Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Dec 23, 2022 | 27 min

Iowa Press convenes a group of Iowa political reporters for a roundtable discussion about the latest political news, the biggest stories of 2022 and what's ahead in the 2023 legislative session.

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

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

[ RECORDED: December 16, 2022 ]


From caucus developments to preparations at the State House

for the 2023 legislative session,

we gather a few familiar political reporters for a year

end roundtable discussion on this edition of Iowa Press.

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on statewide Iowa PBS.

This is the Friday, December.

Here is Kay Henderson.

So what were the top political stories

of the past year and what's ahead in 2023?

We have three of Iowa's top political reporters

here at the roundtable to discuss those issues.

Erin Murphy is with the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Clay Masters is with Iowa Public Radio,

and Brianne Pfannenstiel is with the Des Moines Register.

Brianne, you've written a lot

about the Iowa Democratic caucuses.

So what's going on for folks who haven't been sort of

following this drama?

Well, we finally got the big decision, right.

Democrats gathered in Washington, D.C.

earlier this month

and they all met in a conference room

and they decided Iowa's out.

South Carolina's in.

And this came after President

Joe Biden weighed in and finally made his choices

known where he would like to move

Iowa completely out of the early window,

move up South Carolina, have New Hampshire and Nevada

hold their primaries on the same day,

followed by Michigan and Georgia.

And so this is a big change.

This is a big move to shake up the calendar,

to bring in some more diverse voices

to replace Iowa, which has been holding these

first in the nation caucuses for 50 years.

This still needs to be ratified by the full DNC in February

at their meeting.

But this is really kind of the writing on the wall, right?

This is the decision we've been waiting for.

Iowa is very likely no longer going to be first.

Clay, was this a big surprise?

First off, no, it didn't feel like a big surprise.

I remember on caucus night all the morning

after the Iowa caucuses,

sitting in a coffeehouse and an NPR was there.

I was being interviewed,

and one of the first questions I got was,

what is this kind of do for the future of the Iowa caucuses?

And my answer, I think, at the time was like

it just adds fuel to the fire. Right.

The Democratic caucuses have been panned by a lot of critics

both across the country.

And there are people in Iowa

that have enjoyed the Iowa Democratic caucuses,

but see that it's time for it to move by the wayside.

And President Joe Biden, in the letter

that came out the day before that decision was made

and laid all these arguments out

that we've been hearing for a long time.

Number one, Iowa not as representative

of the rest of the country when it comes to diversity.

Number two, caucuses are a system

that doesn't allow as much participation

that a primary election does.

And the number three has to do with competition that in a

general election, Iowa is not the purple state

that it once was.

And they want President Biden as well as others

that are on that committee that make those rules.

They want more competitive states going early Aaron.


What was, if anything, was a surprise to me.

It was how it unfolded at the very end.

We were sitting here waiting for weeks and weeks, months

maybe for the Democratic National Committee.

The National Democratic Party's

Rules and Bylaws Committee

was taking this up and discussing it,

and they were going to put

together a plan, and we hadn't heard that.

And they punted it until after the election.

And then while we're waiting for that decision, President

Biden is the one who swooped in ultimately and said, here,

let's do this.

That that just kind of fascinated me about the process.

But yeah, this was for all the reasons.

Clay Brianna, I've already laid out.

The outcome was not even remotely surprising.

Brianne Was Joe Biden's recommendation surprising

giving given his experience in the Iowa caucuses?

Well, I think everybody was waiting

on the president to weigh in. Right.

This is a big change.

And having the president kind of lay out

what he wants to do helped coalesce the party behind him.

But as far as which states he selected,

I think people were a little surprised.

You know, certainly he has not fared well in Iowa in his

you know, three, three times running in the caucuses.

But South Carolina

this last time, voters there really are credited

with propelling him into the White House.

So seeing them now at the front of the line

makes a lot of sense, particularly

if he runs again, as he's indicated he is likely to do.

But I think, you know, more surprising is adding a state

like Georgia, which has historically

not been favorable for Democrats into the mix and elevating

some of those other later states.


the Democratic National Committee's

Rules and Bylaws Committee

has given this

new group of states until January 1st to present,

I guess, a memo saying, yes, we're going to do

the things you told us to do.

Georgia's Republican secretary of state has already said

yes. So it's a committee within a committee

making decisions to get back to the full committee.

