Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Aug 4, 2023 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa political reporters discuss the latest local political news and updates from the Iowa Caucus campaign trail.

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

Program support provided by: Associated General Contractors of Iowa, Iowa Bankers Association and FUELIowa.



It's been a busy summer of politics and with the State Fair right around the corner there is no letting up. Our panel of political reporters will get you up to date with all you need to know on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation.

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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, August 4th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: July was a busy month for Iowa political reporters. There was a special legislative session and there was a whole lot of presidential politicking going on in the month of July. August will be the same. Let's hear from these Iowa political reporters on this edition of Iowa Press. Katie Akin is here. She is the Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Clay Masters is Host and Lead Political Reporter for Iowa Public Radio. Brianne Pfannenstiel is the Chief Political Reporter for the Des Moines Register. And Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Henderson: A week ago on Friday the 28th of July, Brianne, there were 13 presidential candidates who spoke at the Iowa GOP fundraiser. There were about a thousand people there. What was the big takeaway?

Pfannenstiel: Well, this is, as you mentioned, one of several of these big events that have drawn a whole wide range of presidential candidates. But it's the only one so far, and likely the only one this caucus cycle, that actually brought Donald Trump in person to this event. He was one of the 13 presidential candidates who spoke. He spoke last and so I think we spent a lot of time kind of speculating what that might look like, what he might say, how it might change the dynamics of that event. And so, it was really interesting to see him go on. Every candidate had a very strict 10-minute limit, they were going to turn off the microphones and kick people off the stage if they went overboard. And so, I don't know that I've ever seen Donald Trump stick to 10 minutes before, but he was very serious about heeding that time limit. And so, he came up with some papers that he was reading off of and he stuck really closely to a script. And so, it was really interesting when he did the thing that so many people say they want to see from him which is, stick to a script, follow the script and stay on message. He really lost a lot of the sparkle. It was kind of a quieter performance than we've seen from him. The showmanship was gone. And so, it was really interesting to see him in that room.

Murphy: I think we saw why his campaign does not ask him to speak that way. It wasn't the Donald Trump that we see at literally every other event and the Donald Trump that really gets his supporters excited. It was remarkable to see him that scripted and that constrained to literally reading from his notes for most of those 10 minutes.

Masters: And after eight years of covering the man and seeing these long meandering speeches that we have become accustomed to in covering him, it was quite something to see him stick to 10 minutes. And this was before the news came out, of course, that he was arraigned on four felony charges that accuse him of conspiring to stay in power even though he lost the 2020 election. But, everybody kind of felt this was coming down the pike. And everybody that I talked to in that room still had very glowing things to say about Donald Trump. There was a lot of frustration over the pending indictments that we were going to see. And it was very much a showing that this is still a party that really likes Donald Trump and you even saw a moment where Will Hurd, a former Congressmen from Texas, said Donald Trump is only running to stay out of prison and there were a lot of boos in that room that day.

Henderson: Katie, people were sort of anticipating a Trump versus DeSantis moment at that particular event. You covered Ron DeSantis, the Florida Governor, in the hours leading up to that event.

Akin: Yeah, so Ron DeSantis was in town. His PAC was putting on a bus tour. So, I was with him Friday before the event. We asked him, you're going to this event tonight with 12 of your competitors, how are you going to differentiate yourself from them? And he said he was really going to focus on his biography, he was going to focus on his record in Florida and he was going to make the case that he was the most able to beat Joe Biden in a general election. Overall, I hear he got a good response at the dinner. But he wasn't really, he didn't have his claws out, he didn't come out and attack Trump at that dinner even though they were both on that stage.

Murphy: The other thing I wanted to add, going back to the moment that Clay described former Congressman Hurd, it was remarkable watching that unfold too, not just for what he said, but the way he delivered it. There was a moment right before he said the now infamous line of, Donald Trump isn't running to represent the people he ran for in 2016 and 2020, he's not running to make America great again, he's running to stay out of prison. In the moment right before that, there was this visible pause and it was almost, and I'm reading into it a little bit now, but it almost looked like Congressman Hurd was making one last decision, do I go for this or not? And he did. Yeah, to Clay's point, more boos than I've heard at a state party event in a long time. It wasn't the entire room, but it was a very audible section. It was a very remarkable moment.

