Democratic primary voters finally saw a new side to the six-candidate field for governor in last night’s IPTV debate. Tough questions from the moderators and various attacks from individual candidates (all aimed at Fred Hubbell) put the candidates on their toes and forced them to answer topics they haven’t faced publicly in the race before.
While Hubbell, widely seen as the frontrunner in the race, took criticism for some policy positions, past donations and his background, he pivoted much of his answers to promote a general election electability case. And he wasn’t shy in arguing that his ability to appeal to some Republicans would help in November.
“What I want to do is try to unify people in this state,” he said near the end of the debate. “We’re going to need to bring people together to win the election and to get anything done as we’re governing.”
It was a contrast to other contenders, like Cathy Glasson, who presented themselves as the more progressive alternative in the race. While Glasson asked viewers to trust her on progressive policy ideas, Hubbell asked Democrats to trust him that he can beat Governor Kim Reynolds.
Nate Boulton, John Norris and Glasson all engaged with Hubbell at different moments throughout the debate, pressing him on issues they believe will raise questions for Democratic primary voters. But Andy McGuire and Ross Wilburn were content to stay positive throughout the evening, preferring to present their own policy ideas for leading the state.
“I’ve always been running against Kim Reynolds,” McGuire told reporters afterward when questioned why she didn’t go on the offensive against others. She added that any of the Democrats on the stage would make a much better governor than Reynolds.
A lot happened in the debate, but let’s hone in on some of the moments where the candidates actually interacted with each other and contrasted their ideas and candidacies.
Boulton, Norris Knock Hubbell On Tax Credits
One of the biggest flash points of the night came when Boulton, after some prodding from the moderators and an assist from Norris, criticized Hubbell for tax credits doled out during Hubbell’s time as interim director of the Department of Economic Development.
“I think we need a nominee who hasn’t had a hand in the cookie jar on all this,” Boulton said after arguing Republicans’ tax credit handouts have helped bankrupt the state. “We’ve got people here who are willing to give away some of those things, as much as $250,000 per job in some projects.”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Hubbell replied. “When I was in Economic Development, we had a film tax credit scandal that was costing Iowans tens of millions of dollars. We fixed that. We saved our state millions of dollars.”
But the moderators returned to the topic and asked Boulton to expand on his argument. Norris jumped in with more specific details.
“He gave out $29 million in tax credits over those four months, I think that’s probably what Nate’s referring to. When Fred took it over, the film tax credit had already been shut down. So, he stepped in and helped clean it up, no doubt, I’ll give him credit for that,” Norris said, but added that Hubbell left after just four months and questioned whether that was enough experience. Hubbell disputed the idea that the film tax credit problem would’ve been fixed without him.
Boulton’s campaign released further information to reporters during the debate, listing out several tax credits awarded during Hubbell’s tenure at Economic Development. That included a nearly $10 million loan and credit for Wacker Chemical Corporation, which amounted to about $250,000 paid for each job created. The Boulton camp accused Hubbell of being hypocritical on the matter of Reynolds’ tax credits since he oversaw some himself.
Hubbell’s campaign dismissed the attack and argued that Hubbell instead saved the state a significant amount of money.
“Nate Boulton is really grasping at straws attacking the last Democratic Governor,” Hubbell campaign communications director Remi Yamamoto responded. “Fred has said from the beginning of this campaign that we need to root out wasteful tax giveaways and in 2010 he helped identify $161 million of them on a tax credit review panel, and as Governor, he will not only eliminate those wasteful tax giveaways but he will cap and sunset every tax credit, exemption, and deduction as well mandate a fiscal impact study on each one.”
Glasson Presses Hubbell On Cownie Donation
The other direct attack of the evening came when Glasson hit Hubbell for contributing to Republican State Representative Peter Cownie of West Des Moines. Hubbell has given $1,950 to Cownie over several elections.
“If you’re up here talking about women’s reproductive health and safe, legal abortion, you better be walking the walk,” Glasson said, then specified what she meant after being asked by the moderators. “I’m challenging Mr. Hubbell, who has contributed to campaigns in the state legislature that actually voted for the fetal heartbeat bill.”
Hubbell seemed very well-prepared for this question. Critics of Hubbell have been previewing this line of attack in Democratic social media circles for the past week, giving Hubbell some time to prepare.
