Political Reporter Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Nov 4, 2022 | 27 min

On this edition of Iowa Press, our roundtable of political reporters discuss next week's general election. We explore state and federal races in Iowa, as well as national implications.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Clay Masters, lead political reporter and host for Iowa Public Radio, Dave Price, political director for WHO-TV in Des Moines and Tom Beaumont, national political writer for the Associated Press. 

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



Candidates are barnstorming the state on the final weekend before Election Day. We dig into the notebooks of some of our Iowa political reporters 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 IowaBankers.com.


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


Henderson: It's now a matter of days and soon a matter of hours before voting starts in Iowa at 7:00 a.m. on November 8th. We have assembled a group of Iowa political reporters who have been covering the candidates all across the state for the past two years. Let me tell you who is here. First of all, we have Tom Beaumont. He is a national Political Writer for the Associated Press. Dave Price is Political Director of WHO-TV in Des Moines. Clay Masters is morning anchor and Lead Political Reporter at Iowa Public Radio. And Erin Murphy is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids.

Henderson: Okay, let's start with something that happened on Thursday night. Clay Masters, former President Donald Trump had a rally in Sioux City. Why Sioux City?

Masters: First of all, it's the 4th Congressional District which has the biggest advantage for republicans. The former President wants republicans to do well in this state, quite a few of them on the ballot, so he went there to drive up turnout. But it is former President Donald Trump so he was there to talk about himself as well. He's holding rallies across the country where he brings the greatest hits, right, the things that he talks a lot about on the campaign trail and he was there to kind of flirt with a possible 2024 run again.

Henderson: Well, he said, Tom Beaumont, as I recall, very, very, very probably he would be running again.

Beaumont: Yeah, that is some serious flirtation. I don't know if it really moves the needle as far as the Iowa races go. He is in that most conservative part of the state. I have to wonder if considering there have been so many republicans in Iowa over the course of the last two years trying to leave a mark and sew some goodwill among republicans should they run for president if he's coming in at the end to sort of cast that big shadow to say, you may have heard from these other folks, but remember I was your nominee and I'm looking at running again.

Murphy: And that would make sense because you look at his campaign schedule for this last week before the election and he is also going to Pennsylvania, which makes a lot of sense, going to Ohio, which makes a lot of sense, coming to Iowa makes a little less sense unless it is to plant those seeds for 2024.

Price: And maybe squeezing out a little, maybe a little of the far right of the base that wasn't planning on coming out -- maybe I'm devil's advocate and on my own island here -- but to have an event where Kim Reynolds and Chuck Grassley are there with Marjorie Taylor Greene I don't know that they ever truly shared the stage at the same time but that element of the party perhaps they felt they needed to shore that up a little bit just to make sure Grassley's numbers are where they needed to be.

Murphy: Especially with Trump not on the ballot.

Henderson: And to put a finer point on it, I looked at the voter registration numbers on November 1st and each of the four congressional districts there are 95,000 more republican registered voters in the 4th Congressional District, Erin, than there are democrats. And Randy Feenstra didn't attend the rally. He is the incumbent republican Congressman in that district.

Murphy: Well, and that's the power of that district, the republican incumbent most times can kind of put it on cruise control essentially and as long as you're not upsetting the world as the previous republican Congressman Steve King did you're safe then.

Masters: The 4th Congressional District did great things for Governor Reynolds when she was running for the first time in 2018. IT helped her get across the finish line with Fed Hubbell who she was running against. That was a much different race, very competitive and a reminder too, he was there, the former President was there to endorse both Chuck Grassley and Kim Reynolds. He had already done that a year ago so it's like, I don't know, do you re-endorse someone?

Henderson: It's a double endorsement.

Masters: A double endorsement.

Beaumont: It does speak to the fact that this is really a base election. If you're looking at the different electorates we talk a little bit about swing voters in the suburbs but a lot of these states are being determined by the republican and democratic basis.

Henderson: So let's shift to the top race on the Iowa ballot, the U.S. Senate. Chuck Grassley, the republican, seeking an eighth term running against Michael Franken. Tom Beaumont, you and I were on this set in June interviewing Mike Franken. What about that race has changed since June?

Beaumont: Well, it looked like Grassley was in for potentially a real challenge. And by and large you look at the margins that he has won by in the past, which were just crushing, he is in for a more competitive race. But if you look at the polling it shows Grassley leading by a few percentage points but it doesn't show Franken reaching or even approaching that critical 50% mark. So if we see a poll that shows Grassley up maybe 48, 43 or something like that, I think that 43 number is the one that we ought to look at and that is what a democrat can really expect in this environment in Iowa.