Henderson: Brianne, we've seen people booed about Ukraine policy in Iowa as there is a group of republican voters who think the U.S. should retract from Ukraine. You have some candidates who are articulating that and others who are vociferously saying the U.S. should say in Ukraine. But, let's talk a little bit more about the Will Hurd moment. What did it tell us about the Iowa GOP?

Pfannenstiel: Well, it was really fascinating in this moment because this was a function hosted by the Republican Party of Iowa. You paid money to be there, it was a dinner, people were dressed in nice suits and nice dresses, they were out for the evening for a nice dinner. This is very much the party, right, this is not necessarily the grassroots folks who you might expect to see at a Donald Trump rally. So, to hear this room in particular boo when will Hurd made those comments was surprising to me. When he was making the comments, as Erin said, there was kind of a collective breath holding. He started to inch toward making these statements and everyone kind of waited. What is he going to do to resolve this? And so, when it came out and there were boos, I was looking around the room and certainly there was a chunk of this group who was booing, some people were keeping quiet. So, I think it says that there are many people who are still committed to Donald Trump, they don't want to hear anything against him. But there is also this quieter group who is just sitting there, right, they're maybe not as vocal in responding to those things. So, in talking with folks afterward there are still a lot of people who are open to the 12 other candidates who were there.

Henderson: What does this tell us about Trump 2024 versus Trump 2016?

Masters: First off, we'll stop talking about the dinner at some point, but I just want to circle back. It was a very, I think I can answer the question by saying this, but it was kind of an informal straw poll moment where afterwards they had these different rooms where you could go meet the different candidates. And there was a line to see Donald Trump.

Henderson: Longest line.

Masters: There was a line to see Vivek Ramaswamy, there was a line to see Ron DeSantis. By comparison, you could get in and see the former Vice President Mike Pence. And to me that kind of tells you anecdotally that Trump is doing just fine in the party. Okay, so the difference between 2016 and 2024, well you have a former President who has served as President, we have these criminal charges that we've been hearing about in the news every day. But the way that I always described him in 2016 as running is he wasn't doing the normal cattle calls, he would come to some of them but he would come, he would fly in, he'd do his kind of choose your own adventure Donald Trump speech and afterwards people would say, I think it's time where we don't have a politician, we have a businessman and he just shoots from the hip and says what he thinks. When you would cover him day in and day out he was saying a lot of the same stuff. This time around he is trying to do more of the okay, I'll stop at a Dairy Queen and give people Blizzards in Council Bluffs and I'll stop at the Machine Shed in Urbandale and meet with a small group of people packed in here. So, he's not playing by the Iowa rules like we think of, the 99-county tour, but he's not playing by the rules differently this time around.

Henderson: Brianne, on this Friday morning the New York Times has released an Iowa specific poll. What stands out to you from what you see in their data?

Pfannenstiel: Well, first of all, it's really nice to have some Iowa polling. We're looking at all of this national polling, which really has very little bearing on the Iowa Caucuses. This is not a national race. Iowans will caucus. And so, it's important to hear how Iowa likely republican caucus goers are feeling. And so, this is one of the few real tests of that that we've had so far. But it showed pretty broadly what I think we might expect. It showed Donald Trump leading the field at 44%, which is still double digits ahead of Ron DeSantis' 20%. But that margin is a little bit smaller than what we're seeing nationally. And so, perhaps we're seeing some movement on the ground here. Ron DeSantis' team has never backed down, super PAC has been working very aggressively on door knocking and advertising and that kind of thing. So, that might have some effect here. We're also seeing Tim Scott at 9%. Everyone else is at 5% or below. And so, it really is kind of showing the tiers of this race and kind of broadly what we're seeing as a snapshot in time in this month of the race.

