IA-Gov: Five takeaways from the first Hubbell-Reynolds debate

Governor Kim Reynolds and Democratic challenger Fred Hubbell held the first of three debates tonight in Ankeny. You can watch a nearly-complete video on the Des Moines Register’s website. I’ve enclosed the notes I took in real time (live blog style) at the end of this post. But first, my takeaways:

The discussion was unlikely to change anyone’s mind.

Both candidates spent the bulk of their time reinforcing their key campaign themes. Hubbell called for reorienting Iowa’s budget priorities, investing more in education, cutting tax giveaways to businesses, and reversing the Medicaid privatization disaster. Reynolds rattled off statistics that reflect well on Iowa’s economy, touted Republican tax cuts, accused Hubbell of wanting to raise people’s taxes, and said she could relate to hard-working Iowans because of her background.

I didn’t hear any message that would drive away viewers who were already backing or leaning toward Reynolds or Hubbell, or anything that might upset a crucial voting bloc for either candidate. The race still looks like a toss-up.

Reynolds seized control from moderators early.

The governor repeatedly barged in demanding a rebuttal when the moderators had intended to move on to the next question. This isn’t the first rodeo for either Steve Karlin of KCCI or Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register, but they didn’t have a game plan for dealing with this tactic.

As a result, Reynolds got the last word on more questions than Hubbell did, which is a big advantage in a debate. I wasn’t tracking each candidate’s overall speaking time, but I would bet that Reynolds logged more minutes than Hubbell as well.

Reynolds was better prepared.

Although Reynolds never debated an opponent when running for lieutenant governor in 2010 and 2014, she has had much more practice delivering sound bites during press conferences and televised interviews over the years. Both candidates had rehearsed answers to the obvious questions, but Reynolds seemed more comfortable and fluid.

A few moments revealed poor preparation by the Democrat. Asked about gun policy, Hubbell asserted that Iowa passed a new law allowing day care providers to keep loaded firearms unsecured while watching other people’s children in their homes. That’s not quite accurate. The truth actually makes Reynolds look worse. The Department of Human Services drafted sensible gun safety rules for day care providers last year. However, the governor’s staff prevented those rules from going into effect.

Each candidate had a chance to ask the other one question. Understandably, Hubbell brought up Medicaid privatization. More than a fifth of the state’s population is enrolled in the program, and more than half of likely Iowa voters think Reynolds’ handling of the issue is a big problem, according to the latest Selzer poll for the Des Moines Register. At various points in the debate, Hubbell drove home damning facts: per member costs have increased under managed care. The Reynolds administration can’t back up its math on Medicaid costs and keeps changing the numbers released to the public.

But when asking his question, instead of citing specific bad outcomes and asking the governor why she ignores hard truths, Hubbell focused on a few campaign contributions Reynolds has received from managed-care organizations. Would she pledge to stop accepting campaign contributions from the insurance companies that run Medicaid?

Iowa Democratic Party leaders think this is a winning message, and I agree that Reynolds would have been wise to avoid taking money from companies her administration rewarded. But from where I’m sitting, the Medicaid fiasco was ideologically driven. Republicans love to hand public services over to for-profit companies. Governor Terry Branstad set this train in motion and was already shoveling more money at the MCOs. Hubbell implied Reynolds agreed to increase state and federal payments to the companies because they gave her campaign a few thousand dollars. I think she would have done so anyway. Framing the question that way allowed Reynolds to turn it around: she’s been transparent in reporting her campaign contributions, whereas Hubbell hasn’t released detailed information about his taxes.

When it was her turn to ask a question, Reynolds zeroed in on tax returns. The Register’s poll identified that point as the biggest vulnerability for Hubbell.

When pressed about her administration agreeing to higher payments for companies that have cut services for Medicaid patients, Reynolds was ready with a talking point. An “independent actuary” set the rates for the new contracts, based on data from the first two years of privatized Medicaid. She deflected responsibility to this “independent actuary” several times.

One aspect of Reynolds’ debate prep fell short in my view. Hubbell referred to “the governor” or “Governor Reynolds,” while she called him “Fred.” I assume her strategists saw some advantage in this approach, but it struck me as disrespectful. If Reynolds felt “Mr. Hubbell” would sound too formal, she could have said “my opponent” when characterizing his record or stand on some issue.