Price: Can I be your sidekick? 24, 31, 42, 38, 42, 32. Those are the Grassley margins of victory except for back when he beat the incumbent Senator John Culver by 8 back in 1980. And you do wonder if this was all maybe overblown a little bit and if democrats are going to be ceilinged out. And when you mentioned voter registration numbers, look what has happened the last decade where we used to be, independents used to be the biggest chunk, barely but the biggest chunk. That has changed now where you've got republicans now. So where is Franken hoping to get so he can move up from 42?

Beaumont: Senate Majority PAC, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, not a dime for Franken.

Masters: And he uses that as a way to kind of get his bona fides up even more. I'm not a Washington, D.C. candidate, I'm running my own campaign. He talks a lot about country over party, people over politics. You have seen a different kind of candidate I think from the democrats then you have going back to 2014 because of that outside money not being involved in the race as much. But to Tom and Dave's points, it's an uphill battle.

Price: Yeah and you can do your own thing this way. And to his credit he has raised a bunch of money on his own because he didn't get that help from D.C.

Murphy: Yeah and to those numbers that Dave talked about, this is very clearly a different race that Chuck Grassley is in than he has ever been in. And we see his campaign respond accordingly. He has been more aggressive in the political ads have been more aggressive. But there is a big difference between yes, it's not going to be 30 plus points anymore, but those last whatever they are, 5, 6, 7, 8 points that it's at are a lot harder, that's an even bigger hill to climb to get over that and actually pulled off this upset.

Henderson: The other thing that I noticed was right after he won the primary Franken was campaigning with other democrats. In the past month, month and a half he has been campaigning solo. Why is he doing that, Tom?

Beaumont: I believe it is because there was a police report that surfaced in September that suggested that he had kissed a former campaign employee against her permission. It was found to be unfounded by police. But you did not see -- and the vast majority of other democrats running for office in Iowa are women and I don't think it's a mystery that they have not appeared on stage with him.

Henderson: Well, the woman running for re-election as Governor in this state is Kim Reynolds. Let's shift to that race and maybe give people who haven't been paying attention to the commercials or they haven't gone to a campaign event what the closing message might be.

Murphy: Bless those people. Tell me what that's like some time when you get a chance. So, Governor Reynolds in a lot of ways continues to campaign against Joe Biden as much if not more than she does her opponent Deidre DeJear, the democrat. And there are multiple reasons for that primarily being that she believes, Governor Reynolds believes she's in a very strong position. And unlike Senator Grassley appeared to feel a little threatened by his opponent, Governor Reynolds does not feel that same threat so she can focus on national democrats. And the other thing that does is that helps the whole republican ticket. If you go to a crowd of republicans and you talk about Deidre DeJear you're just talking about your race. If you talk about Joe Biden that is putting that sentiment out for all of the races on your ticket. So it's a good teammate kind of strategy as well. She does talk about the things that republicans have passed in the past few years, she talks about the tax cuts and she talks about her school choice thing. And one of the other things that has been interesting is she continues to advocate for the law that was passed on transgender girls in sports, which is a very divisive issue in that there's a lot of people who felt very strongly that that law is mean spirited and unnecessary. And even at this comfortable stage in her campaign, Governor Reynolds continues to hammer that, which maybe gets back to Tom's point about this being a base election.

Price: And in her ads she's not, for someone who is so far up and has so many campaign resources at her advantage and all those kinds of things, she's not running a hundred percent positive ads about here's what I've done, here's what I want to do. While she is running so often against Joe Biden and the national democrats in these ads where she does mention Deidre DeJear she is coming after her and trying to tie her into the defund the police movement, which DeJear is not part of. And so there is always that and then also the lines in there about we know a boy is a boy and a girl is a girl. So she is still taking her attacks in those though.

Henderson: Tom Beaumont, what do we know about what motivates voters in a midterm election? Are people motivated because they're angry? Are they motivated because they like the candidate that they're going to be voting for?

Beaumont: As we all know, typically it is a referendum on the incumbent President, that incumbent President has a low approval rating right now, lower than average in Iowa. Also the economy is front and center. Anybody can see when they go to the grocery store that milk is $5 a gallon, gas is still higher than it was a year ago. So I think there's a lot of reasons for people to be angry. I think democrats, especially at the federal level, are trying to pitch the idea that the President and his administration have tried to diminish the cost of living and things like that. But at the end of the day I think it's a pocketbook election. I also think to the extent that democrats thought they had an opening with the Dobbs decision on abortion, I think that may have faded, though if it is a base election they may still get some of those angry voters who support abortion rights. But as this thing is coming to a close, to your point I think anger is perhaps going to have the day.

Henderson: Well, let's talk about the environment that the Iowa Democratic Party and its candidates up and down the ballot find themselves in, Dave.

