Reporters’ Roundtable

Iowa Press | Episode
Feb 17, 2023 | 27 min

Iowa Press convenes a group of Iowa political reporters for a roundtable discussion about the legislative session and the 2024 Iowa Caucuses, as several Republican politicians visit Iowa this week and next.

Joining moderator Kay Henderson at the Iowa Press table are Erin Murphy, Des Moines bureau chief for The Gazette, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Statehouse reporter for The Des Moines Register, Dave Price, political director and anchor at WHO-TV in Des Moines and Brianne Pfannenstiel, chief political reporter for The Des Moines Register.

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


Henderson: There's a lot going on in the Iowa legislature. Several national republicans are visiting the state about a year out from the 2024 Iowa Caucuses. We'll talk about all of that, and maybe more, with a group of busy political reporters on this edition of Iowa Press.


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

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you political leaders and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Celebrating 50 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa PBS, this is the Friday, February 17th edition of Iowa Press. Here is Kay Henderson.


Henderson: The pace of legislation moving through the Iowa General Assembly has really picked up in the past few weeks. And this coming week there is going to be a little bit more activity from the presidential candidates who want the votes of Iowa republicans who will be caucusing less than a year from now. We've assembled a group of political reporters to talk about all that.

Henderson: Joining us here at the Iowa Press table are Brianne Pfannenstiel, she is the Chief Politics Reporter for the Des Moines Register. Dave Price is the Political Director for WHO-TV 13 in Des Moines. On the other side of the table we have Erin Murphy. He is the Des Moines Bureau Chief for the Gazette in Cedar Rapids. And Stephen Gruber-Miller is the Statehouse Reporter for the Des Moines Register.

Henderson: Brianne, let's start with you. At the beginning of this month, the Democratic National Committee met, they took a vote and they sort of killed the Iowa Democratic Party's Caucuses. Bring us up to speed.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. So we've been following this for a long time. The Democratic National Committee took its final vote. They stripped Iowa of its first-in-the-nation status, moved it back to Super Tuesday or beyond, replacing it with South Carolina. You know, this is not good for Iowa democrats who were hoping to hang onto that. But we're still seeing some activity. The new Chair, Rita Hart, who has been elected since we last spoke, has said that this isn't the final nail in the coffin. Iowa democrats are going to try to find another way to be in the mix, whether that is holding an unsanctioned caucus, perhaps doing some kind of early voting plan that lets people caucus by mail before the actual in-person caucus date. But I think we can pretty safely say that the heyday of the Iowa Democratic Caucus is over.

Henderson: Is there any oxygen in this corpse?

Murphy: Well, I think to elaborate on what Brianne was talking about there, what makes the caucuses the caucuses are the candidates coming to Iowa. So Iowa democrats could very well do the things that Brianne was describing, but it's not the caucuses if candidates aren't coming here. And it's unlikely they will because another element that they put into the new rules are punishments for, potential punishments, for candidates who do that, who go to states that don't have a sanctioned early waiver. They might not be able to participate in debates, for example.

Price: And, what if Joe Biden runs again and no one else does on that side? What does it matter?

Murphy: At least for another four years beyond 2024.

Price: Yeah, and then you can have this fight again perhaps down the road. But if he does run and there is no real credible alternative, it's not going to matter too much for now.

Henderson: So, Stephen, Joe Biden recommended this schedule of states having South Carolina's primary go first. You covered Joe Biden last time around during the Iowa Caucuses. He didn't finish well here.

Gruber-Miller: No, not at all. He called Iowa a gut punch, if I remember the phrase correctly. I think he came in fourth. And yeah, that is what has been clear throughout this process is that it is Joe Biden's preference that Iowa not go first. And so as he is gearing up to announce for re-election, he doesn't want to come back here I guess.

Price: He should bring Barack Obama with him. That's when he does well here.

Gruber-Miller: That's right. The three times he has run for President he has not had success in the Iowa Caucuses. So, he'd rather go back to South Carolina where they welcomed him more warmly.

Henderson: Erin, our guest on Iowa Press last week was Iowa GOP Chairman Jeff Kaufmann and the Iowa Republican Party will be holding caucuses first-in-the-nation. He said some kind of interesting things about that process.

