Tag Archives: Iowa

The Steve King I Know…

I noted with interest an online article from today’s Des Moines Register regarding Congressman Steve King and his impending decision regarding a race for the US Senate.

Much of my political career has been to help position candidates so that in the hustle and bustle of a campaign, voters can get to know the real essence of who they are as people. Behind the sound bites, behind the policy pronouncements…who are these people? Are they candidates that reflect well on us and whom we can trust to make sometimes momentous decisions on our behalf?

Today’s article on Congressman King by my friend Bill Petroski does just that. Bill is a great writer, experienced and quick on the draw. He can get to the nerve center of an issue quickly and he did so in this article.

Congressman King shows that he is weighing this seriously. He’s a man who built his construction business with the strength of his hands, the sweat of his brow and sheer will. He uses a construction analogy to show exactly how methodically he’s going about his assessment. Regardless of his ultimate decision, his methodology speaks very well of his character and his decision making.

The public perception of candidates often varies greatly with their private side. I’ve seen this over and over and it’s the fundamental challenge presented to communication and media assistants.

There is a wide gap between how Congressman King is portrayed by many partisans and members of the media, and the man I’ve gotten to know.

I’ve had the good fortune to work with Congressman King in the Iowa Senate and on his congressional campaigns. He’s a man of deep convictions, big ideas and an unbridled source of pride in all things Iowa. He is a son of Iowa, a man who knows all good things come from the land and the people of Iowa.

I’ve also had even more fun with Congressman King in other settings, like his annual pheasant hunt. There is perhaps no better place to get to know a man than standing shoulder to shoulder in a hunting stand for several hours. Far from the trappings of office and with your boots planted firmly in Iowa’s abundant soil, you can measure each other pretty quickly. I held my own in those stands, but I will always take a back seat to Congressman King’s quick eye and more accurate aim.

Congressman King will make his decision in due time, after weighing all the facts presented to him. No matter what he decides, he’ll be putting his constituents, his issues and his state first. He’s been a great Congressman, he would be an outstanding US Senator and I’ll be following his decision closely.

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Under Discussion: Big Business or Small Business

On my recent appearance on WHO-TV Insiders with Dave Price, we spent a lot of time discussing where the Iowa’s emphasis should lie in business generation: Big Business or Small Business. Our extended conversation on this topic can be found here: WHO-TV Insiders

To answer the question, I said “both,” and I think there are many examples of how the Branstad Administration has developed an atmosphere that will attract both big and small businesses. The best example, in my opinion (and, I admit, I’m biased) is Google. The successful partnership between Iowa and Google was highlighted earlier this week in the Omaha World Herald. A worldwide brand, the company has now invested over $1.1 billion in Iowa.

But more importantly, Google has gone above and beyond with the support of small business in Iowa with their Iowa Get Your Business Online efforts. Several thousand Iowa small businesses have benefitted from Google’s and Intuit’s partnership to help businesses get an online presence.

The State’s emphasis on attracting business doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game between Big Business and Small Business. It can, and will, attract both if it continues its sensible path to creating the right atmosphere for investment.

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Under Discussion: The ‘Usefulness’ of the Iowa Straw Poll

On Sunday, I was a guest on WHO-TV’s “Insiders” program, hosted by Dave Price. I’ve had the opportunity to work with Dave over the years as he’s covered politics in Iowa, and he’s one of the shining stars in Iowa journalism. We covered a number of topics in our exchange, one of which was the current discussion over the fate of the Iowa Straw Poll.

The discussion about the fate of the Straw Poll is getting a lot of attention nationally, as well as inside of Iowa. The Governor thinks the event has “outlived its usefulness.” The Republican Party of Iowa has responded with a surprising level of vitriol to his statements.

I’ve had a lot of personal experience with the Straw Poll, traditionally held in Ames. I led the organizational efforts for Texas Senator Phil Gramm in 1995, who miraculously tied Senator Bob Dole that year. In 1999, I led Steve Forbes’ efforts when he placed second to George W. Bush, who won the Straw Poll and went on to become our 43rd President. In 2007 and 2011, I worked with the Republican Party of Iowa to produce the staging, video, lighting and audio elements of the show inside of Hilton Coliseum.

As someone who has been inside and outside the Ames Straw Poll, I have to agree with the Governor. My comments on “Insiders” are highlighted in the segment WHO Insiders, Part 3.