Price: I just think to pick up where Tom was talking here, they did think they had that early in the summer during that June Supreme Court decision and it felt like that might give them the juice. And as we talked about those voter registration numbers, as people over the years in our state it seems like it's that no party, the independent chunks that have now moved over to the republican side essentially and the driver does not seem to be abortion rights, it seems to be economics and as the democrats almost had been resistant to talk about that they really leaned into the abortion rights and the commercials are almost a hundred percent focused on that. And in some cases the commercials are not even accurate alleging that Grassley and Mariannette Miller-Meeks are going to get rid of all abortion, which would not be their stated positions. So, instead of kind of pivot or figuring out how do we talk about the economy when it has been tough like it is, they have really leaned into abortion rights. And in the end that might be something that is hard to overcome for them.

Henderson: Tom, as a national reporter for the Associated Press you're watching congressional races all over the country. How do the three "competitive" races fit into that picture?

Beaumont: I think the most competitive race is the 3rd District. It's where Cindy Axne won, she is part of this 2018 class of freshmen that helped take the democratic majority. But if you look at this sort of Midwestern corridor of competitive 2018 class members she seems to be in the toughest spot. You've got Angie Craig in Minnesota, that is a very close race, but it is a highly educated district. You've got Sharice Davids in suburban Kansas City, also a highly educated district. They're sitting in a bit of a better position than Axne. Axne was cut into a more conservative district. So she won by 6,000 votes in 2020 in a district that Donald Trump also won. Her district now that she is running in voted more favorably for Trump. And so it's looking like it's going to be tough for her. And I think if it's going to be tough for her then it is going to be tough for democrats in the 1st and 2nd Districts.

Henderson: Dave Price, you have interviewed Axne's republican opponent Zach Nunn, a State Senator.

Price: I have. And Zach Nunn has perhaps not done a lot of interviews ever since the May debate where he struggled with that abortion question. And for those who have not seen the commercials that are on nonstop he had said in that debate and raised his hand twice that he would support no abortions at all. He has since said that is not his stated position. He has tried to pivot from abortion rights, he's not really talking about that unless it is asked other than to say maybe democrats support abortion up until birth. He is very much leaning into this theme that we have talked about throughout this show and that is economy first, inflation first, it's Biden's fault.

Masters: Well and Cindy Axne too, she is trying to talk about the things that she sees as positive bills that have come through the democratic Congress. So the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure bill. And so she's trying to talk about these things and say hey look, I've been a part of this class that helped bring these kinds of things to this part of the state. But when milk is the price that it is or whatever it's just this dissonance that seems to be happening between what she is trying to talk about when the economy does come up versus what the republicans are really trying to hammer them on.

Price: David Young a couple of years ago I remember at the State Fair told me that in elections you need a boogeyman and it's hard for the economy to be a boogeyman, it's hard for COVID to be a boogeyman, so it's easy to go target Joe Biden. Somebody needs to be blamed for why I'm paying $4 or $5 a gallon for milk and gas is too expensive.

Henderson: Erin, let's shift to the race in what would be the new 2nd Congressional District, which is sort of Northeast Iowa.

Murphy: The battle of the former KCRG-TV news anchors, incumbent Congresswoman Ashley Hinson the republican and Liz Mathis the democrat is a State Senator from that area. Like these other races, the top tier topics are pretty much the same. Liz Mathis has talked a lot about abortion and women's health rights. And Ashley Hinson has talked a lot about inflation. The one maybe issue that is unique to that district and certainly Ashley Hinson has played it up is the school choice issue and transgender and LGBTQ policies. There is a school district in that area that has a policy designed to make schools safe and have protections for those students and some parents have been upset that they feel like it's too protective and that they don't have a say in their child's education and Ashley Hinson has really leaned into that issue in her campaign there.

Henderson: Clay Masters, you and I co-moderated a debate of the candidates in the other competitive district in Iowa featuring Mariannette Miller-Meeks who is seeking re-election for a second term in the U.S. House and Christina Bohannan.

Masters: That's right. And if you remember, Miller-Meeks ran against Rita Hart two years ago and that was the election that never ended. It was 6 votes that she won by. And this is a different district. We have redistricting. This looks a little more favorable to Representative Miller-Meeks. She is running against Christina Bohannan, a state lawmaker from Iowa City who is also a professor at the college there. And take the issues from the race that we already talked about and take the issues from the other race that we already talked about, that is everything that is being focused here, it's what all the attack ads are on. It was noteworthy though that that was, I think that was the only debate that featured congressional candidates, House candidates on Iowa Press and it was a chance to actually see the two of them in their disagreements and it gave people a good understanding of where they were coming from which isn't happening as much. Iowa it felt like we didn't have as many debates this year across the board --

Henderson: And that's national.

