Reporters' Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Jul 8, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press we convene a panel of Iowa political reporters to discuss recent news events, general election campaigns and the Iowa Caucuses. 

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

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


It may be summer but there's no vacation from Iowa politics this year. We gather a group of political reporters to discuss all the latest news and developments 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, July 8th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson. 


Henderson: Iowa had a big primary election at the beginning of June. Then toward the middle of June, the Iowa Supreme Court issued a big ruling on abortion policy, followed the next Friday by a huge ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade. And then the Iowa Democrats went to Washington, D.C. and made this big argument that the Iowa Democratic Party's Caucuses should remain first in 2024. Well, today we have assembled a group of Iowa political reporters for a briefing on all of these important topics and a few others. Joining us today, Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register. Clay Masters of Iowa Public Radio. Stephen Gruber-Miller of the Des Moines Register. And Erin Murphy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Henderson: Let's begin with abortion rulings. In addition to what happened at the state and federal level in June, there was an important development in Iowa this week. Stephen, explain.

Gruber-Miller: That's right. So, Governor Kim Reynolds had asked the Iowa Supreme Court to rehear the case it had just decided in June. The court this week said that it would not do so and that case involved the 24-hour waiting period to receive an abortion. So what that means is it will send that case back to the district court where they will argue further about whether the 24-hour waiting period can be held constitutional. And so this sets up sort of a longer battle in the courts that will kind of drag out over several months most likely. And the issue at stake here is what standard, what legal standard to abortion restrictions need to be decided by in Iowa? The Governor is arguing for a rational basis test, which is the least restrictive, so she wants to take a case back to the Iowa Supreme Court to get them to sort of loosen the rules for abortion restrictions before she goes to the legislature. So she has a little bit of cover in terms of not needing to do anything in the legislature right now because she can say she is pursuing this avenue in the courts.

Henderson: Erin, people were thinking there might be a special session this summer in regards to abortion policy.

Murphy: Yeah and Stephen alluded to it there at the end, this sort of punts that conversation for now and there's some political benefit to that for republicans. They don't have to come back and take what could be some controversial or big votes right before an election this fall. And there's some actual legal reasoning to this too where republicans will tell you there's no point in bringing us all back, crafting some kind of bill without knowing how that bill is going to be interpreted and received by the courts. So let's find out first the standards that the courts are going to put in place and then we can draft legislation that we feel has the best chance of surviving. So there's some real world and some political benefits to republicans for it all working out this way.

Gruber-Miller: It is very clear that republicans would like to restrict abortion in Iowa but they need to know how far the courts will let them go first.

Henderson: Brianne, how does this shake out in terms of the voter dynamic here? Does it motivate certain voters?

Pfannenstiel: I think it absolutely motivates certain voters. And then question is, which voters and how many of them? Both parties are expecting this to really kind of boost enthusiasm on their sides. Republicans, for example, have been explicit over many years to say we need you to turn out, we need you to elect republicans so that we can appoint, so that we can elect a republican president who can nominate conservative justices who will tackle this specific issue. So, for republicans this is an issue that they have cared about for a long time, they have worked toward for a very long time. And so now they're seeing the fruits of those labors. On the democratic side it's the opposite. This has been cataclysmic as far as they are concerned. And so is it going to motivate democrats to show up and push back a little bit? On the flip side, I think there is some concern among those on maybe newer voters, folks who are farther left who look at democrats and say, we did vote for you, we put you in office for 50 years and you haven't done anything to codify these abortion rights into federal law so why should we turn up for you again? So there's a little bit of push and pull there that I think is going to be really interesting in November.

Henderson: Aaron, real quickly, we don't have graphs and charts to show our viewers and we're going to talk briefly about numbers. But what do voter registration numbers in Iowa tell us? There was a primary obviously in June.