A lot of fun to talk about on the radio,

but it is that you're seeing this happen in Georgia where,

you know,

the Republican

National Committee has made a decision

that they're going to stick with the old traditional Iowa,

New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina.

And the proposal

that the committee within the committee has recommended

at the Democratic level is starting in South Carolina,

then Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day, followed by

Georgia, then Michigan. Did I leave somebody out?

No. Nevada. I said Nevada. Yeah.

So you're having to have all these rules come

before these state parties.

And the Georgia

secretary of state

is a Republican

and has said we're going to be voting on the same day.

And so you start

having these different problems that that come forward,

that some of the people that wanted to keep Iowa

first were kind of warning that this was going to be

a problem to work out.

And we're seeing that come to fruition now.

But the time is ticking again.

And New Hampshire also has very politely

said, no, thank you.

As politely as New Hampshire talks about.

Being moved, I think they said something like

the DNC didn't give New Hampshire

to the first in the nation primary.

They're not going to take it away. Yeah.

I think it's been really interesting

to see the states kind of grapple with these decisions.


Because, you know, the DNC has been a little bit dismissive.

I think, of what it takes for these states to move around

and to address their laws and to address the intricate

intricacies of state election laws.

Iowa has a law

that says it needs to hold a caucus before any primary state.

New Hampshire has a law,

and so these states are now trying to figure out

how, you know, how do we follow our law?

How do we stick with the DNC and what decisions do we make?

So it's going to be really interesting.

You know,

you talked about the new year, how Iowa Democrats

come to terms with this and what what they do,

whether they follow the DNC is prescription

or they try and do something else.

And that's a good point.

And I apologize to the source of this,

who I was reading who said this

because that name is escaping me.

But I was reading about someone's

kind of view of the evolution

of the DNC, its role in the calendar.

For the longest time, the DNC really managed

the calendar to where now it's

essentially trying to set the calendar, and that's


And, you know, we're having

the mess that we have now because of it.

I'm not going to ask for a show of hands,

but I'm just wondering if there's a defibrillator here

that might revive the Iowa caucuses

because of these hurdles that we've discussed.

Does anyone think that

the Iowa caucuses have a slim chance of surviving

on the Democratic side, being first?


I guess it depends a little bit how you're defining it, right?

We can play some word games here.

The Iowa Democratic Party chairman, Ross Wilburn, has said

that they're going to hold a

first in the nation caucus regardless. Right.

They can do that. That's fine.

It just won't be recognized by the DNC.

And the DNC can put in a lot of sanctions to say

anyone who comes to campaign there is going to get dinged.

Maybe they don't get to participate in debates.

Maybe they're going to have all of these other other knocks

that are going to dissuade people from campaigning here.

And so Iowans can meet they can cast their preferences

just like they always do.

But what makes the caucuses right is the presence

of all of these candidates,

the participation in the campaigning

and the discussion that happened before then,

and that clearly wouldn't happen under this new plan.

Let's shift to the Republican Party's caucuses.

The Republican National

Committee voted this summer to have the Iowa caucuses first.

Erin, what do you see on the horizon?

Well, what we same thing we already see

in the rearview mirror, which is candidates coming to Iowa.

Now, interestingly, that

those journeys of their travel has waned here

ever since former President Trump announced his candidacy.

So we haven't seen as much activity.

Maybe it's the weather we're having here in Iowa

this December that's slowing things up.

We'll see.

As we turn into the new year,

I expect that we'll still see candidates.

But it has been interesting that ever since former

President Trump's announcement and we've been saying for

ever that that was the big question mark.

And once he decided

whether he was going to get into this field, would tell us

what we need to know about the rest.

And to this point, it has stunted the Iowa

Republican cavalcade.

Now, for that, continue and we'll see.

Clay, I'm struck by the fact that

not especially that the Iowa Republican Party

State Central Committee, that's the governing board

for the party, has said we're going to be neutral,

which they've done in past caucuses that I covered, former

governor Terry Branstad in

November at an event and he said he was not going to endorse

Donald Trump.

And he said this less than 24 hours

after Trump had announced he was running again.

FRANCIS It is just too early to endorse.

What do you make of this, this sort of holding back?

We're going to be neutral. We're not going to get involved.

Well, first off,

I think a lot of that has to do with the scrutiny that's

come on the Democratic side with the Iowa caucuses.

