Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
May 6, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, Iowa political journalists gather for a roundtable discussion about the Supreme Court draft ruling on abortion, the Iowa legislative session and other political news. 

Moderator, Kay Henderson, is joined at the Iowa Press table by Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Stephen Gruber-Miller, political reporter for The Des Moines Register, Dave Price, anchor and political director at WHO-TV in Des Moines, and Kathie Obradovich, editor-in-chief for Iowa Capital Dispatch.

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



A Supreme Court poised to overturn federal abortion protections and a stalled legislative session here in Iowa. We gather local political reporters to talk about these issues and more on this edition of Iowa Press.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. 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


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, May 6th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: The dominant news story in Iowa and across the nation this week was about the leaked draft opinion written by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito regarding Roe v. Wade and the pending decision before the U.S. Supreme Court. We have assembled a group of Iowa reporters who have been following this story in this state to tell you what is happening on the ground here. Stephen Gruber-Miller is a Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Kathie Obradovich is the Editor-in-Chief of the Iowa Capital Dispatch. Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. And Dave Price is the Political Director for WHO-TV in Des Moines.

Henderson: Let's start with you, Stephen. Let's go through, just for people who may not have been paying attention to the Iowa angle on this, what happens if in June as expected the Supreme Court issues a ruling that overturns Roe v. Wade? What happens in Iowa?

Gruber-Miller: Right. So if this draft decision ends up being the final, because that is still a big if to start with, and Roe is overturned abortion law goes to individual states to be regulated. In Iowa there is a 2018 Iowa Supreme Court decision that protects abortion rights. It is a really strong decision in favor of abortion rights and it's honestly sort of a stronger decision than Roe is at the federal level.

Henderson: And it's based on the State Constitution.

Gruber-Miller: It is based on the State Constitution and it is in a state court so it stays in place even if Roe falls. So abortion would still be protected here. But, the republican majorities in the Iowa legislature are pursuing and amendment to the State Constitution to say that it does not protect abortion rights. That needs to pass in the 2023 or 2024 legislative session and then it can go on a statewide ballot for a vote. That is one avenue for overturning the state decision. The other way is that this summer we're expected to get a decision in a case challenging a 24 hour waiting period to get an abortion. And if the court, if the Iowa Supreme Court decides to use that case to overturn its past precedent, that could open the door for more restrictions here as well.

Henderson: So, Erin Murphy, let's just walk through what our Governor is saying about this. She talked to Iowa reporters on Thursday afternoon and discussed whether she would be proposing anything for the legislature to do now or in the future. What did she say?

Murphy: She seemed to indicate that we shouldn't expect any legislation regarding abortions during the regular legislative session, which is sort of winding down, stalled in that wind down, but is procedurally almost finished. So that was I guess good news if you're the type of person who wants to see the session over sooner than later. I won't speak for anybody at this table. Viewers can probably venture a guess. They have already got a few things that are holding up session. This won't get added to that mix it sounds like. Now, she was also asked would you call a special session if the Supreme Court, if the U.S. Supreme Court rules a certain way and the Iowa Court rules a certain way that creates an opening for new legislation would you call a special session? She danced around that one a little bit and didn't answer it directly, which to my ears sounds like she's leaving open that possibility.

Henderson: Kathie Obradovich, the Governor was also asked about exceptions and that has been a common question that politicians have been asked over the years. Do you support abortion? And if they oppose abortion, then do you support exceptions? And she didn't answer that question.

Obradovich: She did not and that is really interesting. It has really been just in the past five years or so as we've seen the Iowa legislature and the Supreme Court kind of playing a tug-of-war over abortion legislation where the legislature would pass a bill, the Supreme Court would knock it down, so then they rewrite the bill and meanwhile they have also been trying to rewrite the judiciary by passing laws that change how judges are nominated in Iowa. So, trying to remake the judiciary and also continuing to pass these test cases. And so now the discussion about exceptions also I think speaks to how much farther to the right the Republican Party has gone where you have now candidates here in Iowa who are not worried about running on abortion against democrats, they're worried about the primary challenge that they're going to have from somebody who may be to the right of them. And so I think that is where we're seeing those, the discussions about exceptions go. But the other thing too though, I think now that if Roe v. Wade actually does fall and some of these bills become possibilities as opposed to hypothetical legislation that some of these exceptions I think are going to have to come back into the discussion because people are going to see now how it affects actual people, maybe in other states first, but you'll see how these exceptions affect other people or not.