Murphy: Yeah and coming out of that primary it was all good news for republicans. They had a big boost in registered voters. Their registered voter numbers across the state are up 20,000 over the previous year while democrats are down 15,000. And so the voter registration advantage for Iowa republicans now across the state is more than 84,000 voters. Now a lot of that is in the 4th District where it's a huge advantage, it's not so much in the other areas of the state. But it shows something of a trend that we've been talking about in Iowa before that the needle just seems to be creeping ever more in a republican, in a red direction and these latest numbers are another example of that. Now, there's time for course corrections from the democrats. Maybe they make up some of those gains in the coming months before November. But as of right now those most recent numbers are very good for republicans.

Henderson: Clay, Brianne was addressing how abortion, that issue may impact voter turnout. We saw voter turnout in some primary elections in June on the republican side impacted by the school choice issue. We've had horrific shootings, mass shootings. People are debating about the gun issue. And then in pockets of the state they are debating about these carbon capture pipelines. How do you think these ancillary issues, which may be terribly local, may play in the general?

Masters: There's a lot of talk that gets made by the republicans when they're out on the campaign trail, when they're using social media, to highlight inflation, they like to talk about gas prices too which is a conversation of itself to talk about what impacts gas prices. But they are very focused on a national conversation. Many times there are a lot of other issues that get brought up and there's always a pivot from the Republican Party candidates to talk about national issues and tying that to President Joe Biden. That being said, we see national polls that show that a majority of Americans supported Roe v. Wade. It will be interesting to see if that kind of changes the voter dynamic because right now when a sitting president is in one party the other party does well in a midterm election, that is what many people are expecting. But when you've had such high profile shootings that have happened, when you've had Roe v. Wade undone and this is a conversation that people are having in their circles, there is going to be a lot of national politics that I think bleed a little bit into the races here. And then on top of that, yeah there are conversations about school choice and vouchers for different schools to go to private, money to go to private schools and then the CO2 capture pipelines there are landowners who don't like this because it would be in their back yard, there are environmentalists and you're seeing coalitions happen there. So we don't have a lot of good polling right now to show what kind of issues are going to be what really helps. But back to Erin's point, the republicans definitely have the advantage.

Murphy: I may have some polling. And then this ties to exactly what you were just talking about, Clay, and a little bit to what Brianne was talking about before. So, NBC, now this is a national poll and again, to Clay's point about nationalizing these races -- what is the most important issue to you? Number one and two were exactly what you said, inflation and gas prices. Right now, abortion was number five on the list at 5% and guns was even lower at 3%. And this is this week, so this is after the recent mass shootings, this is after Roe v. Wade. So at the end of the day we often talk about this and then we inevitably come back to it, it still at the end of the day comes back to checkbook economy issues. Now, will that change? Who knows. But as we sit right now.

Masters: Well, and I remember rewind to 2020 there was a lot of talk about before we knew that Donald Trump was going to win Iowa, before we knew that Senator Joni Ernst was going to be re-elected, there was a lot of talk about how the pandemic is handled at the local level will affect how people vote in November. And I think it was kind of the inverse of what many people thought, the pandemic response from different elected officials was what actually had the impact on who turned out. So yeah, checkbook.

Henderson: What about the votes that Iowa's congressional delegation in the House and Senator Grassley and Ernst took on the gun bill that cleared the Senate. Will that be a debate point in the fall?

Pfannenstiel: I think it will absolutely be a debate point in the fall. This is an issue that voters care a lot about on both sides, again for different reasons. And so kind of feeling out how the candidates stand on those issues will be important. If we think back to the infrastructure law, for example, the big infrastructure law that Senator Chuck Grassley voted for, he was one of only a handful of republicans who did that and in the weeks following I went out to several of his events in some conservative areas of the state and voters there were very frustrated with him, they thought he went too far.

Henderson: Well, you and I covered an event, Ashley Hinson's kickoff of her re-election campaign, and he got a few boos from the crowd there.