The Republicans, you know, for years

and decades, the Iowa Democrats and Iowa Republicans

have been able to come together and support

this first in the nation thing that they've had

and you're starting to see the strings get pulled

on the Democratic side of the yarn ball.

That's kind of coming unwound.

And so if they want to keep the Iowa caucuses in 2028,

I think they need to present as much of a level playing

field as they can.

So that's why you'll see candidates.

Ashley Hinson, the congresswoman from Cedar


was on a couple of weeks ago and was saying she plans to

endorse at some point. I think she even said so.

We might see some of that later on.

But another thing, too, is to Erin's point,

I think part of the reason we're not seeing a whole lot

of presidential hopefuls in the state

has to do with just how early the former president

actually announced he's going to run for president.

I mean, I remember we had a big cattle call of Republican

presidential hopefuls here in early 2015 in the state.

But none of

none of those people had declared

that they were actually running at that point.

So I think that everybody's just kind of waiting to see,

as we're looking at poll numbers for the former president

and seeing that Ron de Santos, the governor of Florida,

seems to be doing

a little better than than the former president in polls.

I think people are just still kind of

getting an idea of of what the playing field looks like.

And it's just kind of a weird year, right?

We've got a former president

running again who is not an incumbent.

We've got Joe Biden who says he intends to run,

but hasn't formally announced

or, you know, kind of made that official.

And so it's just an odd year where we've got to,

you know, an

incumbent and a pseudo incumbent kind of running again,

trying to figure out what that looks like.

And so it's definitely slowed down.

But I would think, you know, everyone is kind of waiting

for the first person

to really jump in the pool right beyond Donald Trump

and to kind of see what happens next.

And there's I think there's two most likely names there.

And one of them already said, which is Ron DeSantis,

and the other is Mike Pence, who

has been to Iowa, a number of times already

and has been willing to speak about his differences

between him and the former president.

So those are the two in particular

that I'm watching to see when their next trip to Iowa is.

And I makes a great point that I had making a note here.

It feels like we have just completely obliterated

the definition of the word unprecedented

in the last six or seven years in politics.

But here we are again. It really is to be this point.

I mean, we have a

former president running again, but not as an incumbent.

I don't know when the last time that happened, if it

if it ever has, and an.

Incumbent president who everybody's saying,

is he actually going to run?

Right. Right. Right.

So so everybody else is figuring this out, too.

That's why we don't have any answers yet.

BRAND One last point

about the Iowa caucuses, and then we'll move on to

the legislature.

But, you know,

when you look at the Iowa caucuses,

three strikes and you're out, if you will,

the first strike was actually the 2012 Iowa caucuses

when they declared Mitt Romney the winner on election night,

that caucus night.

And then a few days later, Rick

Santorum won a big wound up being declared the winner.

I mean, what's the pressure on the Iowa Republican Party

to manage and run caucuses to set them up for 2028?

I think the pressure is enormous, right?

They've had problems in the past

with getting the results right on on caucus night

and with doing that accurately

and efficiently, just like the Democrats have.

And now.

Now, as Clay says,

the strings are being pulled, the ball is coming apart.

You know,

I think there's enormous pressure on Republicans to prove

that they can still do it and they're there.

They have the benefit

of a much simpler process, being much more straightforward.

The current chair

of the Republican National Committee,

Ronna McDaniel, is a big fan of Iowa

and has said she's committed

to keeping

Iowa Republicans first,

but she's not going to be in office forever.

They have to continue proving

with every iteration that they deserve to keep doing this.

Okay, viewers, get your calendars out.

January 9th is a big day, Aaron.

It's the start of the 2023 Iowa legislative session.

What are the hints about the agenda that Republicans

who are in charge are going to pursue?

Yeah, I think there's a few issues.

Obviously, there will be a lot that will come up,

but there's a few that really stand out

that we can pretty safely expect.

We'll hear a bunch about.

We're going to hear about taxes again.

I was budget is in good shape.

There's a billion plus dollar surplus

Republicans are going to try and cut taxes.

They've already taken a huge crack at income taxes.

It sounds like property taxes

is going to be on the table this time.

Government is going to come back with her school choice bill.

Vouchers, scholarships, whatever your preferred shorthand is.

We're going to hear a lot about that.

It'll be interesting to see with a new legislature,

a slightly growing Republican majority

and some new members within that majority as well,

whether the votes are there for that this time.

