Hopes for non-negative campaign already fading

Composite image of Fred Hubbell (left) and Gov. Kim Reynolds (right).
Composite image of Fred Hubbell (left) and Gov. Kim Reynolds (right).

CEDAR RAPIDS — Coming off a six-way Democratic primary in which none of the candidates went negative, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller predicted it will be hard for either side to sling mud in the contest between Gov. Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell.

It was “incredibly noteworthy” there was not one negative ad in the race for his party’s nomination for governor, the nine-term Democrat said.

“That’s extremely unusual and very healthy,” said Miller, 73, who is running for a tenth term.

He expects campaigns will try to go negative, “but I don’t think that negative ads are going to carry the day.”

“Against Fred, the whole idea that he’s rich and you should vote against him I don’t think is going to work.” Miller said. “Fred has had an accomplished life, he’s running a strong, relative positive campaign.

“Gov. Reynolds is a very likable person so it’s going to be hard to be, I think, effectively negative against either one of them,” he said.

It may not be as hard as Miller thinks to go negative for a variety of reasons.

First, Donna Hoffman, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa, noted that intraparty campaigns are different from general election battles, so it’s unlikely the good behavior will continue.


Dennis Goldford, Drake University political science professor, allowed that Miller may be right that the Reynolds and Hubbell organizations choose to keep the contest positive, but campaigns operate at more than one level — one for the campaigns themselves and another for independent and outside groups.

“It’s the independents that generally go negative,” he said. “I would expect that the latter, if not also the former, to be the case this time around.”

So even if the candidates’ choose to run positive campaigns, “that’s not generally going to be true of others who want to influence the election outcome,” Hoffman said. And voters don’t always distinguish the candidates’ ads and the outside groups’ ad.

Her colleague in the UNI political science department, Chris Larimer, anticipates a “very negative campaign” as both sides attempt to associate their opponent with negative personalities and issues.

Democrats, Larimer said, will seek to link Reynolds to President Donald Trump and issues unpopular with their base, such as restrictions on abortion and collective bargaining, and management of Medicaid and the state budget.

On the other hand, Larimer said, Republicans will focus on Hubbell “being out of touch with everyday Iowans.”

“Even if such comparisons are simply comparisons, the intent is negative and the negativity is likely to escalate quickly,” Larimer said.

Goldford cited Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann’s references to ‘Sir Frederick’ as examples of the negative tone he anticipates.


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From the other direction, the Iowa Democratic Party has attacked Reynolds’ “extreme record and policy agenda” that, according to Hubbell’s campaign chairwoman, former Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, has taken the state “backwards.”

Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State University political science professor, agreed with Miller that it was amazing that Democrats didn’t go negative against each other. However, he doesn’t expect the general election campaign to be fought on the high road “because the general election is between true adversaries.”

“The minute any campaign goes south (as they already are!) the whole season goes negative and into the mud!” he wrote in an email.

Although Michelle Obama’s “when they go low we go high” description of Democratic campaigning sounds good, it’s unrealistic, Schmidt said.

“In politics, when you are attacked you counterattack in less than 12 hours every time or you lose,” he said. “The reason it is critically important to push back immediately against your opponent is because in the era of fake news people will believe what is being thrown at you UNLESS you strike back.”

He predicted Iowa’s four United States House races and the governor’s race in Iowa “will be the most expensive and intense in history with sharp, ‘comparative’ themes — ‘my adversary is a corrupt, incompetent, fool who will or has destroyed the state.’

“The negative ads have already been scripted and even produced and are locked and loaded ready to be fired,” Schmidt said.

To some degree, Goldford and Schmidt blame President Donald Trump for the tone of campaigns. Goldford called the campaign rhetoric Iowans are hearing as a sign “the Trump approach has begun to legitimize nasty, ad hominem attacks.”


“After all,” Schmidt added, “Trump proved that brutal attacks work in the GOP primary and against Hillary Clinton.”

Des Moines Bureau Chief Rod Boshart contributed to this report

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