Murphy: Yeah, and because now we have a scenario where republicans will be casting presidential preferences and the democrats may or may not, even if they are it won't really matter, at least to the national party. You could have two different systems and it opens the door to democrats being able to sneak over to the republican caucuses and participate there and maybe because of genuine interest and maybe because of nefarious motives. But it was interesting to hear Chairman Kaufmann talk about that very possibility and without offering much in the way of details he did say that they are exploring ways to address and kind of prevent that kind of thing from happening. He also talked a lot about -- and the folks who did a great job here on the panel asking him about it -- asked him about the security of the caucuses and we've had obviously close on both sides outcomes in both party's caucuses in recent years, election results are obviously a much more interesting topic in the last four or five years. So it was interesting to hear him talk about the steps they're taking to ensure that once a winner is pronounced and the results are announced that people can be confident in that announcement in so much as people are confident in election results these days.

Price: And the tricky part of this is that this could be, and looks like it will be for the first time since '76, they always did it on the same day, right, since '76, so first time since '72 I guess you would say where it could be on different days and frankly it will be different months here. So what is to stop you from caucusing for a republican candidate in February and then a democratic candidate in March or April or whenever the heck it's going to be? And that is what Chairman Kaufmann has to try to figure out, especially since these are party functions, which might make it a little trickier to try to prevent this kind of thing.

Henderson: Dave, let's talk about what's coming in the week ahead. There will be two South Carolinians here.

Price: Indeed. They should just come together. I think that would make this fascinating.

Henderson: I don't think that's going to happen.

Price: Probably not. So Nikki Haley, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, former Governor in South Carolina, she is already officially in so she is here Monday night in Urbandale and then heads off to Marion the next day. And then on Wednesday of next week it's the sitting U.S. Senator Tim Scott, who has not declared yet. So, to me it's fascinating that you have these two people from the same state here within essentially the same window at two different parts of the campaign, one who is formally in and one who is trying to figure out is there room for him. And the messaging of both of these will be fascinating, not to mention the reception.

Henderson: Well, and Brianne, I've been covering Senator Tim Scott in the state of Iowa for years.

Pfannenstiel: Right, this is not his first trip to the state. He has been here a number of times over the past couple of years. Honestly, I remember seeing him in the Cedar Rapids area, he was campaigning on behalf of U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson. So, he'll be back and he's coming also on the heels of some events last week. Kari Lake, the Arizona gubernatorial candidate who lost her election and is challenging that through the courts was here and she had a pretty large crowd, 200, maybe 300 people in the Ankeny area. And so a lot of people are wondering, Nikki Haley is an actual declared candidate, so what is her reception going to be? Can she challenge that?

Henderson: You mentioned Cedar Rapids. You were in Cedar Rapids this past week with former Vice President Mike Pence who, again, is not saying hey, I'm an official candidate, but he sounds like a candidate.

Pfannenstiel: Right, we're awash in all of these candidates who are not officially running for President. Funny story though, Perry Johnson, who is a Michigan politician who tried to run for Governor there was actually at the Mike Pence event and he has declared he is running for President. Iowans may have seen his Super Bowl ad. So he was there kind of piggybacking off of Mike Pence's organization. But Mike Pence was in Cedar Rapids. He was rallying Iowa parents around a parents rights agenda. We've seen all of these conversations about public schools and what is being taught in public schools and particularly in the Cedar Rapids area, the Linn-Mar Community School District has been under scrutiny for a transgender affirming policy that it has had allowing students to create a gender support plan to work with teachers and their peers to use the appropriate bathrooms and to have their pronouns respected, that kind of thing. And so this is something that Mike Pence has latched onto. He was there with Ashley Hinson, who represents that district, kind of rallying parents around this idea that schools are becoming too woke, that these policies need to be reversed and parents need to be given more control. So, he had a much smaller crowd than Kari Lake, if we're talking crowd sizes. He had several dozen people there kind of crowded into a smaller space so there was some energy but people there by and large said we're interested in Mike Pence, we like the guy. Will we caucus for him if he decides to run? To be seen.