And then the other thing,

it will just be kind of interesting to watch

and this has some outside outside influences, too, is

is the abortion issue.

And what I mean by outside influences is that

there's a big bill, a case before the Iowa Supreme Court

that is going to get a hearing and a ruling at some point

that kind of is, you know, hovering over all this.

So the question is, will we still just see legislation

on that front now or will Republicans

be fine to sit back and wait for that court ruling to act?

Clay, what about pipelines?

Do you think the legislature will do anything?

They sort of started and then put it on hold.

Last time in 2021, you were seeing this interesting

coalition of landowners, farmers

that were concerned about eminent domain

and these carbon sequestration pipeline companies

with these proposed pipelines being able

to just come in and take over to build these pipelines.

And this coalition was built between them

and then environmentalists who were saying

that carbon sequestration pipelines,

that's not going to solve the climate crisis.

So you saw that coalition coming together.

There was some work done on it ahead of the midterm.

I kind of got punted a little bit.

So it's going to be interesting to see

because we've had all these counties

that have

put forth these ordinances, especially in western Iowa.

The counties are not ringing a bell in my head.

One of. Them is Shelby. One of them is Shelby County.

And then you've seen more recently in Lynn County,

the board of supervisors

there has been talking about

setbacks that they would have from, you know, places,

dwellings where people come together, homes,

and they had to, like, put pause on this

so that they could sort it out.

Because you were seeing the companies

didn't like the regulations that were being proposed

and you were seeing the anti-pipeline

activists coming out that are opposed to it.

So you're kind of seeing some different splits within

not along party lines about how people are coming down

on these concerns.

So I'll be watching to see

if there's anything coming forward on that for sure.

One shared thread between a couple of those issues

get comfortable with the phrase local control

if you're following your legislative news this session,

because to Clay's point,

the pipeline stuff right now is being set at the local level.

Do state lawmakers come in and override some of those?

And the property

tax issue that I talked about, that's not a state tax.

That's that's a tax

set at the local level by by cities and counties.

And so anything the state decides to do

will have a very direct impact, will essentially

be telling local governments what they can and can't do.

So you're going to hear a lot

about that tug of war between local and state government.

Brian, you and I were recently on a conference call with U.S.

Senator Joni Ernst, and a vote that she recently took

has created some controversy within Republican parties

at the county level. That's right.

Joni Ernst was one of 12 Republican senators

who helped get the Respect for Marriage Act

across the finish line.

Joe Biden signed that into law and that protects gay marriages.

It protects interracial marriages.

But it's getting

a lot of pushback,

obviously, from people

who still oppose gay marriage as a principle

and also those who feel that it infringes on religious liberty.

So some of Iowa's more conservative counties,

we've seen pushback there.

They've they've met as their, you know, kind of county party

apparatus and taken votes

to effectively censure Joni Ernst and also state

excuse me, U.S.

Representative Marion

Miller-Meeks over that same vote.

And so it's interesting to see a push and pull there,

but we asked Senator Ernst about this

and about that pushback, and she said, I stand by my vote.

I think this this protects religious liberty.

And I think it helps,

you know, Iowans who need the certainty and

and the general consensus,

even among Republicans, she said, is that

this is the direction we're heading.

And I think it's an important vote to take.

And among 99 county Republican

parties, we're talking a handful.

I mean, I wouldn't use all the fingers on my hands

if I counted how many counties have done this. Yeah.

And to that point is interesting, Congresswoman.

Actually, Hinson from eastern Iowa has not thus far

faced a similar blowback from

the county Republican parties and in her district.

I don't know,

maybe samples they haven't met yet and haven't

had a chance to do that, but as of now,

so it's just kind of interesting to see, especially

with Congresswoman Miller-Meeks, who's also in eastern Iowa,

the reaction different between her district

and Congresswoman Hanson's.

As we near the end of this year, let's look back to November

and what happened during the election.

We really had

as a group on this program, had a chance to discuss that.

Clay, the only candidate on the Democratic ticket

who won a statewide race was Rob Sand.

What does that tell us about the Iowa electorate?

And it was that was Rob Sanders, the state auditor of Iowa.

And we didn't even know right away that he won.

I mean, it was

it was a long, drawn out process to see if any Democrats

survived at the statewide level.

Tom Miller, the attorney general,

went by the wayside, losing the Brandenburg.

Longest serving attorney general in the country.

That's right.