Pfannenstiel: Exactly and it is really hanging on. The more recent polling that we have done at the Des Moines Register shows that Chuck Grassley polls behind several other top republicans in the state as far as his favorability. So I think a lot of these votes will come back to affect the races in one way or another.

Gruber-Miller: So he did vote for the infrastructure law. Fast forward a year to this gun vote that we were just talking about and he was not one of the 15 or so republicans in the Senate who voted for this bipartisan gun package. Joni Ernst was. And I think that kind of shows perhaps a reaction to some of the feedback he got on that last bipartisan vote, but also just kind of the extent to which these races are pretty polarized now and so you need to be focusing on your own people turning out a little bit more than showing your bipartisan credentials.

Murphy: And he is clearly aware of that backlash, that feedback, because when this week the federal government announced some funding for Iowa airports out of that infrastructure bill Chuck Grassley put out a statement saying hey, this is why I voted for that.

Henderson: Clay, we're talking about the Senate race. Let's talk about the challenger that is set up against Senator Grassley, Mike Franken.

Masters: Yeah, you had him on the show here not too long ago. Mike Franken, retired Navy Admiral, surprised a lot of people maybe watching nationally defeated Abby Finkenauer, the one-term former Congresswoman from Iowa. And seeing the two of them on the campaign trail, Mike Franken was very out there. I was actually feeling like this kind of feels like one of these Chuck Grassley town hall meetings because he was taking a lot of questions, he was talking a lot about foreign policy. It's going to be interesting to see how he performs. I think a lot of the people that I was talking to during these campaign events were interested in Mike Franken because they thought that he was somebody that could beat Chuck Grassley. Of course, that's what all democrats would like in the state I'm sure. But it will be interesting to see how the two of them square off if they debate, which we'll get a chance to see that as we get closer into the fall.

Henderson: How does Mike Franken make the case to the big donors that hey, invest in my race against Chuck Grassley who is sometimes considered the most popular republican in Iowa, when you have competitive races in big states like Pennsylvania and maybe Wisconsin, which is a neighboring state? How does he make that case?

Murphy: He prays for good news from Ann Selzer and our colleagues here from the Register and gets a good poll. The campaign did publish a poll this week, an internal poll so take that caveat for what it's worth, that showed him within five percentage points of Chuck Grassley. That is a one-off for now. If more and more show that, then attention may come to this race. But I believe, I know Franken has said as much, we need some polls to show that we can --

Henderson: He said it on this program actually.

Murphy: Yeah, thank you, I thought so. That we need that to show the national folks and the folks with the money that it's worth paying some attention to Iowa.

Pfannenstiel: But even so, if you look back to this last election with Joni Ernst it looked like Theresa Greenfield, the democrat in that race, was within striking distance in some of these polls. The national money came in, in droves, and Joni Ernst still won by I believe eight percentage points in that race. And so I think history in Iowa paired with, as Clay mentioned, probably a bad year for democrats nationally, it's going to be really tough for him to make that case.

Henderson: So, I was struck by listening to Cindy Axne's speech at the Democratic State Convention in June. Hey, I'm the number one target for republicans. Brianne, how is that congressional race in the new 3rd District shaping up?

Pfannenstiel: Well, it's shaping up to be incredibly competitive. Cindy Axne is one of only a handful of democrats who won in districts that Donald Trump also carried. So for that reason alone she is seen as incredibly vulnerable and she is now facing, we know from the primary, State Senator Zach Nunn won his primary race. He is a military veteran, he served in the state legislature, and so he is the kind of person who I think people believe could make this a competitive race, make it a real matchup. But I think Cindy Axne is also seen as being really in touch with her district as having done a lot of work here to hold that down. But again, we're coming back to a mid-term election year where the tides are not, they're going against the democrats probably. So national forecasters have said this race leans republican, they switched that after Zach Nunn won his primary. So we do expect this to be very competitive, we expect a lot of money to come into this race because it is really one that could decide the fate of the House of Representatives.