Henderson: Katie, you and I covered an event in, I believe it was July, at which Casey DeSantis appeared with Governor Kim Reynolds and I believe in the month of July Donald Trump let his feelings be known that he is not happy with Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds because she is remaining neutral in the race.

Akin: Yeah, that situation has been really fascinating to watch because Governor Kim Reynolds has told us she is not planning to endorse, she is not trying to be anyone's Vice President, she is just welcoming people to Iowa. That being said, former President Donald Trump is upset with her that she's not being more loyal to him. He said on Truth Social that he essentially helped Kim Reynolds become the Governor in the first place and suggested that she may owe some loyalty to him for that. That dispute has sort of played out in the past few weeks. We saw one Iowa State Senator who had endorsed Trump, decided to switch his endorsement to DeSantis because Trump had come after Kim Reynolds. And then even more recently after this most recent Trump indictment, we haven't heard anything from Reynolds about it, whereas after previous indictments she would put out a statement and say this was wrong or the Justice Department was being misused. So, it has been interesting to see how the two of them, Trump and Reynolds that is, have sort of split.

Murphy: And as of right now Donald Trump has not accepted an invitation to speak to Governor Kim Reynolds for her Iowa State Fair Chats. I wanted to just really super quick, going back to the Times poll, two things that stood out to me. Brianne mentioned Tim Scott, he's also at 69% favorability rating in that poll, which is second in the field only to Donald Trump. And that's interesting. Maybe there is reason to believe that he can grow because of that number.

Henderson: Well, he's spending a lot on advertising in Iowa, so people know who he is.

Murphy: Exactly, the advertising might be paying off, yep. And the other thing, this ties us back to something we brought up during the Lincoln Dinner discussion, there is widespread opposition in the Republican Party of Iowa to further aid for Ukraine and that may be why you hear some of the candidates talk about that the way they do. Because I'm occasionally terrible at my job I didn't write down the exact numbers in that poll. But it was decisively opposition to aid for Ukraine and that stood out to me as well.

Henderson: On July 14th, there was an event at which there were two thousand people in attendance and there was another cavalcade of republican presidential candidates there. It was an event sponsored by the Family Leader, it was called the Family Leadership Summit. And the head of the Family Leader, Bob Vander Plaats, has said clean slate, time for a new clean slate. Clay, I believe you and I were there seated next to one another covering this event. What did strike you as the most important moment or thing that we learned there?

Masters: Well, first off, it was, so Bob Vander Plaats who was on this program a couple of months ago, he is the leader of the Family Leader and he got up and spoke. But it was really kind of the Tucker Carlson show, the former Fox News host. He was interviewing all of these different candidates. And I mean, I've covered these summits in the past and they focus a lot on anti-abortion rhetoric, they focus on a lot of religious stuff. Eight years ago, Donald Trump said at this thing, he doesn't ask the Lord for forgiveness or something like that and kind of misused talking about the sacrament. So, I was kind of geared up for that. But it was basically Tucker Carlson saying what he wanted to say, asking what he wanted to ask. And so, the audience was very much reacting to those interviews that Tucker was doing. And so, that was kind of unique in covering this one compared to past years. And the other thing there that was important to me was just to see how much work this group has done in affecting policy in the state of Iowa. You had Chuck Hurley, the legislative person for the Family Leader who lobbies on behalf of them talking about we've been working for years to change things in Iowa and could run down the laundry list of things that were passed in the legislative session, and then you had the Governor, Governor Kim Reynolds sign the abortion ban at six weeks at that event with all the legislators who helped pave the way for that to happen. So, while it was an event to feature the presidential candidates, those were the kind of takeaways for me was this was very much a function of what is happening in the state and what the party has been affected by the Family Leader.

Murphy: And I'll beat the dead horse, one of the moments that stood out was Tucker Carlson pressing Mike Pence on Ukraine policy. And Tucker obviously had a very, coming at it from a very anti-aid to Ukraine perspective and Mike Pence has been supportive of continuing that aid to Ukraine. So, that was one of the more contentious moments of that exchange between Tucker Carlson and Mike Pence.