Henderson: Stephen, you mentioned a 2018 ruling that was issued by the Iowa Supreme Court, the Chief Justice Mark Cady wrote that ruling that said that Iowa's Constitution provides a fundamental right to abortion to Iowa women. The Iowa Supreme Court makeup has completely changed since 2018, right?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, since then Governor Reynolds, who is a republican, has appointed four new Supreme Court Justices, which is a majority of the seven-member court and six out of the seven have been appointed by republicans now. So, Kathie was talking about kind of this remaking of the judiciary. It's sort of happening in Iowa and this has been a theme at the U.S. Supreme Court as well. Republicans, conservatives have hoped to get justices on the court who would be willing to overturn Roe at the federal level and in Iowa there are some people who are hopeful that that will happen here.

Henderson: Dave Price, how will this issue affect key races in Iowa? We've got a U.S. Senate race, we've got three democrats vying to be their party's nominee to face Chuck Grassley in November. And then at the Third District level, which is a district currently held by Cindy Axne, a democrat, there are three republicans competing for the chance to run against her in November.

Price: Yeah, I'm looking at the Senate race. You have three democrats running there, two men and a woman here. So is there some kind of benefit that goes because of this issue and the concern by abortion rights supporters that this could just disappear altogether? Does that help Abby Finkenauer at all in this race? We'll see if that ends up being a driver there. On the republican side, we hosted a debate this past week with the three republicans running in this Third Congressional District and that was one of the questions that I had asked them and I tried to do the show of hands thing to try to get the entry point into it. Do any of you support the idea that all abortions would be illegal?

Henderson: No exceptions.

Price: No exceptions at all, and they all raised their hand. Zach Nunn was one of the three here and called it a gotcha question. You can describe it however you choose, but the intent of course is to decide and get a concrete answer, which we did not get from the Governor about exceptions. And in this case, no exceptions from any of the three of them, which puts them out of the mainstream when you look at the polls that Stephen's organization has done with the Register or any of the other polls you see, frankly, that the majority of people while they may not support abortion per se, the concept of the ability for a woman to have an abortion at least with some exceptions, it is the clear majority there.

Henderson: Okay, Stephen, what's the polling?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, and it's an interesting issue because --

Price: Sorry to put you on the spot.

Gruber-Miller: No, that's fine. In September, the Des Moines Register Iowa Poll found 57% of Iowans say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases compared to 38% who said it should be illegal in all or most cases. So that is a majority of Iowans favoring abortion being legal at least most of the time. We also have polled on this potential constitutional amendment that the republicans have been pursuing to say that the Constitution in Iowa does not secure a right to abortion. And in that polling we found fewer than a third of Iowans support the amendment. And so that is something that could be on the ballot in 2024 that they might have to go out and promote that shows that that's unpopular and keeping abortion legal is popular. Now, the question is when it goes from hypothetical to real, does it change how people vote?

Murphy: Yeah, that's interesting. We could have abortion figuratively on the ballot in 2022 and literally on the ballot in 2024 in Iowa.

Henderson: Let's talk about the midterms. We've talked a little bit about a couple of key primaries here. But we're going to have a general election. We're several months out from it. But how might this issue play? I've covered presidential candidates. I remember John Kerry on the eve of the 2004 election making the case that people needed to vote for him because he was going to appoint people to the Supreme Court. That didn't really work for him.

Murphy: Yeah, this is I think a great question that we're all going to find out together as we cover this campaign this summer and fall. Abortion has been a single issue vote for a lot of conservatives for a long time and it has not been so much in the opposite direction from the democratic side. Does this change that? Does this make -- including democrats, but some of the more middle of the road voters, the people who bounce back and forth between elections -- is this the kind of issue that they see, and Stephen's polling numbers are important to keep in mind so that is the opinion out there, but is this an issue that people cast a vote based on? I don't know that we know the answer to that yet. All of us here at this table are going to be talking to a lot of people in the coming months to find that out.

Obradovich: It will be interesting to see how candidates straddle this between the primary, especially on the republican side, and the general election. We've already seen just in the past couple of weeks Chuck Grassley, of course running for re-election, stand up and take credit for at a republican fundraiser the fact that he and Donald Trump engineered this 6-3 conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court. That was before the leaked draft. Now after the leaked draft, reporters were asking him just in the past week, what about your role in possibly overturning Roe v. Wade? And he said, oh well, you never know what these guys are going to do, these Supreme Court candidates, these nominees, we never know for sure what they're going to do. And he sort of backed away from that idea that he was one of the key engineers of this 6-3 majority. So it's possible that his base was in the room earlier in April and he's speaking more to a mainstream audience, which in Stephen's poll doesn't necessarily want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

Price: I'm curious how democrats will use this issue too. And I've talked to a lot of them this week who think that this will motivate people to support them in ways that they only had to just hope they could potentially show up for them in 2022 where they originally didn't have very high hopes for the year here. But will they keep this as sort of a single issue thing about local republicans are trying to do? Are they able to successfully broaden it by painting republicans as the extremists here, so out of the mainstream, and not really focusing on the we are democrats kind of thing but just looking at different issues, taking this and try to push it forward to reach those middle of the road people that you're talking about who have largely abandoned democrats recently and sided with republicans?

