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Great mentions and trial balloons: What’s going on in Iowa politics?

6/2/2021

Reporter Jim Flansburg’s mind and notebooks were filled with the odd fact, the strong suspicion, the half-story that he never could develop into a piece that would stand alone in The Register. Yet the stuff was usually interesting — it made great newsroom and barroom speculation and debate in those heady years of the 1960s and 1970s before newspapers withered and politics became a blood sport.

So he invented “Great Mentions and Trial Balloons,” a section of his Monday political column that let him empty his mind and notebooks with stuff that alone wouldn’t make a story. Often a mixture of rumor, fact and speculation, it always was interesting. If he were writing today — he died in 2019 at age 87 — he’d be having a field day with Iowa politics and politicians.

So with a nod to him, here’s a Great Mentions and Trial Balloons:

Is 87-year-old Chuck Grassley going to run again? 

The “yes” people say he still likes the job, that he expects the Republicans to be back in the majority where he can be president pro tem of the Senate again, with all those perks, that he likes to set records (if he were re-elected, and if he served out an 8th six-year term, he’d end up being the second oldest person ever to have served in the Senate (Strom Thurmond was still in the Senate at age 100) and the third-longest-serving member in the history of the Republic (behind Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii). They say Iowans still view him as the protector of the national till, the eagle-eyed guy who looks for the $7,600 coffee-makers, the $999 screwdrivers and the $1,868 toilet seats in the federal budget. And they insist he could easily be re-elected. 

Prep Iowa

The “no” people say he and his wife are tired of Washington and the nastiness of its politics. They say that, at 87, he’s losing a step or two. They say his re-election isn’t the given for 2022 — in a primary or a general election — that it has been every six years since 1980, when he won the first of his seven terms. Indeed, the Register’s Iowa Poll in March found that only 28% of Iowans want Grassley to run again, that 55% say he shouldn’t while 17% are unsure. They say he’s disappointed that his grandson, Iowa House Speaker Pat Grassley, is getting a divorce (Pat Grassley, 37, who has been married since 2005 and has three children, didn’t respond to a CITYVIEW question asking if he was, in fact, getting a divorce), and that a hoped-for family dynasty has died aborning. They say his budget-watchdog image has changed, that many Iowans now view him as just another Trump toady. They say Kim Reynolds could beat him in a Republican primary.

But is Reynolds going to seek another term as Governor? 

The “yes” people say, in effect, why not? She has shaped the state to her conservative likes, has rebuilt the supreme court so it lists heavily to the right, has outflanked the Democratic Attorney General and sort of neutered him, has built up a budget surplus, has played to the rich so that she’ll have no trouble raising money. She has moved way to the right and has embraced all things Trump, which, at the moment at least, endears her to the wealthy Iowans, who like her pro-business views, and the rural and small-town Iowans, who care mostly about cultural issues — abortion, transgender athletes, masks, charter schools, etc.

The “no” people say the job is wearing her out, that she’s tired and she shows it, that it’s a lot of work to be governor, that she doesn’t work well with legislators and has a weak staff, that, in fact, she doesn’t really like the job. They say her friend, Sen. Joni Ernst, is urging her to run for the Senate, for Grassley’s seat, that Reynolds is more cut out to be a legislator, not an administrator. That the spotlight would be dimmer, the pressure less if she were in the Senate. That her poll numbers aren’t that good —her approval rating has fallen to 46% from 56% in the past year, according to the Iowa Poll, and 52% of Iowans hope she decides not to run again, according to the poll. That means she could actually lose — only the second incumbent (after Chet Culver) to lose since Democrat Harold Hughes beat Republican Norman Erbe in 1962. They say she doesn’t love to campaign, the way Terry Branstad did, that she has never built a solid staff and kitchen cabinet the way he did. They repeat that, if the Democrats had a good candidate for Governor, Reynolds could lose. They admit, though, it’s unlikely the Democrats will come up with a good candidate. If she doesn’t run, they concede, it will be because she doesn’t like the job, not that she couldn’t run a good race.

