not settled with 20 weeks, they're going to want to try for something lower. But, they have to write something that will pass and not get struck down by the courts again and we don't have a lot of clarity over how they need to thread that needle. And that is an interesting element of this moving forward as well.

Henderson: Brianne, as you look at the Iowa legislature, democrats unanimous, we oppose new abortion restrictions and they are even promising if they take the majority they would pass, try to pass their own amendment to the Iowa Constitution to enshrine the right to abortion in Iowa's Constitution, whereas among republicans there are some that want to completely ban it, there are some that support the law and actually voted for that 6 week ban. If you have a special session, do those schisms gets resolved in public?

Pfannenstiel: Right, I think we have kind of a situation of the dog catching the car and not knowing exactly what they're going to do with it now. They've got an opportunity, they've got these majorities, and republicans aren't totally united on how best to move forward on abortion. We're seeing that play out across the GOP caucus trail here in the presidential race as well, some people thinking a 15 week or a 20 week like Iowa currently has is sufficient and what exceptions you carve out. And so, again, a risk of having a special session is all of those decisions are going to be in the limelight, people are going to be seeing how republicans do or don't agree on this. And they're going to have to figure out within their caucus what makes the most sense for Iowa and what they can actually get passed.

Murphy: Which, again, is another, to circle back, is another reason that maybe they focus on the constitutional amendment for now because they can say to their people in those caucuses, look I get what you all want to do, let's just get this constitutional amendment passed first, let's focus on that and then we can come back on a bill later, sort of kick that down the road, so to speak, until they can build consensus around something and focus on the constitutional amendment first.

Henderson: Well, Clay, as we look around the country though we've got states that are banning abortion, we've got states that have 6-week abortion bans without any exceptions. What sort of pressure do you think that puts on republicans in Iowa to do something?

Masters: I don't see how it doesn't put some pressure to act. I think that this is going to be fought out in campaigns to move forward. And as Brianne was saying, we're seeing some of these dynamics play out with the republican presidential candidates who are spending a lot of time in Iowa talking about I would put a federal ban on abortion or I would --

Murphy: And at how many weeks.

Masters: And at how many weeks. And so, it's a very muddied issue that I think we will see some of how that conversation plays out in the republican nomination for president here with the first-in-the-nation republican Iowa Caucuses.

Henderson: We'll talk a little bit more about the caucuses. But before we leave Statehouse politics, Erin, a few weeks ago, earlier this month we had then Senate Minority Leader Zach Wahls on the program and then something happened.

Murphy: Yeah, literally a handful of days after his appearance on this show, Senate democrats as a group, 16 of them, held an impromptu meeting and voted him out as leader and voted in Senator Pam Jochum of Dubuque. And while they didn't make this public, what our collective reporting has told us is that Senator Wahls had been making some changes to the staff in the Senate democratic caucus, including firing a couple of longtime staff members who had been there for years and years and years who he didn't feel kind of aligned with his vision for how the caucus should operate and was bringing in his own people. Enough of the Senators, of his fellow Senate democrats didn't like that and they voted him out. So, kind of a fascinating thing that has unfolded. For a group that is down on the mats politically speaking, talking about Iowa democrats, and now they have this kind of internal kerfuffle and leadership change going on.

Henderson: You have Zach Wahls on a blog post this past Monday described at sort of a moribund party and I'm trying to shake things up and win things for democrats. Clay, you talked about recruiting. Does this have an impact on recruiting in any way? Or do issues and maybe the presidential contest that is developing have more of an impact?

Masters: I'm trying to think of how I want to unpack that. First off, I think it's of note that soon after this decision came forward with Zach Wahls, the former Senate Majority Leader Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs was let go by the Iowa State Building and Construction Trades Council as its capital lobbyist. That tells me a lot about the old guard that is still in the democratic minority in the legislature and I think that there are implications there that I'm not quite sure what they are at this point. But if you look at the party as a whole they need to be expanding and bringing more people in and I believe Wahls was a part of that group of people who were figuring out how to bring more people into the party. It just really illustrates some of the rifts that are there.

Henderson: Let's shift gears, as promised, to the caucuses. Brianne, moments before we all walked into this studio to record this program, the Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee talked about the Iowa Caucuses.

Pfannenstiel: Right, this is the conversation that never ends, seemingly. The Rules and Bylaws Committee met yet again today and they reviewed the plan that Iowa Democrats submitted for their 2024 Caucuses. And to catch people up in case you're not following along, the DNC stripped Iowa of its first-in-the-nation caucuses, put South Carolina as first. Iowa Democrats are still trying to figure out what that means exactly. They have put forward this plan that kind of has a very broad outline of what they hope to do. It lacks some of the specifics like what day, some things that the DNC really wanted to see. And so, what that plan says is that Iowa Democrats will have a mail-in caucus. They will meet, they will elect delegates at the caucuses, but the business of casting preferences will all be done through the mail, which is a very major change. So, they presented this to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee and today that committee said their plan is not in compliance with what the DNC would like to see. They have some concerns about whether they do intend to go first and go before South Carolina and how this is all going to shake out. They said, you've got some more time, come back and give us some more details and we'll see how that goes. But I don't know that the Iowa Democratic Party has those answers, I don't know that they intend to provide those answers at this point. They are trying to play a long game of getting into this early window at some point, even if it's not first-in-the-nation. And so, they're trying to cling to this as long as they can. And so, I think we'll be talking about it for some more time.