Gruber-Miller: And the flip side of this issue is that republicans, the way that they would like to run on the issue is by calling democrats the extreme ones. They want to say that democrats support abortion without any restrictions.

Price: On demand, whenever you want, even after the baby is born.

Gruber-Miller: Which isn't true but that is what they're saying. I mean, it's not true in most cases, right? And so if you have a choice between no restrictions on abortion and abortion being illegal that is sort of a more difficult choice than Roe v. Wade, which is sort of there are some limits on abortion.

Murphy: Messaging wise it's sort of defund the police 2.0 in that there's very few democrats that actually say that, but that is what every republican was accusing democrats of this past election. To Dave's point about expanding the support, the base of support, one way democrats can do that and you've already heard and seen is by talking about the other formerly protected perhaps groups like LGBTQ community that could also people will make the argument could be impacted by this ruling. And it's right there in Justice Alito's draft that is saying these other elements were similarly mistakenly ruled on and so --

Price: Same sex marriage.

Murphy: Exactly.

Price: Contraception.

Obradovich: Or even broaden it out to the right to privacy, which I think you talk to most Americans and they think, sure we have a right to privacy. But that right is not in the Constitution. And if that is how these cases are being decided there are a lot of things that are based on privacy rights that you could at least make a case in a political arena, if not in a courtroom, that those rights might be in jeopardy.

Henderson: Folks, we have about 10 minutes left. There are other political things going on in Iowa. Dave, let's return to the Third District contest with the three candidates. Does any of them appear to be poised to capture a firm majority of votes in that Third District primary?

Price: Yeah, it may be a little tough to tell because it really has to be just all anecdotal stuff here because you're not seeing polling on this race. But you have Nicole Hasso, one of the two rookie candidates here, and I intentionally wrote this down so I wouldn't butcher her title, a Senior Internal Wholesaler in the financial services industry, which you could do a whole show on what exactly that is but it deals with insurance and such, anyway, a newcomer, Chicago transplant, an African American woman from Johnston. You have Gary Leffler, who activists know as the guy, he used to be a farmer in West Des Moines who drives his tractor to all kinds of events all over the place, now he's a consultant. Then you have Zach Nunn, who has been a State Rep for a while, in the Senate now, used to be in the House, Air Force guy, specialized in cyber security and such. So perhaps by title and name ID and such maybe Nunn has some kind of advantage here. I thought what was interesting during the debate we had with them this past Tuesday, when given the opportunity to talk about election fraud that Donald Trump continues to push here, none of the three of them, including Leffler who calls himself the biggest Trump supporter, most pro-Trump, however he phrases it, none of them would say that Joe Biden is not the President or that Joe Biden only won by fraud, which I thought was an interesting separation, especially for Hasso and Leffler. You didn't expect Nunn to go that way. But those two, Leffler and Hasso, you could argue perhaps are going for the right side of the right whereas Nunn might be thinking more ahead to the general, which is why his answer to me regarding abortion may be one that follows him if he indeed becomes the nominee.

Henderson: Kathie, we also have this Senate primary on the democratic side that we've already mentioned and we had sort of a major development in that the Iowa Supreme Court got involved because Abby Finkenauer's petition signatures were challenged by republicans.

Obradovich: Yeah, and I think anecdotally, because again we haven't really seen any polling since that happened, but anecdotally I think it might have dinged her a little bit, the credibility of her campaign. She would have probably been considered the front-runner as somebody who is a former member of Congress, best known candidate certainly and now she has trouble getting enough signatures on her petition to get on the ballot. And then just immediately after that there was the news that Michael Franken, who also was a previous candidate, retired Navy Admiral, he actually raised the most money out of anybody else in the democratic field. So those two things, which again are not polling, but those are the kinds of things that people like us look at when there's not any polling. Those two things go against Abby Finkenauer. And so she has to start I think by making a strong case about why she stands out and why she is the candidate and I just think it looks like a more competitive primary than it would have been.

Murphy: And Michael Franken is not an unknown quantity in this race. He ran two years ago in the democratic Senate primary, ultimately finished second to Theresa Greenfield. But when you talk to democrats even two years ago they were impressed by him then. So he came into this race as a legitimate challenger and I agree with Kathie, I think that one is going to be very interesting to see how it plays out for myriad reasons.

Obradovich: There is a third candidate, by the way, we should mention. Glenn Hurst, who is a physician and at this point having a little trouble raising money, he had less than $50,000 at the end of the quarter. So we don't want to not mention him.