We’re coming off an election where Republicans were soundly drubbed due in large part to organizational weaknesses. Many, if not most, of the great organizational and tactical strides we made in the 2010 elections were cast aside or forgotten.

The Governor identified one of the white elephants in the room: The fate of the Straw Poll is just one of many issues the GOP has to address as it charts a course forward. The Governor deserves credit for being bold enough to start the process.

(Note: My Democratic counterpart on the show corrected me when I likened the Harkin Steak Fry to the Straw Poll. Its cousin in Democratic circles would be the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner. There’s a solid reason I’m not asked to opine on Democratic political machinery.)

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Real Problems at the Root of Fake Scenario

The movie “Janeane from Des Moines” has created a lot of headlines recently. Everyone from the New York Times to Iowa’s home-grown newspaper, The Des Moines Register, has mentioned the issues brought up in this mockumentary.

With our state’s “first in the nation” status, Iowans have the coveted role of meeting political candidates in-person, asking them tough questions and sharing our vision with the rest of the country. We welcomed these candidates into our homes, we introduced them to our friends and we established a bond with them that goes well beyond Election Day. We put our trust and hopes in these candidates to lead us, to make our country a better place to live and work.

One only has to look back over the past few months, with the almost unprecedented presence of President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Vice President Biden, Governor Romney and Congressman Ryan to see the impact Iowa can have on any given national election. Just last night in his final campaign stop for the 2012 election, President Obama praised Iowa voters for their intellect, their passion and their commitment to the process, Regardless of your political party, those were compliments that should make all Iowans quite proud.

We know the candidates aren’t perfect — they are human after all. But, we do rely on them to have some responses and solutions to the problems weighing voters down. So, when we saw first-hand evidence that candidates struggled with how to respond to voters’ very personal appeals for help, it really shook our beliefs in the people and in the system.

That’s why “Janeane from Des Moines” has really created waves. It pointed out those flaws, and it made those of us working to improve the political process feel like dupes, unable to help. These are real problems our family, our friends, our neighbors, our fellow citizens are facing. We should have been able to provide voters with more than just a campaign’s taglines or talking points.

When I met “Janeane from Des Moines,” I didn’t know it was a fake scenario. I was truly upset at this woman’s obvious distress in not being able to get the answers she so desperately needed. Even after realizing it was a set-up, I was still sympathetic to the issues the actress and the film bring up. Voters in this election cycle — like so many others before it — have real problems they want solved, and it is in the hands of our elected officials to help them.

That said, I have to admit the movie, and my unsuspecting role in it, did bother me. My real beef with Janeane’s (or should I say Jane Edith’s) stunt is this: In Iowa, we depended on the interaction with the candidates to be relevant as an early test ground. It was our opportunity to listen to what they have to say and measure their characters. We took this role very seriously, and so did the candidates. If future candidates come to think Iowa voters are part of some stunt for a movie, or conspiracy to trap them in situations that make them look bad — not real people with real problems — they may choose to stop taking questions and possibly even feel like they can’t be honest with us.

To let this happen would completely undercut the entire premise of Iowa and our status of first in the nation. The lesson learned from this situation is this: It is the voters’ job to be just as honest and as forthcoming as we expect our political candidates and elected officials to be. In return, candidates and elected officials need to continue to do a better job of relating to voters’ problems and give them more than just a campaign-approved sound bite in response.

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The Role of Third Party Groups in State Legislative Elections: Policy Debates, or Hatfield vs. McCoys?

Iowa’s 2012 legislative primaries saw a number of “independent expenditures” from groups not associated with the candidates or the candidates’ committees. These groups, such as the National Rifle Association, Iowa Credit Union League, Iowa Family Policy Center and others, are allowed spend to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates. They are subject to reporting requirements at the state level, detailing their spending and type of activity undertaken. These expenditures are often in lieu of or in addition to the traditional political action committee (PAC) support given to their chosen candidates.

Over the past several election cycles, we’ve seen an increasing number of these groups get involved in federal and state elections. This proliferation has been due to federal changes to campaign finance laws (most notably McCain / Feingold), as well as the U.S. Supreme Courts’ decision striking down key provisions of that law based on First Amendment freedom of speech grounds. On the federal level we’ve seen an explosion of the presence of “SuperPACs”, groups who are not subject to the contribution limits covering candidates.

