Government

Iowa governor candidates making final pitches

In a close race, swaying undecided voters is key

Fred Hubbell, left, is challenging Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, in the Nov. 6 election. (Gazette photos)
Fred Hubbell, left, is challenging Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, in the Nov. 6 election. (Gazette photos)

WEST DES MOINES — On May 9, 2017, Fred Hubbell announced he was considering a run for governor.

Two weeks and a day later, Kim Reynolds was promoted from lieutenant to governor.

They have been campaigning ever since — now roughly 18 months.

And in just more than a week, voters will choose one of them to lead Iowa for the next four years.

Reynolds, the Republican successor incumbent, and Hubbell, the Democratic challenger, have entered the closing arguments phase of their campaigns. The television advertisements have been running for months. Debates are finished. Early voting is underway.

All that remains in what scant polling and most political watchers agree is a very close race is for the candidates to finish the marathon with a closing sprint in which they emphasize what they deem to be the most critical messages that can help their campaigns. This is one last chance for them to connect with voters before the Nov. 6 Election Day.

Both are taking their messages straight to the voters. This past week, Hubbell and Reynolds kicked off bus tours that will take them across the state, with multiple stops planned each day.

Reynolds launched her campaign-closing tour at a gathering of supporters at a barbecue restaurant in West Des Moines. Standing on a chair so everyone could see her and braced by running mate Adam Gregg, the former state public defender, Reynolds told supporters her administration is getting things done while her opponent wants to take the state backward, and that under her leadership Iowa’s taxes are going down and incomes are going up.

Tax rates and the state’s economy are two of Reynolds’ top focal points as she makes her closing argument. She stresses the state income tax cuts adopted by the Republican-led Iowa Legislature and signed into law by her, and asserts Hubbell wants to raise taxes by repealing some of those cuts.

Reynolds also points to the state’s balanced budget — which is required by law — and its $127 million surplus, though that comes after two cycles of midyear budget cuts. She notes independent organizations have given Iowa high marks in areas like best places to live and good state management.

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“We’re going to keep Iowa moving,” she told reporters at her bus tour kickoff event, using the campaign slogan that doubles as an acronym for her first name.

The classic right direction vs. wrong direction argument has been an underlying theme to most issues in the race between the two.

“The choice is very clear, I think: Do we build on the success that we’ve seen over the last couple years or do we stop and reverse course?” Reynolds asked. “I believe Iowa’s heading in the right direction. It’s been reflected by a lot of third-party validation. And we want to keep building on that.”

Hubbell kicked off his bus tour a day earlier just outside the Iowa Capitol in which he hopes to begin working next year. Hubbell was joined by running mate and state Sen. Rita Hart, but the first speakers at their rally were Iowans impacted by privatized Medicaid and higher college tuition.

Those personal stories of struggle have been at the heart of Hubbell’s campaign, especially over Medicaid. Since the state in 2016 turned management of the $5 billion government health care program for disabled and low-income Iowans over to private management, hundreds of participants and family members have decried a reduction in health care services and an increase in denied payments.

Medicaid, mental health care and public education funding have been central tenets of Hubbell’s campaign, and they continue to be as he makes his closing argument. He portrays those services as in need of repair and says he would make the changes while Reynolds would offer only more of the same.

“It’s time to change the direction of our state — put people first and give people the health care and the education that they deserve, invest in our communities so we can make Iowa a great place to live and work and retire,” he told reporters before getting on his campaign bus.

Hubbell also pushed back at the suggestion he would have to raise taxes to accomplish what he has pledged.

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“We don’t have to raise taxes to do it, by the way,” Hubbell said. “We’re going to be smart about how we invest in our mental health and the reversing privatization of Medicaid, and we’re going to stop those wasteful tax giveaways.”

Libertarian candidate Jake Porter said he continues to stress criminal justice reform, a central issue of his third-party campaign. Libertarians earned a spot on the Iowa ballot as an official party after their performance in the 2016 elections, and Porter said he believes he and other Libertarian candidates will fare well enough to remain on the ballot after 2018.

“I am talking about criminal justice reform. I believe that I can force whoever wins to address the issue next year,” Porter said in a statement. “I am also pointing out that we can win by doing well enough in the election that it forces the Democrats and Republicans to adopt our ideas, and it keeps our major party status.”

While most voters have made up their minds — and many have already voted — the small sliver of undecided voters could still have an impact on the race, elections experts said.

In the only Iowa Poll on the race in the general election, published in late September, Hubbell was chosen by 43 percent of respondents, Reynolds by 41 percent and Porter by 7 percent. The other 9 percent were undecided.

If the race indeed is that close, late-breaking voters could be a deciding factor. But it is difficult to say how those late-breaking voters may go in Iowa’s gubernatorial election, said Ann Selzer, whose company runs the Iowa Poll.

In her appearance on this weekend’s episode of “Iowa Press” on Iowa Public Television, Selzer said late-deciding voters typically break against the incumbent, but noted that Reynolds is not a traditional incumbent. She was promoted into the job and not directly chosen by voters.

“People always wonder and ask me, well which way do (late-deciding voters) break? And the answer is, I can line up for you 100 different races and have a different story for how they race. But our rule of thumb is that if there is an incumbent then people know the incumbent well enough to know if they’re going to vote for that person or not. And so if they’re undecided, they’re probably not going to break for the incumbent,” Selzer said.

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“That’s the conventional wisdom. There are plenty of situations where that doesn’t appear to have happened. But Kim Reynolds is not exactly an incumbent. She holds the title but she has not won the seat in her own right. So I think this will be an interesting test.”

Dennis Goldford, a political-science professor at Drake University, said in past races where candidates like U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley or then-Gov. Terry Branstad held strong leads, late-breaking voters did not influence the outcome.

“But in a close race like this, a feather on the scale makes the difference,” Goldford said. “Which is they they’re both scrambling.”

And even just one week — in which the candidates will be barnstorming the state — is enough time for the needle to move, he said.

“So there’s time for a shift,” Goldford said, “even if you allow for there’s not as many fence-sitters as there used to be.”

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