“Charlotte and I have known the Cownies for over 30 years, ever since Peter Cownie was a young boy,” Hubbell replied. “It’s a very close, strong family relationship. So, when we had an opportunity to support Peter, of course we did. Did I like his vote? No. Did I like the vote of anyone else who voted for it? No. If I was governor, would I have vetoed it? Yes. But I don’t look at everything in a strictly partisan lens. When you have close family relationships, those are important. And by the way, if we’re going to win this election … we’re going to have to reach out to the Trump voters and all the voters all across this state because we’re going to need them to help win this election and we’re going to need them to govern.”
Hubbell Hesitates On Repealing GOP Tax Cut Bill
The moment that might linger longest from the night’s debate, however, didn’t come from candidates attacking each other. As Starting Line suspected would be the case, some of the toughest questions came from the moderators in follow-up questions.
Early on in the debate, Radio Iowa’s Kay Henderson pressed Hubbell on whether he would outright repeal the huge tax cut plan that Republicans just passed this legislative session. Hubbell hesitated for a few seconds before saying he wasn’t prepared to do that just yet.
“I’m not ready to say it should be repealed yet, but what I am ready to say is let’s attack the corporate tax giveaways, let’s take back the commercial property tax break,” Hubbell said. “They gave $30 million to a telecommunications company without getting anything in return. We should stop that. So, that’s $180 million, plus $160 – that’s $340 million we can use.”
Iowa Republicans pounced on the response.
Norris quickly interjected.
“It absolutely needs to be repealed,” Norris insisted. “There’s no way we can sustain a $2 billion tax cut in this state or underfunding education. We’re got tremendous mental health needs. We’ve got a water quality problem to fix up. And most of these tax cuts went to millionaires. They get a $25,000 a year tax cut. People making $25,000 a year get a $18 tax cut.”
Hubbell returned to the topic unprompted in his closing statements at the end of the debate.
“We can all talk about reversing this tax cut they came up with, but there are some good things in there,” Hubbell said. “And we should address the existing problems before we take a look at how to deal with that tax cut.”
Candidates Defend Their Potential Weaknesses
One of the most interesting segments of the debate came when David Yepsen asked each candidate to respond to the criticisms Republicans would use against each of them in the general election. Some were actually difficult; others just played into candidates’ messages.
Both Glasson and Boulton happily leaned into the potential GOP attacks the moderators suggested.
“I think Iowans are ready for a new generation of leadership,” Boulton replied to the idea that he’s too young and inexperienced to be governor.
“I’m proud of those [attacks],” Glasson said of the Republicans who are already saying she’s too liberal. “Look at what just happened in the primaries across this country. Bold progressive women candidates winning. That’s what we need in Iowa is a vision moving us forward, not status quo politicians and policies-as-usual.”
McGuire defended her tenure as the chair of the Iowa Democratic Party when Republicans swept the state in 2016.
“When a national wave comes over the top of you and takes out Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, you really have something that is hard to control from local,” she said. “We did a lot of good in that party. We got 99 county chairs where there weren’t. We had a lot of infrastructure that we did, and I think that will pay off in the long run.”
Norris defended concerns over his fundraising abilities by arguing that he’ll bring together all the various parts of the party – labor and South of Grand money – and be just fine with donations for the general election. Wilburn argued his travels and experiences around the state for his job will help him overcome any ideas that he’s just an Ames/Iowa City liberal.
The toughest question was reserved for Hubbell.
“You’re rich, you’re from Des Moines, you’re liberal, you’ve never run for office before, and you may be trying to buy this primary with all your TV ads,” Yepsen said.
Hubbell responded by noting he’s traveled the state extensively and met voters where they’re at, listening to their concerns and incorporating them into his campaign.
“My campaign from the very beginning has been focused on winning the general election,” he explained. “When [voters] find out that what I’m talking about is their issues, and then I tell them what I’ve done in my life, actually getting results in the public and the private sector.”
Will Any Of The Criticisms Stick?
Hubbell took a lot of fire tonight, but will any of it slow him down in his trajectory to win outright on June 5? When analyzing the criticisms, let’s consider both the legitimacy and the political side.
With tax credits, it’s not really a big surprise that such projects were being approved while Hubbell was interim director at Economic Development. Most engaged voters realize that when you head up a department that big, there’s going to be some politically unpopular decisions made at some point in the budget. Democratic primary-goers may not switch their vote simply because a couple questionable projects happened during Hubbell’s tenure there.
But the larger point that Boulton was making here is on the political side of things for the general election.
“I think it’s going to be one of the defining issues of this fall’s election,” Boulton told reporters after the debate. “We have to make the strongest case possible [on tax credits] and it’s going to take having clean hands on that argument.”