Some early 2012 research indicatedvoters perceive these outside groups are having a negative effect on political discourse. I have been consistent in my opinion that free speech is free speech, and that in the marketplace of ideas, everyone’s opinion is welcomed.

I have maintained that American voters and especially those in Iowa are quite savvy. These outside groups are free to share their “opinions”…but voters will sort out the wheat from the chaff, as we’d say here. We have begun to see that happening in the political marketplace and in Iowa.

Let me pick two examples from last night’s primary. First, in the Des Moines area, a very contentious Iowa Senate primary developed between incumbent Republican Senator Pat Ward and her challenger, Waukee pastor Jeff Mullen. Second, in rural Northeast Iowa, two incumbent Republican House members, Representatives Pat Grassley and Annette Sweeney, squared off in a primary battle due to redistricting.

All four candidates had ardent supporters. As the campaign heated up in the months of May and early June, however, it became clear that at least two of the candidates (Grassley and Ward) had some very serious detractors as well. The actions of these outside groups had a distinct impact on the respective races.

In the Ward / Mullen race, the opposing outside groups took very different approaches. Credit unions with membership in Senator Ward’s district stood behind the candidate that shared their members’ values and goals. They sent direct mail to Republican credit union members (here) and a larger universe of all Republican primary voters (here and here). The mail was positive in nature, and in concert with the positive mailings from the National Rifle Association (oversized blaze orange postcards), showed the broad appeal on fiscal and conservative issues that Senator Ward embodied.

But the efforts of these groups never overshadowed what the Ward campaign was doing for itself, and that is a key difference to her competitor, Mr. Mullen. The Ward campaign effort, led by Brian Dumas of Victory Enterprises, advertised on television and radio, promptly answered every attack, and had a distinct on the ground effort. They sent a flood of pro-Ward mail into the district, identified Ward supporters, and then turned them out to vote. They organized volunteers to go door to door, drop literature, and did the things most successful campaigns do.

Mr. Mullen and his allies attacked Senator Ward, relentlessly. His campaign missed many of the “small ball” elements that the Ward campaign was doing. And, even more damaging, he seemed to turn over the campaign to the very outside groups that were attacking Senator Ward. In so doing, he missed an opportunity to establish himself as a viable candidate and let those groups direct the tenor of the campaign. In the end, it cost him dearly: Senator Ward won handily, 58% to 42%. Mr. Mullen failed to even carry his home county of Dallas in the race, an area thought to be his stronghold.

In the Grassley / Sweeney race, the approach taken by at least one outside group seemed to cross the line, and take the debate more into personality and family lineage rather than policy. These efforts threatened to turn the race into a Hatfield/McCoy feud, where reason is lost and people barely remember what they’re even fighting about. The electorate in that district sorted it out rather quickly, and Representative Grassley won a commanding 61% to 39% victory. Unfortunately, the outside groups’ efforts appear to have backfired and had a negative impact on the very candidate they sought to help.

As the dust settles on the June 5th primaries, these are my initial conclusions:

  1. Campaigns should know they operate in the new environment where these groups will be playing a pivotal role. Not every race will attract independent expenditures, but many will and campaigns will have to be prepared.
  2. Candidates and campaigns can’t take their eye off the ball. They have to do the fundamental work of defining themselves as if these outside groups aren’t involved.
  3. Candidates and campaigns can’t cede control of their races to these groups. The law says candidates may not “coordinate” with these groups. Practical good sense says candidates shouldn’t rely on them, either.
  4. Doing so means the candidate is blindly placing his or her trust in an independent group that has its own distinct agenda.
  5. Voters are smart. Never underestimate their ability to see through the haze and deduce rather quickly what’s actually happening.

Both Senator Ward and Representative Grassley understood the elements of the new political paradigm. They conducted themselves well, communicated effectively with the voters, worked hard, and were justly rewarded.

In the long term, I’m not that worried about the presence of independent expenditures or outside groups in the political arena. To be sure, there will be more positive and negative messages distributed about candidates. In my humble opinion, however, more free speech is better than less. It may make the debate a little noisier and require voters to filter more messages prior to reaching their decisions. The overall system will be policed with engaged voters at the controls, and I believe we started to see that development last night in Iowa.

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