Government

Political parties awaiting voters' verdict

In Iowa, decision rests with biggest block: independents

The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)
The dome of the State Capitol building in Des Moines is shown on Tuesday, January 13, 2015. (Adam Wesley/The Gazette)

WAUKEE — Republicans and Democrats say Tuesday’s general election will be a referendum for Iowa voters, but for very different reasons.

For Republicans, who engineered a Statehouse takeover two years ago, Senate President Charles Schneider, R-West Des Moines, said the vote will be an opportunity for Iowans to validate pro-business, pro-growth action taken by Gov. Kim Reynolds and majority GOP legislators that have the state and its economy headed in the right direction.

For Democrats, state party Chairman Troy Price said it will be a chance for Iowa voters to weigh in on GOP changes that have dramatically affected their lives — from privatizing Medicaid in 2016 to rolling back local minimum wage increases to altering the laws on workers’ compensation and public sector collective bargaining.

And, for the independents who make up the largest bloc in a traditionally purple state, the choice will come down to which party has made the best case.

As of Nov. 1, a total of 2,013,141 Iowans had registered to vote, according to the Iowa Secretary of State’s office. Of those, 719,889 list no political party affiliation, 649,944 registered as Republicans, 627,431 registered as Democrats, 13,018 registered as Libertarians and 2,859 as other.

“Nationally, there is a bit of a blue wave (for Democrats), but how big that wave is unknown,” said Kelly Winfrey, interim director of Iowa State University’s Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics. “I don’t know that that wave is as big in Iowa. Things look pretty close in general, so it’s pretty hard to say.”

Iowans — who are allowed to register to vote on Election Day — will be asked to decide whether to keep in place the state’s first female governor in Reynolds or oust a sitting incumbent for the first time since 2010 by replacing her with Democrat Fred Hubbell, a Des Moines business executive making his first bid for public office.

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Also in play Tuesday are four U.S. House seats, five other statewide executive offices and control of the Iowa Legislature. All 100 members of the Iowa House now controlled by Republicans 59-41 and half of the 50-member Senate now split 29-20-1, with Republicans in control, are up for grabs.

“It’s about turnout, it’s about turnout, it’s about turnout,” said Reynolds, who stood atop a chair in working to pump up supporters at a recent Waukee rally that kicked off a statewide bus tour to close out her campaign. Reynolds has held the state’s top executive position as Iowa’s 43rd governor since May 2017 when then-Gov. Terry Branstad resigned to become President Donald Trump’s U.S. ambassador to China.

The governor’s race in Iowa is the most-expensive in state history. Both major political parties have invested heavily in get-out the vote efforts and campaign advertisements that have been bombarding TV and radio airwaves.

Also, the Libertarian Party in Iowa has fielded a slate of candidates that has expanded voter engagement and a number of auxiliary groups focused on specific issues are operating through social media and other means to encourage participation in a non-presidential election year.

Mack Shelley, a professor who chairs the ISU political science department, said voter participation in midterm elections typically is “not very robust.” Democratic hopes for a blue wave would have to come from a high turnout among women voters supporting their candidates and young voters who make up a significant number of those registered but actually show up to vote in smaller numbers.

“Young people are unreliable voters,” noted Winfrey. “Historically, younger people are less politically engaged just because of where they are in their lives.”

Several groups have made concerted efforts to mobilize young voters in the wake of highly publicized school shootings, but Winfrey said interest appears to have somewhat waned. “It’s a factor, but I don’t think it’s as big of a factor as it would have been if we would have had the election a year ago,” she said.

However, Haley Hager, Iowa youth director for NextGen America — progressive Democrat billionaire Tom Steyer’s youth vote organization — said her group has registered more than 14,000 Iowans in the 18-35 age range and she expects they will have an impact.

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Shelley said issues surrounding Iowa’s Medicaid privatization have the potential for a major impact, especially in the governor’s race, because health care and jobs are top concerns for Iowans.

“I do think the Medicaid issue is one of the most important issues for Iowans in this election cycle, particularly those that maybe are more independent or more moderate Republicans or Democrats that would be likely to cross party lines,” said Winfrey. “It is one of the most important issues for what would be swing voters in Iowa.”