Boulton is driving right at Hubbell’s pitch about electability. If Hubbell is the nominee, Reynolds may be able to muddy the water over critiques of tax credit handouts by saying, hey, Hubbell did it too.
Glasson’s attack on the Cownie donations had much more to do with the political side of the primary election. Indeed, Hubbell spun it into a positive for the general election, that he has a history of reaching out to people of the other party and can grab crossover support.
The actual underlying merit of the critique may not be the biggest deal in the world; just under $2,000 given to a single Republican who the Hubbells have a family tie to probably doesn’t reveal too much about Hubbell’s stance on policies. Not many voters are going to believe he’s weak on Planned Parenthood issues from those donations alone considering the life work he’s done in support of women’s reproductive health issues. And if you understand Polk County politics at all, you get why some of these Democratic donors give to a Republican – especially a Cownie – every now and then.
Glasson believes it fits into the narrative that Hubbell can’t be trusted to be a solidly progressive governor. However, the more interesting aspect here may be that it places Hubbell again in that network of wealthy Iowa families where people sometimes support each other regardless of the policies they’re actually fighting for. Would Hubbell get lobbied and influenced by some of those same folks if he becomes governor? And the follow-up question that didn’t get asked in the debate was this: Okay, so you helped out a Republican family friend when he first ran for office, then was upset with his votes. But why did you contribute again in 2016, long after he’d racked up a lot of really bad votes?
But Hubbell’s wavering on outright repealing the Republican tax cut plan will likely raise more questions than either Boulton or Glasson’s critiques did. Obviously, candidates would prefer to not be on record advocating for raising taxes, even if it’s just reversing a very recent tax cut. However, you also don’t want to be seen as indecisive on something that important because you’re afraid of the political fallout. Every kind of voter, regardless of their opinion on tax cuts, won’t like that. Hubbell isn’t wrong that there were likely a few good measures tucked within the overall bill, but he’ll probably need to clarify that stance a bit before the final debate.
Norris came off strong in the debate, giving a lot of succinct, to-the-point answers on a wide range of questions. “It intimidates people,” he said when asked why voter ID laws are wrong. For those voters just tuning into the race who don’t have a strong opinion on many of the candidates yet, he likely impressed some people.
McGuire also had a couple strong moments with simple, direct answers, including on the 6-week abortion ban bill. When asked why she would work to repeal it instead of letting the courts overturn it, she said, “Because it’s wrong.”
Hubbell got personal at one point in the debate when he referenced the terrorist hijacking that he and his wife experienced in 1981. He related that to a question on gun control, noting that he had an automatic weapon pointed at his head and saw someone shot and killed right next to him. He hasn’t spoken much about the hijacking in the race, but his campaign put out a compelling video on it yesterday morning.
One of the other disagreements came on raising the internet sales tax. Norris agreed with that part of the GOP tax bill, but Glasson argued she wouldn’t raise any sales tax, which impacts poorer people more. She suggested raising taxes on products used by large agribusinesses instead. However, Norris was also highly skeptical of new sports betting opportunities, calling gambling a “a poor people’s tax.”
When Glasson was told Republicans would probably run a TV ad with Glasson’s face morphing into Bernie Sanders’, I wondered, are you sure that’s not an ad that Glasson herself would run? And Glasson did very effectively present herself as the unique candidate in the race on progressive issues. After the debate, she told reporters that Democrats can’t afford or win with another “middle-of-the-road” nominee.
Those watching to see if Hubbell could withstand the kind of pressure he’ll get if he gets into the general election with Kim Reynolds got a lot to chew on. He had some very strong responses to some tough questions and some awkward ones to others. He was also the only one coming under sustained fire from half the field. It’ll be interesting to see how he does in the next debate.
The most amusing moment from the evening was when Norris was talking about sexual harassment in state government. He said, “You want to fix this problem? Put women in charge.” McGuire smiled, leaned over her podium to catch Glasson’s eye, and the two female candidates gave each other an air high-five.
The structure, moderating and questions in this debate was excellent and a much-needed change from the first “debate” on KWQC. Most helpful was the moderators forcing candidates to actually specify their criticisms. I understood what each person was referring to when they made a vague attack on another, but the vast majority of watchers wouldn’t have had any idea what was going on without the follow-up questions.
We should have been having debates like these long ago. There’s some interesting differences and personalities that are being better explored right now that would have been helpful for everyone to see before most of the activists decided on who to support.
There was a lot of other interesting aspects of this debate I haven’t gotten to. Watch it all here if you missed it.
by Pat Rynard