Masters: And nationally Iowa has had maybe a few more than they have in some of the other neighboring states.

Beaumont: I was just going to say one of the interesting things about that district is that whole southeastern corner used to be such a democrat performing, union heavy democrats and over the last ten years that whole corridor has just slipped to the republicans.

Murphy: It's the center point of the map on the so-called Obama Trump counties, that shift.

Henderson: We have about five minutes left. Let's shift to the bottom of the ballot. There's an amendment on there suggesting changing the Iowa Constitution, actually adding to the Iowa Constitution. Erin?

Murphy: All right, rein me in if I go too long because this takes some explaining here. So the Iowa republicans have proposed an amendment to the state Constitution that in their view essentially enshrines the federal Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, into the Iowa Constitution, which doesn't currently have. Now, where they have deviated a little bit, they have added in some legal terminology, the phrase is strict scrutiny. And what that does is it applies a higher legal standard to any gun, firearm regulation. So it essentially makes it harder, which republicans argue is a good thing, to pass gun regulations or restrictions of any kind. There will be a much higher legal standard for any such law to pass. So what is being asked of the voters is should we put this into the Iowa Constitution? And when you talk to people there is oftentimes confusion over what exactly it means, what that wording means. And as a person whose job is to get information out to the people that is a concerning thing that people are going to the ballot box and maybe not fully grasping what they are voting for.

Henderson: I wouldn't say I'm confused but I am surprised that this amendment hasn't generated more attention from groups outside of Iowa. Does anyone have an idea why? Dave?

Price: Is confusion a good thing? Maybe I guess I'm wondering for those who support it, is it better if this is not something that we talk about a lot. It is complex.

Henderson: And so that's why the Bloomberg group and others who are in favor of what they call gun safety legislation haven't come here?

Price: I think I was more surprised that they didn't come. I thought maybe they would come in on that side of it, which would then force the other side. I thought the yes folks might, maybe it would make sense where you kind of lay back here and see if the other side throws a bunch at it. But I thought the Bloomberg, you probably know the Bloomberg side better, I thought they would jump in on this.

Beaumont: I kind of thought that it was because Iowa isn't so much of a battleground state. With those races looking to be so largely republican leaning perhaps they didn't think that it was worth the money.

Murphy: Yeah, that's what I was going to say, maybe they see the demographics, they see the voting trends and we had an Iowa Poll and if the Iowa Poll is anywhere remotely accurate it was a massive margin of Iowans that are planning to vote yes for this thing. So it may be not worth the investment.

Henderson: So by this time next month we will know whether the Iowa Democratic Party Caucuses have been killed by the Democratic National Committee. By this time next week we may have seen a presidential candidate here from the Republican Party. Tom, how does what Trump said in Sioux City impact the travel schedule into Iowa?

Beaumont: Well, I think it shows that he is obviously getting ready to run and it also highlights the importance that the Caucuses will play in determining who a potential challenger or alternative to Trump will be. Who knows how this cycle is going to go with him in the race. But somebody has got to be angling for that chief role of the Trump alternative. It could be Mike Pence, it could be DeSantis.

Masters: And we've already seen a lot of those different republican candidates doing the thing where they come here, drum up support. One thing we might not be seeing much more of are the democrats doing that in the future. You mentioned we'll know whether or not the DNC kills the Caucuses, they might not kill it, they might knock Iowa down a few pegs. They're meeting in Washington at the beginning of December to talk about all of these different states that have auditioned to go in the early window of presidential nominating contests and we should know in December. But I don't know, if democrats do real poorly will the DNC want to be fighting over the calendar? I don't know.

Henderson: Which candidate would be, in your view Dave Price, the anti-Trump because there will be someone who hopes, like a Larry Hogan who is the Governor of Maryland who spent some time here at the Iowa State Fair this past August?

Price: You've got Maryland's Governor, you have Liz Cheney, you have Arkansas's Governor --

Henderson: Who will be here.

Price: Who will be here.

Henderson: In November.

Price: In November indeed. It seems like a tougher stretch for Pence, for Mike Pompeo, Nikki Haley I think she has said she's not doing it if Trump does. So she's sort of here just in case. But it does feel like I wonder if we will see after talking to a few Iowa republicans maybe more of a concentrated effort to unite around the Trump alternative more so than we saw in the past.

Henderson: So will Kim Reynolds endorse? Anybody think she will? Show of hands?

Murphy: I'm not falling for that with Dave Price at the table.


Henderson: Okay, well thank you all for opening up your notebooks and sharing it with our viewers. If you have missed any of the Iowa Press Debates or Iowa Press episodes in which we interviewed the statewide candidates on your ballot this year you can find all of that information, video, text at iowapbs.org. 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 IowaBankers.com.