Iowa GOP caucus-goers deliver big hit to Terry Branstad's clout

Donald Trump was the obvious Republican loser last night. Despite leading in the last ten Iowa polls released before the caucuses, Trump finished more than 6,000 votes and three percentage points behind Ted Cruz, widely perceived before yesterday to have peaked too soon. Record-breaking turnout was supposed to be a winning scenario for Trump, yet a plurality of caucus-goers cast ballots for Cruz as attendance surpassed the previous high-water mark by more than 50 percent.

For Iowa politics watchers, another big takeaway jumped out from the caucus results: Governor Terry Branstad’s advice doesn’t carry much weight with rank and file Republicans.

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Cruz finally going after Trump as Iowa polls show tight race at the top

For months, Ted Cruz deliberately did not engage with Donald Trump, positioning himself well to inherit the support of voters who might lean toward the Republican front-runner. But since Cruz emerged as the primary threat to him in Iowa, Trump has hammered the Texas senator during his media appearances and at his campaign rallies. Trump has attacked on policy grounds ("Ted was in favor of amnesty") and repeatedly raised doubts about whether Cruz, born in Canada to a U.S. citizen, is eligible to become president.

Over the last few days, Cruz finally started hitting back at Trump during public events and media availabilities. A poll in the field this week is testing numerous anti-Trump talking points with Iowa voters, and signs point to the Cruz campaign or an aligned group commissioning that survey. I enclose below Simpson College Professor Kedron Bardwell’s notes on the message-testing poll; look for Cruz to employ some of those lines during Thursday night’s presidential debate.

The Iowa Republican caucus polling average shows a tight race between the top two contenders here, with all other candidates well behind. But a closer look at the Iowa findings, particularly the latest from Selzer & Co for the Des Moines Register and Bloomberg News, suggests that Cruz could easily exceed his topline numbers on caucus night. Meanwhile, Trump seems more likely to underperform his polling numbers, hampered by a much less competent ground game.

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Insurance company insiders knew about Iowa's Medicaid privatization plans long before public

Governor Terry Branstad didn’t run for re-election last year on a plan to let private insurance companies manage health care for some 560,000 Iowans on Medicaid. He didn’t work with key state legislators to draw up his administration’s "Medicaid Modernization" plans. The governor’s draft budget, submitted in January, projected some $51 million in savings on Medicaid for the 2016 fiscal year. But key lawmakers like the chair of the Iowa Senate Health and Human Resources Appropriations subcommittee didn’t learn that four private companies would be selected to handle almost all Medicaid services until the Iowa Department of Human Services made its request for proposals public in February.

Recent accusations of bias and conflicts of interest, as well as allegedly inaccurate scoring of insurers’ proposals, have raised many questions about how the Iowa DHS selected the four companies now negotiating contracts to manage Medicaid for one-sixth of Iowans. Reports of campaign contributions by lobbyists and political action committees representing firms that sought Iowa’s Medicaid business prompted one watchdog to decry “pay to play” politics.

Those news stories point to a conclusion that isn’t getting enough attention: various insurance companies and their paid representatives knew what was coming down the pike long before the Branstad administration disclosed its plans to privatize Medicaid.

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No single issue is worth risking the Iowa Senate majority

Shortly before the end of this year’s legislative session, former State Representative Ed Fallon announced "political action" to stop the proposed Bakken Oil Pipeline. He warned that if the Iowa House and Senate did not approve a bill to block the use of eminent domain for the project, he would organize and fundraise "to help defeat one or two Democratic Senators and one or two Republican Representatives" who oppose the bill.

On June 5, the Iowa House and Senate adjourned for the year without passing an eminent domain bill in either chamber. Last week Fallon confirmed that he is sticking to his goal of defeating one or two majority party members in both the House and Senate, adding that he had already raised $4,500 toward the cause.

All I can say is, count me out of that political crusade.

Come to think of it, I have a few more things to say on the subject.

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Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member slams Branstad's attempt to "appease" major utility

Outgoing Iowa Utilities Board member Sheila Tipton sent Governor Terry Branstad a scathing letter after not being reappointed to the three-member board last month, Ryan Foley reported yesterday for the Associated Press. Tipton defended a board decision from earlier this year, which greatly displeased MidAmerican Energy. She warned that by removing her and demoting Iowa Utilities Board Chair Libby Jacobs, Branstad was undermining state agencies’ independence "in order to appease MidAmerican Energy," thereby doing "a disservice to the citizens of this State."

Tipton also characterized Branstad’s recent personnel changes as  “unfair,” saying she had received verbal assurances in 2013 that she would be reappointed to a full six-year term if she accepted the governor’s offer to serve out Swati Dandekar’s unexpired term.

I enclose the full text of Tipton’s letter after the jump, along with a statement provided by the governor’s office, which defends the appointment of Geri Huser and denies that Tipton was promised a full term on the Iowa Utilities Board.

Even if Branstad or his staff did promise verbally to reappoint Tipton, the governor retains the right to change his mind. However, Tipton is unquestionably correct that the latest Iowa Utilities Board changes look like “an attempt to ‘bring the agency in line’ and to influence its future decision-making in a way that favors the utilities.”

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