Murphy: Classic caucus question for you, Brianne, because I wasn't there. Were there more media or public members at that Mike Pence event?

Pfannenstiel: I was trying to decide. It was pretty evenly divided between media and people there to see Mike Pence.

Murphy: That's a caucus event right there.

Price: He's in such a tough spot, though, figuring out where he fits into this. He literally had people who had previously voted for him calling for his execution during the attack on the Capitol, the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. So where does he fit into this? He seems to be in a real tough spot.

Murphy: That's the question for all of them, though, isn't it? Everyone who is not Donald Trump, where do they fit into this? And how do they separate themselves from that pack?

Price: I just feel like it's harder for him. I mean, there were people literally going in there at least saying they wanted him dead. Right? I mean, not to make fun of this. But for Haley, who worked for Trump, for Mike Pompeo, who worked for Trump, they have their own things to figure out. But Pence really seems to be in a box.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. Many of these potential candidates worked for the former President, so they're going to have to figure out how to tout their accomplishments in that administration while also distancing themselves from a competitor.

Henderson: Stephen, Brianne mentioned gender identify, parents rights. At the Iowa Statehouse, the legislature has been having discussions about bills on those topics.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, that's right. And this event from Pence really fits into that and talking about how you set yourself apart, you choose a new cause to champion. So this was something that Governor Kim Reynolds really campaigned on in 2022, a number of republican legislators did as well. But they want to prohibit schools from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation in elementary school, perhaps through sixth grade. The Governor just yesterday told some of us reporters that sixth grade is maybe a compromise that she sees between there was a proposal at third and a proposal at eighth grade. And so they don't want students to be taught about these things. They talk about parental control of their student's education. They want parents to be informed. So they have been very critical of that Linn-Mar district policy and they want parents to be told right away if a student wants to use different pronouns or thinks that they are transgender to avoid the type of policy that Linn-Mar is talking about.

Henderson: And these are discussions happening not just in the Iowa Capitol but in capitols all across the country. And this past week I covered a couple of subcommittee hearings at which there were discussion of bills that would limit state agencies and pension funds from investing in using investment firms that have what is called an ESG policy, which the Governor's legislative liaison called a woke ideology. The bill would actually prohibit using investment firms at the state level that would have, are boycotting fossil fuels or they are boycotting the gun industry. And also there was another discussion about restricting the Board of Regents and diversity, equity and inclusion programs on those three campuses. So, Brianne, we're seeing this happen all across the country and it sort of feeds into the presidential discussion because Ron DeSantis in many ways is sort of fostering that discussion in Florida.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. Ron DeSantis in Florida is kind of the celebrity of the right, right now. And so I think we're seeing a lot of governors, a lot of state legislators, look to him for ideas about how to implement some of these things in their own states. And so Iowa is certainly no exception. I think we've seen Governor DeSantis talk about this. We saw Mike Pence talk about these issues the other day. I would be shocked if we don't hear Nikki Haley and Tim Scott talk about them as well.

Henderson: Erin, there is a lot to discuss because there's a lot of bill there. It's the Governor's reorganization bill, sometimes called realignment, it's 1,500, 1,600 pages. Have you read it?

Murphy: I bought the cliff notes explanation and even that is 800 pages. So yeah, as you said, almost literally a 1,600 page bill. I haven't been doing this a super long time but long enough to say that it's just amazing the size and scope of this legislation that would sort of reorganize state government. You mentioned some of the flash words that people use, streamline, reorganize, realign. Whatever it is, in essence what it's doing is taking a tree that maybe is like this and pruning it to look a little bit more like this. And it is reducing the number of department heads and taking existing departments, boards, commissions and moving them under fewer agencies who then report to --

Henderson: A flow chart.

Murphy: -- yeah, who then report more directly to the Governor. So the Governor says that this is needed because, first of all, it hasn't been done in I believe since the '80s, a comprehensive look at state government like this anyway, and that ultimately the overarching goal is to have more people directly reporting to the Governor and by doing that you are, again, the argument being made that you are making the executive branch of government more accountable to the Governor who is then accountable to the people through elections. Critics of the proposal, including democrats obviously, say another way to describe that is it is giving more power, more authority to the Governor. So that is the kind of debate that is taking place as legislators work through this massive piece of legislation.