Murphy: Yeah, to your point, the committee gave them 30 days to tweak their plan and try and get it back into compliance. As I understand they could ask for an extension even beyond that too. So, the story that never dies will continue to not. And just to elaborate on what Brianne said, the long play is the democrats, the Iowa Democrats feel that one of these other states is not going to figure out, one of the early voting states, one of the five that were picked, is not going to be able to figure out their plan in time --

Henderson: Well, we already that. Georgia's legislature is not going to change the law and so Georgia is not going to have a contest unless they choose to have caucuses.


Masters: Those are popular.

Murphy: And so, the Iowa Democrats' hope is let's stay vague so ultimately the national party is going to need someone to swoop in and save the day and that can be us.

Henderson: On the republican side, Clay, Iowa is first according to the Republican National Committee, a decision they ratified --

Masters: There's no date yet, but yes, it's still first.

Henderson: Exactly. So, what are we seeing on the campaign trail from candidates?

Masters: They're spending a lot of time in Iowa. So, it was a slow start. I think we were all kind of waiting for the same thing to happen that has happened in years past but it took a little while. They started to trickle in and there was this week in May where Iowa was the place to be if you are running for President as a republican. You've got the Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis who came here and held a bunch of town halls, kind of rallies. You had the former President Donald Trump who made more, they were the appearance of a more like retail politics than the rallies, they were more retail politics than the rallies that he usually has that we have become so accustomed to holding. And then there was Senator Joni Ernst's Roast and Ride and that is her fundraiser that kind of took the place of Tom Harkin's Steak Fry where a bunch of republican presidential candidates were here. Mike Pence was the only one to drive a Harley to the State Fair where there was meat to consume and speeches to hear from. And it felt very much like what we have become accustomed to as covering the caucuses. But, I do want to share a quick anecdote. So, when Donald Trump first came to Iowa and Davenport, I was renting a car and I said something to the person that I was checking it out from saying that I was going to go cover Trump who was going to be here for the first time. He said, oh he's running for President again? And so, I think it was just this moment where it's like as engaged as so many of us are in this race and as engaged as so many of the people are that come to these events, this is still very early in the process. And the very first Roast and Ride, do you remember who the candidate was that was making headlines?

Henderson: Scott Walker.

Masters: Of course you guys do, nobody else does. But it tells you how early we are in this process.

Henderson: The other thing that occurs to me about this campaign so far, Brianne, is that they really have not been in Iowa this month very much because they're so focused on getting on TV or having some sort of viral event online because they all have to show that they have 40,000 unique donors in order to qualify for the debate stage in August. And so, what sort of impact are these debate rules, in your view, having on the way the campaign is unfolding as candidates may or may not be reaching out to Iowa voters?

Pfannenstiel: I think it's having an enormous impact and I think that will keep growing as this goes and as those debate standards increase, as the hurdles get higher the farther we get down the line. You're seeing more candidates spending time fundraising. A lot of candidates are in California right now hitting the fundraising trail rather than the Iowa Caucus trail. They need to get those dollars in. And they need people to give in small amounts. It's not necessarily the total fundraising amount. They need to have a donor threshold that they get. So, you're seeing candidates give away sweatshirts for candidate donations or books or what have you. And so, the candidates are spending a lot of time trying to meet these because if you're not on that debate stage in August you're over. You're not a serious candidate unless you're on that stage. And so, it's changing the way they're interacting right now.

Masters: And you saw some of that in 2020 as well with the democrats where Iowa always traditionally winnows the field. Well, the debate qualifications were also helping Iowans I think winnow that field as well.

Murphy: There was actually a couple of the candidates who spoke at the Roast and Ride who made that point specifically, I need your donations to get on the debate stage. So, they're not even hiding it, they're flat out saying it. And you mentioned some of the clever ways, I think it's Perry Johnson who is asking for two cent donations to align with his two percent reduction in spending plan as a way to get the required number.

Pfannenstiel: And they're playing to Iowa caucus goers too who famously don't decide who they want to support until the end. And they're saying, if you want my voice on that debate stage, if you want me to continue to be part of this process, support me here, just keep me in the game. And so, we're seeing a lot of those things happening.

Masters: There were people in 2020 I remember and things right ahead of the caucuses that were still saying, I don't know, I've got it down to three.

Henderson: That's not the case when you talk to the people who are going to these events to look at candidates. Brianne, you and I were in Pella this past week. Tim Scott was speaking to a rather large crowd of 250 people or so. And when you talk to people in the crowd, it's Trump and maybe somebody else, and this was post-indictment and arraignment.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. We do a lot of time talking to people in the crowds, I think we all do to get a sense of how they're viewing current events, how it's shaping their opinions, and these indictments that came down for the President, I don't know that they're changing a whole lot of opinions. Certainly, for people who like Trump they're perhaps even more dug in, they feel that he is being unfairly prosecuted. For people who had questions it maybe adds a little bit to the conversation that he's got too much baggage, he couldn't win in a general election, that maybe they need to look for some other people. But we really do get the sense that the race is Donald Trump and whoever that other person might be. Certainly, Ron DeSantis is the exciting candidate right now. He's getting the most support in polls besides Donald Trump. But he still lags by double digits. And so, people like Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence who launched his campaign, they're going to have a tough time breaking in and getting that support.

Murphy: Yeah, to put a finer point on the indictment impact, Trump supporters are not going to be moved by that. So, if you're already supporting Donald Trump, they still are. And anybody you talk about I like Donald Trump but I'm shopping for someone else, they might be moved by that, but they were already thinking about another candidate anyways. The kind of different places Iowa republicans were on these candidates are very unlikely to be moved by that news.

Henderson: Well, we need to move on because we are out of time for this conversation. We'll reconvene at some other point during the summer to catch up on everything that is going to happen on the campaign trail. Thanks to you all. If you would like to watch any episode of Iowa Press you may do so online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching.


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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa Banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at