But…

Can the Democrats field good candidates for Governor or the Senate? Ras Smith, the third-term Waterloo legislator, is going to run for Governor, but who outside of Black Hawk County has heard of him? Is State Auditor Rob Sand going to run — he’s raising money, but for what? A gubernatorial race? A Senate race? A rerun as Auditor, where he makes an impact and could be re-elected fairly easily. He’s young (38), smart, telegenic and married into a wealthy family. (Nixon Lauridsen is his father-in-law.) He’s from Decorah, not Des Moines, and he hunts and drives a pickup truck. He’s probably the Democrat with the best shot at Terrace Hill, but he’d need a lot of help from the party — and the state Democratic Party is in disarray. One well-connected Democrat thinks Sand will simply run again for Auditor. Another, with the same view, notes that the latest Sand fund-raising e-mails say “keep me in office.” Of course, they don’t say which office.

There’s talk Cindy Axne might run for Governor or for the Senate but why should she? She’s all but a shoo-in to be re-elected to a third term in Congress, with her Third District likely to become solidly Democratic after the reapportionment this fall. All things being equal, each of Iowa’s four Congressional districts should have 797,592 residents after reapportionment, and you can get that pretty easily with the Des Moines metro area and neighboring Story County. If she runs, she’ll probably have the field to herself — though you never know what the Eddie Mauros of Iowa will do. (Or, for that matter, the Brad Zauns of the Republican Party.)

But what about Democrat Abby Finkenauer, the young go-getter  from Dubuque who was upset last November in her effort to keep her First District Congressional seat? She could run for Governor, but she also could run for the Senate. And so could Liz Mathis of Cedar Rapids, who has been in the Iowa Senate for 10 years and whose name is always bandied about by Democrats.

Some Iowans are trying to persuade retired Admiral Mike Franken to challenge Grassley, and the other day Democratic Crawford County Supervisor and farmer Dave Muhlbauer announced a bid to take on the Senator. In 2020, Franken finished a distant second to Theresa Greenfield in the five-person primary for the Senate nomination and the right to oppose Ernst. He has told the Cedar Rapids Gazette he might consider another run.

The Democrats don’t have much of a bench. Sioux City legislator Chris Hall is sometimes mentioned as a statewide candidate for something, and the party’s leaders in the Legislature — Zach Wahls in the senate and Todd Prichard in the House — could run for bigger jobs. Wahls, a 29-year-old from Coralville,  especially, is viewed as a comer in a party with few comers.

If either the Grassley seat or the governorship opens up, there will be a zillion Republicans jumping in to run — after all, Iowa is a solidly Red state, whether Democrats want to admit that or not. There’s Iowa Senate President Jake Chapman and Senate Majority Leader Jack Whitver and Congresswoman Ashley Hinson and Lt. Gov. Adam Gregg, of course, though he seems to have been sent to the penalty box by Reynolds. Any could get the GOP gubernatorial nomination if the job were open. Mariette Miller-Meeks has proven she can win, even if just by six votes, and some see her going for more than her Second District Congressional seat, probably for the Senate if that seat should open up. The day will come when being a Trump acolyte isn’t a big plus, and Miller-Meeks took a step away the other day when she was one of just 35 Republicans to vote for the commission to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington. 

Floating above all the speculation are Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller and State Treasurer Mike Fitzgerald. Both Democrats, they have had a lock on their jobs for generations, and Republicans seem still to concede that. Miller, 76, was first elected attorney general in 1978. He quit to run for governor in 1990 — he lost in the primary to Don Avenson, who then lost to Terry Branstad — but four years later he was back as Attorney General, and he’s been there ever since. Four years ago, the Republicans didn’t even run a candidate against him.

Last year Miller became the longest-serving attorney general in the nation. Two years ago, he said he probably wouldn’t run again — something he also had said before changing his mind and running in 2018. He hasn’t announced for 2022, but friends and associates say they think he will run.

His pal Fitzgerald, now 69 and first elected in 1982, is the longest serving state treasurer in the nation. He has a great political name, and he keeps it in front of the electorate with his annual Great Iowa Treasure Hunt, which returns lost or forgotten funds to their owners. In 2018, Fitzgerald beat someone named Jeremy Davis  by 12 percentage points.

 Asked in an email by CITYVIEW if it was safe to assume he was running again, he sent  back an answer through an aide.

“Mike…wanted me to pass along that he will be running for treasurer,” she said, “if he is not running for governor.”

Oh…. ♦

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