Henderson: Stephen, in the 1990s, former Governor Terry Branstad assembled a group to sort of cull through state government and pick and choose things that should be canceled or done away with. As you read and others read this, the debate seems to not be about doing away with things, but about changing the way things operate, correct?

Gruber-Miller: Correct. And that's the interesting part because Governor Reynolds has put this message out there about it's time to look at how Iowa does things, it's time -- it's been 40 years since we assessed how we do things. And she talks about making government smaller, but the other selling point here is that she says that they can do this without firing people, without laying them off. And so I think there's a lot of details still to be worked out about who goes where and to what departments? Is it really shrinking government or is it just shrinking sort of at the top the number of department leaders? And Erin mentioned kind of the big picture debate about is this just more power for the Governor? But there's dozens and dozens of smaller impact about in this department we do things this way and it affects the people that we serve and those conversations will be playing out too as we continue discussing this bill.

Henderson: Dave, you were there, as were I and Erin and Stephen, as the Governor signed a bill into law this past week that deals with medical malpractice.

Price: Can I do a P.S. on that?

Henderson: Sure.

Price: I think also there is a financial side to this too, that they are going to have to find cost savings realistically as they look down the road and revenues will be curtailed by these tax cuts. So they will have to find some of these efficiencies perhaps to make some of the numbers add up. The medical malpractice was so interesting in that you've been covering the legislature longer than we have, but the disagreement among particularly in the House when they debated this, the very personal emotional disagreements that we witnessed in public -- it's one thing to have some of this stuff going on in the private caucus meetings, but right out there on the House floor when they debated whether to limit the non-economic damage caps as part of medical malpractice cases.

Henderson: Well, and you had Representative Mark Cisneros from Muscatine stand up and say hey, you don't have to do what the leaders tell you to do.

Price: Exactly. Brian Lohse from the Des Moines area was also against this. So in the end I believe it was about one in five House republicans chose not to go where the majority did. So they capped it if you're involved in these on the non-economic side of things $2 million if a hospital is involved, $1 million if it's a clinic or a doctor. But I just thought that was one of those rare kind of raw, real moments we saw out there where the family is disagreeing in public. Now then fast forward -- and there was a little disagreement in the Senate but it was more overwhelming that vote perhaps --

Murphy: Well, I'm sorry, I was going to say the voting blocks that were shown here, only republicans supported, there was only one democrat who voted for it. But the voting against it was by democrats and then the more social kind of socially conservative wing of the Republican Party. So you had democrats and that group of republicans voting together on a bill, which was fascinating to see. But the opposition there among that conservative group was the argument that this proposal, this legislation, essentially places a monetary value on a human's life, which they took exception to.

Gruber-Miller: When you talk about the disagreement spilling into the public, it really illustrates the fact that since republicans have expanded their majorities last year, they're able to do things this year that they couldn't before. Representative Cisneros got up there and said, we killed this bill before, we stopped it, but they weren't able to do that this year even though 11 of them voted no.

Price: And this was a Governor priority and it underscores her power right now.

Henderson: There was this past week a group of 22 House republicans, including the Speaker of the House, who proposed a series of 9 different ways to impose new regulations on the development of carbon capture pipelines. Stephen, the Governor seemed to be a bit reluctant about that.

Gruber-Miller: Yeah, she said that we'll take a look at it but she really emphasized the importance of ethanol and agriculture to Iowa's economy and so I think that the takeaway that I received from that is that she wants to do what she can to strengthen the ethanol industry, which is the argument of these companies that are seeking to build these pipelines. So, farmers and other landowners across Iowa are afraid that the state utilities board will grant these private companies power to take their land, compensate them but take their land even if they don't want to sell it. So what these House republicans, including the Speaker, are doing is saying, hey, there need to be a lot of guardrails up before you are allowed to ask for that power. You need to get 90% approval from landowners. You need to do things like get every permit you need in another state before you can ask for a permit in Iowa. You need to be in compliance with local county ordinances, which has been a tension point. So there's really a range of concerns. And what they're saying is they want to protect landowners. But we've kind of had this discussion before, the House tried to do something less expansive, but tried to do something last year on eminent domain and it was stripped out at the Senate budget that eventually passed. And so we'll have to see how this goes over in the Senate.