Masters: And foreign policy, like what Pence is -- that's the old Republican Party, that's the kind of stuff that on the national platform when republicans have campaigned here, having a strong footprint in other parts of the world, to see that getting booed now at a function that is featuring a lot of republican voters, that has changed in direction for the party.

Henderson: Katie, in the moments leading up to the time that Governor Kim Reynolds signed the Fetal Heartbeat Act into law, you were in a courtroom hearing people argue about it.

Akin: Yeah, so we had seen the Iowa legislature had passed that bill just a few days before in a one-day special session, as Clay mentioned. It would ban most abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. So, it was immediately challenged in court and the ACLU and Planned Parenthood asked a court to issue a temporary injunction, not allow the law to take effect at all. So, simultaneously as the Family Leadership Summit was going on and as the Governor was preparing to sign the bill, the state's lawyers were arguing in court about why it should be allowed to take effect in a Polk County District Court. So, the judge did not agree to issue a ruling from the bench. He said, give me the weekend to think over this massive issue. But, we heard arguments and then the next Monday that judge actually did issue a temporary injunction. So, that law is currently not in effect and abortion is legal until about 20 weeks of pregnancy. But it was remarkable that these two things were happening simultaneously about a mile apart.

Henderson: Talking about things happening simultaneously, the Iowa State Fair is coming up and there is going to be a big Saturday, August 12th at which there should be six aspirants for the White House going to be there. I'm guessing you and I will be there as well, Brianne.

Pfannenstiel: We will. And I'm keeping a close eye on the weather. But it's going to be a really busy weekend leading into a busy State Fair time. Again, we've got all of these presidential candidates who are running, they'll be participating in Governor Kim Reynolds' new Fair-Side Chat series that she's hosting, the Des Moines Register will host our political soapbox once again where we're bringing a lot of these candidates to speak about their platforms and their message to Iowans. And so, it will be really fascinating to see kind of that circus. We've seen some big moments in State Fair history. I'm thinking about the day that Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were all there at the same time. Big day for reporters trying to be everywhere at once. But again, Donald Trump has not confirmed that he'll attend either of those events. So, we're waiting to see whether he intends to come and whether he intends to upstage his past events where he has given helicopter rides to children at the Fairgrounds.

Henderson: Right, and he flew over the Fairgrounds as Bernie Sanders was speaking to a large crowd at the State Fair's Des Moines Register soapbox. Erin, what stands out to you about, or what are you expecting from the Fair?

Murphy: Well, I think we're entering an interesting time in the campaign here where I feel like more and more republicans are starting to tune into this and really get serious now. It's easy for those of us, especially at this table, and maybe some of our viewers who are tuned into this stuff really in depth and for us this has been going on forever already, it's easy to forget that Iowa is a very late deciding state in the caucuses and there's people who are just getting tuned into this now and just getting serious about it. And I think we're heading into an interesting point of the campaign and this is a big opportunity now, as Brianne mentioned, especially for some of those non-Donald Trump candidates to start and make some movement and get their message out to a lot of voters. There's going to be a ton of media at the State Fair following this. So, anything that happens out there will be well broadcast to the masses. So, this is an opportunity, this is an opportunity for the Tim Scott's the Vivek Ramaswamy's and the Nikki Haley's and anybody else to have their moment that maybe gets them more into the conversation than they currently are.

Henderson: Well, in 2015 when I covered the State Fair Scott Walker was there and then he wasn't in the race a month later.

Pfannenstiel: There are a lot of pitfalls too, right? This is a very retail heavy kind of event. You're going around, you're eating food, you're riding fair rides, you're shaking hands with Iowans. And so, we've seen some candidates who are struggling to connect a lot of times and to have those real moments. And so, as they move through the Fair, especially big names like Ron DeSantis are going to be surrounded by TV cameras from everyone in the country watching closely for him to say something maybe perhaps off kilter, to have strange moments, him and all of these other candidates. And so, there are pitfalls certainly with this event as well.

Henderson: Well, Katie, he did a run through at a county fair, right?