Henderson: Erin, down in the 1st District --

Murphy: The new 1st District.

Henderson: The new 1st District and it's the southeast Iowa quadrant and kind of tumbles over and catches a little bit of the south suburbs of Des Moines. Mariannette Miller-Meeks is seeking re-election and facing Christina Bohannan, a democrat from Iowa City, which would be the democratic power base in that district.

Murphy: Yeah, it's similar to the 3rd District where you have Des Moines and then everything else, that's the case for that district. That will be an interesting one. It seems to be that it should be competitive too. Remember, now these are new districts because of redistricting, but when Mariannette Miller-Meeks won two years ago she won by 6 votes, so obviously a super close race. And there are some democrats who would say "maybe" she won because there were ballots that weren't counted that they thought should have been. So, it's a competitive area generally speaking. And Christina Bohannan, the democrat, is well-known and popular in the district and is a good public speaker, when we've had a chance to see her at events is a good campaigner. So we expect that one to be competitive. But again, we're really banging this drum here, but it does go back again to the national mood and the way that voters feel about democrats right now in general and that could hurt Christina Bohannan in that race as well.

Henderson: Clay, in the new 2nd you've got two people who know one another well who are running against one another.

Masters: That's right, so this is the district that includes Cedar Rapids in northeast Iowa and it's first-term, she is in her first term, Ashley Hinson, the Congresswoman there and then she is running against State Senator Liz Mathis of Hiawatha. And both of these, it has been said on this show in the past they're well-known because they were on television, they were journalists in that district. And Liz Mathis, when I came to Iowa ten years ago was fairly new in the State Senate, democrats had control of the State Senate, was kind of an up-and-comer and as long as I've been in this state people I've been hearing from democratic circles would like her to run for federal office. Well now she's running. I've seen her out on the campaign trail and small community gatherings. She connects with voters as she's out there and so does Ashley Hinson. So they both have name ID in their district and are well-known. How rare is it that a state has 3 competitive congressional races going into a midterm election? So it will be interesting watching all three of those of the four congressional races here.

Henderson: We're of course watching a gubernatorial race and neither Kim Reynolds nor Deidre DeJear had primary opposition but the race is maybe starting in earnest. Stephen?

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, I think if you're looking at that race you would rather be in Kim Reynolds' position right now. First of all, you're an incumbent. Second of all, Reynolds has vastly outraised DeJear throughout this campaign. We were talking a little bit about the challenge of raising national money for democrats. You have to prove that Iowa is competitive. And so I think that has been a struggle for DeJear and is going to continue to be a struggle to be able to compete financially. If national donors see Iowa as a red state they don't want to pour money into a governor's race that they think is going to lose. So, Reynolds is kind of running this race on her own time and she has had sort of the time to focus on other issues like we talked about her education proposal previously. She went around campaigning for republicans who supported giving that taxpayer scholarship to pay for private school. So she is kind of working on those issues that she wants to focus on next year in the legislature and hasn't really focused much on DeJear. When she is campaigning she talks a lot about the national economy, which we have been talking about, so sort of running against Joe Biden almost who is unpopular in Iowa, talking about inflation, talking about gas prices, talking about how those things are hurting Iowans.

Henderson: Well, and 2018 democrats made that election sort of a pseudo referendum on Donald Trump. Brianne, doesn't it make sense to make this election a pseudo referendum on Joe Biden?

Pfannenstiel: Well, that is certainly what Governor Reynolds is trying to do. You ask her a question just about anything and she'll very quickly pivot to gas prices, to inflation, to issues at the border, all kinds of things. She is trying to make this race very national and DeJear, when she was on this program a couple of weeks ago, she turned that back around on Kim Reynolds and said, she's happy to talk about national issues but there are problems here at home that she should be focusing on. So I think that is going to be attention that we'll see between these two candidates about where they're trying to draw voters' attention and what they get from that.