Medicaid privatization has been a point of problems and criticism since its April 2016 rollout under Branstad’s direction. Reynolds has acknowledged shortcomings but says she’s fixing the system and stands behind privatization as a way to keep Medicaid sustainable and save state.

Hubbell counters that placing Medicaid under the control of privately run for-profit managed care organizations was a mistake that has produced many woes for clients and providers, but no savings for the state.

Kirk Norris of the Iowa Hospital Association, speaking at The Gazette’s Iowa Ideas conference in September, said his 118 member hospitals still are having issues getting reimbursed by the two managed care companies that contract with the state, and he doubts the privatized approach is costing less than did the fee-for-service model used under the state-run approach.

The privatized Medicaid program, which offers care for more than 700,000 poor and disabled Iowans, has taken vocal criticism from members who say their services were unfairly cut and from providers that say their insurance claims were not paid in a timely manner or at all.

“This is a referendum on this Medicaid privatization disaster that’s literally costing people their lives,” Price said of Tuesday’s vote. “Yes, this is going to be a referendum of the Republican policies and they’re not going to like the result come Election Day.”

Other health issues that will factor into the governor and legislative contests are GOP passage of what is viewed as the most-restrictive abortion law in the country, and the defunding of Planned Parenthood clinics accompanied by a significant drop in usage of family planning services — two changes that Reynolds supported and Hubbell opposed.

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Groups both opposed to and in support of abortion rights have contributed heavily and are actively involved in direct mail, phone-bank, door-knocking and voter mobilization efforts.

“Iowa right now is ground zero,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of National Abortion Rights Action League Pro-Choice America.

Bob Vander Plaats, head of The Family Leader, said both sides of the abortion issue are energized and are investing heavily in the outcome.

“I think the life community is going to turn out in a big way and midterms are all about turnout,” said Vander Plaats, who was on the 2006 Iowa midterm ballot as a lieutenant governor candidate. ”It’s not about winning the majority of registered voters, it’s about winning the majority of those who vote.”

Likewise, Danny Homan, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 61, said Republican action the past two years to “gut” Iowa’s collective bargaining law for public employees, scale back workers’ compensation provisions and roll back wages in counties with higher thresholds than the statewide hourly minimum of $7.25 has “galvanized” organized labor and advocates for working-class Iowans.

“People are upset,” said Homan. “People feel under attack.”

But Schneider countered by saying wages in the marketplace are on the way up in Iowa while state taxes will be on the way down beginning in January, thanks to GOP policies in place.

He said Iowa is ranked the best state overall with the second-lowest cost of doing business and the second-lowest unemployment rate at 2.5 percent, as well as the third-best managed state with a $127 million budget surplus after a rocky period of midyear cuts and adjustments that continues to fund priorities of education, health care and public safety.

Republicans also say steps were taken to expand Iowa’s skilled workforce, enact a comprehensive mental health plan, address opioid addiction, set local sanctions for failure to enforce immigration laws and expand gun rights to include a “stand your ground” provision that states a law-abiding citizen does not have a duty to retreat in a public place before using deadly force when confronted with danger to life or property.

“Iowa is moving in a positive direction by all measures,” Schneider said.

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Winfrey said Republicans have done a good job in their campaign messaging by touting economic pluses that resonate with voters.

“One of the biggest predictors of incumbents winning re-election is the state of the economy and how people feel about their personal financial security,” she said. “If voters feel like things are going pretty well for them, then they’re less likely to take a chance on something new.”

However, Shelley said the economic situation is affecting people differently and somewhat unevenly, casting a view among some that “the economy’s doing great. There are plenty of jobs and I’ve got three of them.”

Hubbell said most Iowans understand that wages are too low, incomes are stagnant and their taxes aren’t going down this year as the Republicans claim.

“This economy that the governor likes so well is working for big business, it’s working for the wealthy but it’s not working for the rest of Iowans,” he said.

Vander Plaats said he believes Iowa Republicans are “coming home” to support the party as the 2018 campaign winds down, but he noted instantaneous news cycles and developments amplified by social media cast a degree of uncertainty.

“Even though I think people are kind of locking into their camps, I think there’s still fluidity before Tuesday’s election,” he said.

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