Michael Fitzgerald, the state

treasurer, lost his reelection bid to Robby Smith.

I don't know.

Oh, you had some.

Say and he did well.

And he's also the longest serving

treasurer in the country. That's right.

Chuck Grassley won by a good margin and

Kim Reynolds won by an even healthier margin.

And the state legislature,

I mean,

if you were a Republican in Iowa

and you were seeing the national

narrative of Republicans didn't do as well as we thought,

the Republicans would think.

You're watching the wrong show.

Yeah. So we were watching for the red wave.

So if you think about what the wave

looks like in a sporting event,

when the crowd of cheers stands up, what actually happened is

they tried to do the wave and only Iowa stood up.

It's like.

Florida did. And Florida. Yeah, yeah.

There was just a couple of people out there

and I was one of them.

So, yeah, so the the Republicans did exceptionally well here

bucking the

trend that we saw in other states across the country.

Clay mentioned that Rob Sand won by something

like 2100 votes statewide.

I think when you look at the congressional races,

you had Ashley Hinson won by something like 18 points.

Marinette Miller-Meeks won by far

more than six votes this time.

But if you look at the accident non-res,

that was also a very slim margin.

That was very close.

And, you know,

I think we've talked on this program

a lot about that

race and, you know, feeling like it could go either way.

And so you look at that one being being as narrow as it was,

even with this red wave in Iowa.

And I think it's really telling.

And so it'll be interesting

to see over the next two years what happens.

But, you know, you look back at how that campaign went

and perhaps there were some unforced errors

with within the actions campaign.

You know, she took a trip to France

and and caught some blowback from Republican messaging

on that, not being present to take a key vote.

You know, all of the issues with her stock trading became

an issue that that, you know, Iowans saw on mailers and on TV.

And so that was a very close race that, you know, obviously

went in Doug Nunn's favor.

And if you look at the numbers in Polk County, which is

the largest county in Iowa and obviously the largest county

in that district, she won it by a far larger margin in 2018

when she was first elected than she did this time around.

So turnout was down and a midterm for her in Iowa's

most popular county.

Let's talk about the person who won by the biggest margin.

Largest margin, Aaron.

What's next for Kim Reynolds?

Well, let me say

first, when I get a chance to ask her, I will.

I hope that is sooner than later.

We've had a collective issue.

Is statehouse reporters

having a chance to ask Governor Reynolds questions lately?

So I look forward to asking you

that question when I get a chance.

That'll be interesting.

She obviously, at least in the immediate future,

comes into the legislative session with

I don't know if she'll use the term mandate, but she could.

She as Clay mentioned, she won by a big margin.

The state legislature grew even more Republican,

so she'll feel emboldened to move forward with whatever

her agenda will be.

We already talked about the vouchers

that will obviously be on the table.

She'll be in the property tax discussion.

So she'll feel emboldened to,

you know, get things passed in this legislative session.

And then beyond that, I don't have a lot of insight.

It'll be really interesting to watch.

She obviously comes up in national discussions.

Could she be,

if not a presidential candidate herself, which we haven't seen

any indication of yet, could she be a running mate

to someone who really starts to take off as a candidate?

That'll be interesting to watch.

Less than one minute left, I'm going to let each of

you tell our viewers something that you have done

that you would like them to see before the end of the year.

Brianne, we'll start with you.

Well, I have written a lot of words about the Iowa caucuses.

And so there's

a project on Des Moines Register dot

com looking at the history of the caucuses

and kind of all of the things

that Bill Clinton 1972 to bring us to this moment.


I'm going to go politics adjacent.

I guess

I've been spending the better

part of the last couple of years going up to Clayton County

where there's a bloody run

creek is a small trout stream in the Iowa's drift loss region.

There's concerns about a massive feedlot expanding.

And I'm going to continue

to be reporting on

what moves forward with there,

because there's a lot of environmental concerns

about that sensitive part of the state, and.

It's just outside the timeframe

because it won't start until right after the new year.

But we put a lot of work into our legislative preview


We'll have a whole series

the week leading up to the first day of session,

talking about all the issues that we expect

to hear about at the Capitol during

the session, really getting Iowans ready for

what's to come when state lawmakers

start doing their work again.

Well, thank you for the work that you do.

Appreciate it.

And I'm sure I will appreciate it again in 2023.

You can watch every episode of Iowa Press at Iowa

for everyone here at the network.

Happy Holidays.

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