Murphy: And how voters responds to that because again, that NBC poll has all the issues that Kim Reynolds and republicans have been talking about. Can Iowa democrats motivate voters to vote based on school choice or transgender students? That is their challenge if they see that as the path forward for them.

Henderson: So, we have less than five minutes left for this conversation and we can't go without talking about the Iowa Caucuses. Democrats went to D.C. as did Brianne and Clay. You were in the room where it happened, so to speak. Clay, they made the case that the Iowa Caucuses should remain first to the Rules and Bylaws Committee of the Democratic National Committee.

Masters: Yeah and these are important national democrats and they gather in a room and one after another they hear from these states, I think it was like 17 states and Puerto Rico, 16 and Puerto Rico, they make their case. The Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee wanted states to make the case based on is your state competitive in a general election? Is your state diverse, the population? And also they wanted it to be focused on primaries instead of caucuses. So democrats had a case to make because a lot of those things have not been going in their favor when you think about what happened in 2020 with the delay in the smartphone app for the results. So, Iowa got up, they made their case, there were three people from the state that went. There was the Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn, there was also Jennifer Konfrst, the House Minority Leader and then Scott Brennan, a former Iowa Democratic Party Chair who also serves on that Rules and Bylaws Committee. So they got up, they made their case, as did all these other states and no decision was made but it looks like there's an appetite to change up the calendar and that is what you got from the line of questioning although no cards were really shown on the table as nobody expected to.

Henderson: So, I think the smoke will be sent on this in early August, they'll know for sure what the calendar may be. But Brianne, what was your read of what was going on there?

Pfannenstiel: Well, it's not great for Iowa democrats if we're being blunt about it. The questions in the room were really focused on a lot of things that Iowa democrats can't change. We can't change the demographics of the state, we can't become a primary and not a caucus. The democrats' really kind of Hail Mary play was to say we're going to scrap the realignment process, some of the more arcane rules that go around the caucuses, to make it look more like a primary. And the Committee showed some appreciation for that. But they really were kind of picking at some other Midwestern states who have thrown their hat in the ring to say maybe Michigan can be the Midwestern state that replaces Iowa, maybe it's Minnesota. The question will be whether those states can get their Republican Parties on board with moving their primary dates. And if that happens I think Iowa is in a really threatened position. And so we should note that we are taping this on Friday afternoon, there will be a meeting of the Rules and Bylaws Committee Friday evening where we might see some of those cards come onto the table for the first time before they make their final vote in August.

Henderson: One thing that a source said was that by announcing hey, we're going to let early voting maybe two to three weeks ahead, the Iowa could say hey, we're really starting to vote first but they might be number five in the lineup. Is that something that either of you see as more likely?

Pfannenstiel: I think that's possible. I think it's possible that Iowa gets moved back in the lineup. They go fourth or fifth instead of first. And if they do have early voting, that is an incentive for presidential candidates to continue campaigning here. But if you think back to 2020, California had early voting, they technically started voting before Iowa did in 2020 and there was a conversation about whether that would change the dynamic of where people played and most people probably don't remember that because it didn't change the dynamics all too terribly much.

Masters: The things that Iowa seemed to have going in its favor the most as they were making this case are the cost of running in Iowa. There is a very low cost media market here. You can also hit a lot of the state that is being urban, suburban, rural Iowa and with relative ease. The population is spread out a lot more in Iowa than in a place like Michigan with Detroit or with the Twin Cities in Minnesota. But the Republican National Committee, they have already kind of set their calendar that still goes Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina. And so we're already seeing candidates that are flirting with a run in 2024 here in the state. So the process has kind of already started for the republicans and if this conversation, if they start kind of pulling at these threads, just doing things the way that it had been done is probably the easiest way not to have as much conflict right now.

Henderson: Well, this is a hard thing to say but we are done with this conversation today but many of these topics we're going to be talking about at this table again. Thanks to all of you for joining and sharing with our viewers your reporting. You can watch every episode of Iowa Press on 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