Murphy: And I can't help but wonder -- and I apologize, this is the cynic in me coming out -- but this bill the House republicans proposed is pretty strong, some pretty tall regulations, requirements that these companies would have to get to. I can't help but wonder if they know the Governor's feeling on this issue and that she's not going to sign something like this, likely, and that gives them cover to propose it, they can go back to their constituents and say hey, we tried, look at this bill that we introduced, knowing that it's not likely to become law.

Price: For sure, when Steve Holt talked about this, this past week though, he was not overselling its chances of getting through his own caucus in the House, and especially getting through the Senate. This didn't sound like one of those things that is already worked out, that they know is going to make it through.

Pfannenstiel: I mean, talk about issues that divide the republican caucus in interesting ways, right? We see a lot of republicans who oppose eminent domain on the side of environmentalists who don't want to see this go through. And to see those people on the same side of a debate is fascinating. And so to watch this move through the legislature and all of those different factions kind of play out, and I'm not sure the Governor wants to take sides. You've got republicans who oppose eminent domain, which is a big issue here in Iowa. You've got the ethanol industry. And how do you choose between those things? So I think a win for Governor Reynolds here is to not have to decide.

Henderson: Earlier this year the Governor signed into law a bill that creates state-funded education savings accounts. That happened since we last had one of these confabs of statehouse and political reporters. Brianne, what does that tell us about what is going on with the Governor and her influence?

Pfannenstiel: I think it shows that the Governor just has an exceptional amount of power right now. This was, again, another issue that divided the republican caucus. She weighed in during the primaries to oppose those who were against her plan. They lost their primaries. Governor Reynolds won by almost 20 percentage points. So that really was kind of an exclamation point for her to come into this session and say, listen, here's my agenda. I was elected. I helped all of these people get elected. And we're going to move this through. And so she did that and so she's riding really high right now in terms of the amount of power that she has in the legislature, but also as the national spotlight is turning to Iowa for the caucuses.

Henderson: And we have about a minute left. Brianne, you recently talked to her about that.

Pfannenstiel: That's exactly right. She said she's not planning to be any kind of kingmaker or to try to sway the outcome of the caucuses. She thinks it's more important to have a level playing field. But I think we'll certainly see her on the campaign trail with these candidates and they'll be trying to get her ear.

Henderson: So, does anyone at this table think Kim Reynolds will endorse a candidate right before the caucuses?

Price: No.

Gruber-Miller: No.

Pfannenstiel: No.

Murphy: No.

Henderson: So what does that bring her as a Governor and an influencer if she doesn't endorse?

Price: A job in DC later maybe?

Gruber-Miller: She has the ear of every candidate, not just one.

Henderson: Exactly. So, is there a candidate out there that we're not paying attention to in the way that no one paid attention to Donald Trump in 2015 at this point?

Price: I think there might be and I think there is a group of republicans trying to find that person.

Henderson: Well --

Murphy: I was just going to say, the other thing to remember is Ron DeSantis is very powerful right now. Look back to previous cycles and look at the candidate who was the popular pick at this point in the cycle and see how many of them went on to be the nominee. Not very many.

Henderson: Well, folks, thanks for sharing your views on this edition of Iowa Press. I've got something to tell our loyal viewers. Just a quick programming note, Iowa Press will be off the air for the next two weeks. Iowa PBS will be bringing you special Festival programming and coverage of the Iowa High School Girls Basketball Tournament. So you can watch that on Fridays, the next two coming up. 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.

Elite Casino Resorts is rooted in Iowa. Elite was founded 30 years ago in Dubuque and owned by 1,200 Iowans from more than 45 counties. With resorts in Riverside, Davenport and Larchwood, Iowa, Elite is committed to the communities we serve.

Across Iowa, hundreds of neighborhood banks strive to serve their communities, provide jobs and help local businesses. Iowa banks are proud to back the life you build. Learn more at