Murphy: Policy wise sort of running in the Bernie Sanders lane to say it as succinctly as possible.

Henderson: While mentioning Bernie Sanders, who has run in the Iowa Caucuses, the Iowa Democratic Party --

Price: And won if you ask him.

Henderson: Right, exactly. It was a tie, right? Virtual tie is how we -- yeah, exactly. So let's talk about the Iowa Caucuses. The Republican Party at the national level has sort of ratified this calendar that cements Iowa's place, the Iowa Caucuses place at the lead position in the presidential nominating process in 2024. Iowa's Democratic Party Chairman this week said, we're going to make significant changes. Dave, do you think there will be significant changes? Because if they don't, the Iowa Caucuses on the democratic side are likely to go away.

Price: And they could still go away regardless of the changes they make. It does seem like something has changed talking to them, even talking to them privately that they acknowledge there will have to be major changes to try to appease the DNC where there is a faction there that is ready to be done with Iowa going first, be done with caucuses in general here. So it feels like they are going to make some significant changes, which could be getting rid of that complicated rule about 15% viability threshold for candidates, the realignment thing, maybe it more closely resembles republicans where you kind of have the secret straw ballot kind of thing and maybe you don't have to be there in person anymore to take part. They did these sort of remote caucuses, if you will, last time where you were in person. But they could keep those plus allow you to take part without actually physically going there. I think just one of the more serious changes they're looking at.

Henderson: Stephen Gruber-Miller, we have about four minutes left. Let's just touch on an issue that we have been talking about at this table before. The legislature is still in session.

Gruber-Miller: They are.

Henderson: Why?

Gruber-Miller: That's a great question. The Governor continues to push for a proposal that she is advocating for that would give scholarships to up to 10,000 students, give them money to pay to switch from public to private school. This is having trouble gaining traction in the Iowa House, as I think we've talked about on the show before. There are a number of House republicans, many of them rural, who are no’s on the bill. They don't see how it would benefit their rural schools when there are no private options in the area and in fact by taking some of the state aid per pupil that the public schools would otherwise get and giving it to those students to switch out of public school they are worried that it could harm them. So, the Governor is traveling around the state and talking with legislators and trying to get support for this to pass. It's not clear that she's going to get it, but she hasn't given up yet. And so there's basically no action happening, we're just waiting.

Henderson: Well, and the other thing about this is the Governor has been meeting with public school officials, superintendents, school board members and she said something really interesting on Thursday. She said, I don't have any illusions I have changed any of their minds. So, what's going on here, Erin?

Murphy: That's a fantastic question and if I knew the answer I'd probably be making a lot more money as a consultant. Yeah, it's an interesting strategy to I guess just kind of lay the groundwork and she sees this as a long-term issue. If it doesn't get passed this year she has already pledged to come back at it next year.

Henderson: Dave, you have something?

Price: I brought a prop because I requested it from the Governor's Office. So when she's doing these meetings that are not on her public schedule where she is meeting with a select group of the public and talking about presumably with supporters who want this, they are handing out these flyers. And what it's saying at the top here is Know the Facts and it's saying, for nearly 20 years math and reading scores for Iowa students have been decreasing. So this is part of her argument that it would be better if we allowed some of our public kids to slide over to private and put some tax dollars with them. It also has a chart in here talking about Iowa teachers are roughly paid middle of the road here nationwide, but it highlights the states that have better test scores but yet pay their teachers less, which is a couple of interesting points. She doesn't normally as a rule talk about how schools are failing to improve our students, particularly since she has been in office for more than half of the time that she is looking at this 20 year period. So it's a fantastically interesting argument that she is making to people that the schools are failing our kids under her leadership.

Henderson: We have about a minute left. One of the other factors here is that 42 counties in Iowa do not have a private school of any kind and only 21 counties have high schools. So, Erin, give us I guess the betting odds on this. Is this -- she has recently said in April that this is something she'll return with next year -- do you think the odds are that she'll return next year with a different proposal?

Murphy: Based on everything we know right now that seems to be, it's just hard to imagine something changing significantly enough for this to get done this year. There is an election, there's primaries, next year the legislature may look different.

Obradovich: The first year that she offered this there was nothing for rural schools. This year there is a little pot of money for rural schools. I think she sweetens that pot again and maybe another time before -- that's one reason to go around talking to superintendents about what is it that you want that will make you accept this?

Price: And up the number of students where they could actually get it.

Obradovich: I think that that's the key here is you've got to make rural school districts who are talking to their legislators want this for some reason and they don't right now.

Henderson: Well, I don't want to say this, but we are out of time. We have no more time for this edition of Iowa Press. But you can watch every edition of Iowa Press at or you can catch us at our regular broadcast times, 7:30 on Friday nights and Sundays at noon. 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. 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