Akin: Yes. Yeah, Ron DeSantis has been doing more of this retail politicking lately because I really do think it is a test of the Iowa system. You have Donald Trump who is able to maybe skip some of these smaller events --

Henderson: People know who he is.

Akin: People know who he is. But everyone else, you're expected to go to these Fairgrounds to go shake hands and we have seen him at some of those smaller events. He had a bit of a viral moment earlier this month where he saw a kid drinking an Icee and said something about how much sugar was in it, which people thought was maybe a little strange.

Murphy: If he's surprised by that it's going to be really interesting to say what he has to say about State Fair food.


Henderson: Clay, a couple of people will be at the State Fair, RFK Jr. and Marianne Williamson, they're democrats who say they're challenging Joe Biden. That brings to mind the Iowa Democratic Caucuses?

Masters: That's right. So, first off, since we've had one of these roundtables we haven't talked about that there is actually a date set for the Iowa Caucuses for republicans --

Henderson: Let me write that down.

Masters: Yeah, you already know this, Kay. January 15th and the Iowa Democrats, if you may remember from watching this show, the calendar has been in chaos for a number of years now and it's still not set in stone. And so --

Murphy: But Iowa is not going to be first, most likely.

Masters: Right. And so, there's been question about will anybody on the democratic side even come to Iowa? Well, when I saw the list come from the Des Moines Register political soapbox I thought, oh wow, there's actually going to be a couple of democrats who are here. So, they're making some kind of play right now. It'll be interesting to see what they have to say and to see how serious they're going to take Iowa. And the other thing too is that I was watching the Iowa PBS documentary about the State Fair and it was a reminder that it's like oh, this is the state coming together in the central part of the state and at the core these politicians are coming trying, to Erin's point, put a bug in people's ear that hey, there's a presidential race coming along if you haven't been paying attention, people are turning their heads and seeing these people on the stump. So, this is a chance for people to start actually getting as plugged -- maybe not as plugged in as we all are -- but it's a chance to start kind of paying attention.

Henderson: Brianne, is January 15th really going to be the date of the Iowa GOP Caucuses?

Pfannenstiel: That's a great question, Kay. I think we've all learned not to write anything in stone at this point.

Masters: Write it in pencil.

Pfannenstiel: Write it in pencil. There's the chance to erase it and to move it by a week or two. We're watching what happens with other states like New Hampshire. Iowa exists within the system where it is affected by all of the other early states as well. And so, as this process moves along I think there's a chance it could move. But Jeff Kaufmann, the Republican Party of Iowa Chairman, appeared at the Lincoln Dinner just last week with the Governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, saying we are united, we are interested in moving forward as we always have with Iowa first and New Hampshire second. So, I think that's the hope that this will stay.

Henderson: Erin, just about a minute and a half left. Schools are starting and schools are asking for some guidance for some new state laws.

Murphy: And they're not getting it. So, the legislature and the Governor passed a very sweeping bill, but one of the most notable elements of it was it said that school libraries and curriculum can't contain materials that have certain graphic depictions, and there's definitions of that in the law. And schools are desperately seeking guidance from the state on what exactly what means, what can be allowed in schools and what can't. We've heard of a suburban Des Moines school that has taken hundreds of books off of their shelves. And, the Department of Education has essentially not given them any guidance. Basically, they came them a resummarizing of the law with no details whatsoever. So, schools are still kind of left in the dark on this and having to fend for themselves and decide on their own what they think the law means as far as what books are okay to remain in schools.

Henderson: So, we were in the dark until this week about some gambling related investigations that involved student athletes at the University of Iowa and Iowa State. Does anyone sitting at this table think there is an appetite among Iowa legislators to sort of peel back any gambling laws in the state?

Murphy: What previous gambling law has been peeled back in any form, Kay? Have any?

Henderson: I don't have an example and I'm also saved by the bell, so to speak, because we are out of time for this episode of Iowa Press. Thanks to all of you. Start hydrating now for the State Fair.


Henderson: You can watch every episode of Iowa Press online at For everyone here at Iowa PBS, thanks for watching today.


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