Staff Columnist

In Iowa: Echoes of 1998 in 2018 governor's race

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, gets the ear of President Donald Trump on July 26 during the president’s roundtable discussion on workforce development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta. (Kevin E. Schmidt, Quad-City Times)
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, gets the ear of President Donald Trump on July 26 during the president’s roundtable discussion on workforce development at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta. (Kevin E. Schmidt, Quad-City Times)

About this time 20 years ago, I was sitting across a desk from Tom Vilsack at his campaign headquarters, asking him what he planned to do after the election.

The most recent polls at the time showed Vilsack trailing Republican Jim Ross Lightfoot by a country mile in the race for governor. Vilsack insisted his campaign’s polling showed a tightening race. Sure, Sure. So will it be back to the law practice, then?

Vilsack was right, of course, and he beat Lightfoot by over 5 points on Election Day.

I’ve been thinking about that campaign lately as Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds and Democratic nominee Fred Hubbell near the finish line in our current race for governor.

Of course, there are a lot of big differences between 2018 and 1998. Last weekend’s Iowa Poll gave Hubbell a narrow 43-41 percent lead over Reynolds, with Libertarian Jake Porter scoring 7 percent. So nobody is poised to blow a big lead or make a surprising comeback. It’s going to be close.

But I hear some distinct echoes, especially of the ill-fated Lightfoot campaign.

The former Republican congressman, who came very close to knocking off Tom Harkin in the 1996 U.S. Senate race, ran largely on the promise of Republican continuity. Govs. Bob Ray and Terry Branstad had run the state for 30 years, and Lightfoot would keep the franchise operating under similar management.

The Republican establishment and its bucks supported Lightfoot early and often. The economy was humming along, and the state budget was in the black.

Lightfoot’s big campaign promise was a 25 percent income tax cut, coming on the heels of Branstad’s 10 percent cut. When Vilsack started to gain ground, Lightfoot’s camp launched attack ads, including the infamous spot accusing the Democrat of favoring “totally nude dancing.” But Lightfoot’s cruise control campaign lacked a compelling, driving rationale, beyond stopping Democrats from taking Terrace Hill.

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Reynolds, too, is running largely on continuity. “Keep Iowa Moving,” her campaign promises, or else “unhinged liberals” will take over. Branstad-Reynolds has tacked eight more years on to the Republican gubernatorial franchise after a 12-year break, and now Reynolds is seeking a four-year extension. The Republican establishment and Team Branstad is doing all it can, and then some.

It’s true Reynolds, as governor and lieutenant governor, made a mark on STEM education and addressing workforce shortages. But it’s tough to find much in the way of signature accomplishments that weren’t already baked into the Branstad agenda.

And it’s even tougher to list the big stuff Reynolds plans to do next, although she has hinted at more tax cuts.

The first bill she signed, a water quality initiative, was a leftover from the 2017 legislative session. If Reynolds had her own ideas on how to clean up our water, she kept them to herself.

She unveiled a fairly responsible tax cut plan that rightly surmised Iowa could not afford a corporate tax cut. Legislative Republicans approved a much larger, far less responsible tax “reform” package including a corporate tax cut.

Reynolds signed it into law without public complaint.

As lieutenant governor, Reynolds did good work on the Iowa Energy Plan. Then, as governor, signed dubious pro-utility legislation basically gutting energy efficiency programs that were a major pillar of her plan.

But nowhere is Reynolds’ commitment to continuity starker than on the issue of Medicaid privatization. Her predecessor unilaterally handed coverage for more than 600,000 Iowans over to private managed care firms with no buy-in whatsoever from Iowans who would be affected.

It’s been, for many clients and care providers, a painful fiasco.

Other than a fleeting reference to “mistakes,” Reynolds has stuck with the program, even as its problems mount and her administration can’t explain whether the change lives up to its core promise — saving money.

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In essence, Branstad jolted a program serving Iowa’s most vulnerable citizens to make budgetary room for tax cuts that would mainly benefit folks who are anything but vulnerable. Think guys who loan out private jets.

While Medicaid stumbles, the Reynolds campaign has spent much of its time attacking Hubbell for his wealth and personal finances, arguing he’s out of touch, and for the closure of Younkers stores nearly 30 years ago. Most substantive are criticisms of Hubbell for failing to release more of his tax returns and financial records. He should come clean.

But these taunts at rich “Sir Frederick” and Younkers are about as substantive and relevant to voters today as “totally nude dancing” was in 1998. And may be about as effective.

Hubbell’s campaign, like Vilsack’s, is smartly sensing Iowans want to talk about actual stuff affecting their lives. On Medicaid, for example, Hubbell has been holding roundtables around the state with Iowans harmed by privatization. They’ve received lots of coverage. And cast against Reynolds’ nothing-to-see-here defense of the program, it’s quite a contrast.

The wild card in all this is the Trump card. The president and his policies are unpopular in Iowa overall, but remain very popular with Republicans. On the other side, Democrats are energized to strike back at Trumpian excess.

In Iowa’s critical agricultural sector, the president’s policies have been damaging at best, disastrous at worst. Trump’s intensifying trade war is smashing up critical markets for farm commodities and socking it to prices just as combines roll. Veering and unpredictable administration policies have left biofuels in a precarious position, even if Trump does come through on year-round E15 sales. A state that needs immigrants to fill farm workforce gaps faces an administration determined to demonize even legal immigration.

All bad for Iowa, and all completely predictable as Trump campaigned here with the full-throated support of Republicans including Reynolds. And now, thanks to the unyielding GOP base, Reynolds can’t quit him.

Maybe voters won’t care about Trump as they evaluate Reynolds. And maybe they’ll see Medicaid and Trump as evidence of a governor more interested in political considerations than doing the right thing for Iowans. Or, perhaps they’ll see Hubbell as a rich guy with something to hide in those tax returns.

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Hubbell is seeking change. Reynolds needs to offer far more than more of the same. Maybe she’ll use the big stage during three debates to articulate a clearer vision for her next administration. If not, we may see a repeat of the cheeky Daily Iowan headline from 1998. “Totally new governor.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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