Both candidates evaded some questions.

A good debater strives to answer the question you want, not necessarily the question you were asked. Some notable non-responses from this evening:

• Reynolds didn’t promise to reverse the long-term trend of lower state funding for public universities, or even acknowledge plain facts about education budget trends.

• Hubbell didn’t say whether he supports rolling back all of Iowa’s abortion restrictions, including the near-total ban on terminating a pregnancy after 20 weeks.

• Reynolds paused for a long time when asked about any disagreements with members of her own party. She talked about her treat communication with other Republicans, then said she wasn’t “afraid” to disagree with the president and finally settled on trade policy as one area where she differs from President Donald Trump.

• Hubbell also didn’t name anyone in his party with whom he disagrees. Instead he talked about his practice of working with different people to get results.

Reynolds opposes bringing back the death penalty.

The only new thing I learned about either candidate tonight came during the “lightning round,” when Karlin and Obradovich asked for one-word answers. Should Iowa bring back the death penalty? Reynolds said no. To my knowledge, the governor has not taken a public position on capital punishment before. Incidentally, Hubbell also opposes the death penalty. He noted Iowa already has life without parole sentences.

The issue is unlikely to land on the next governor’s desk. A death penalty bill failed to win enough support in the Republican-controlled legislature this year and would be a non-starter if Democrats won a majority in either the Iowa House or Senate.

Final point: Libertarian candidate Jake Porter has gotten a raw deal. He has actively campaigned for governor for more than a year and is not a one-issue candidate. He had 7 percent support in the recent Selzer poll. He should have been on the stage, but news organizations catered to the governor’s refusal to participate in a debate that included the Libertarian. KCCI broadcast a brief interview with Porter shortly before the debate began; click here to watch. Rod Boshart wrote about Porter for the Sioux City Journal. Shane Vander Hart spoke to the Libertarian nominee outside the debate venue.

My notes from the October 10, 2018 debate:

Hubbell opening statement: Thanks Governor Reynolds and those watching. Fifth generation Iowan, running to change Iowa’s direction and put people first. Mentions people in the audience tonight, including Tucker, a quadriplegic who was forced out of his home because of Medicaid privatization. We can do better for the 40 percent of Iowans who work hard but can’t make ends meet. Let’s worth together to put people first. For Governor Reynolds it’s more of the same.

Reynolds opening: thanks debate hosts. Fifth generation Iowan. My story is the Iowa story; daughter of a factory worker and farmer, who waited tables and checked groceries and never gave up on her dream to get a college degree. I understand the challenges Iowans face because I faced them myself. That’s why I cut taxes and invested in education and job training. Iowa is working, US News says we’re number one but I say we’re just getting started.

Steve Karlin Q to Reynolds: What’s the biggest problem in Iowa that you’d like to fix? Reynolds rattles off favorable economic statistics, job creators say business has never been better but they need workforce. So we need to work on getting people to fill the jobs available.

Hubbell says we need to look behind the numbers. When he travels around, he’s been to all 99 counties, he hears from people about problems: mom in Iowa City whose son has mental health issues, teacher in Oelwein says books are falling apart and there’s no money for new textbooks, providers not being paid for services provided to Medicaid recipients. We need to create opportunity for all Iowans, not just some. Fiscal responsibility for all Iowans, improving opportunities for Iowans to make more income.

Reynolds demands rebuttal and rattles off more economic and school funding statistics.

Kathie Obradovich Q to Hubbell about tax cuts: He supports a tax break for low income and middle-income Iowans. Almost 40 percent of Iowans who work can’t pay for necessities. Two years ago that number was 28 percent. We need to create opportunities. We need to stop wasteful tax giveaways, prioritize education and health care.

Q to Reynolds: will she propose additional tax cuts in 2019? She knows what it means to struggle to make ends meet. When their kids were little, her husband Kevin worked days and she worked nights. Reynolds wants to cut taxes, claims Hubbell wants to raise them. We’re not done, we are going to focus on tax credits and do more to make business competitive. Iowans should be keeping more of their hard-earned money.

Follow-up Q: would you also cut spending? Reynolds says when they cut taxes they did it in a fiscally responsible way, they funded priorities including education, health care, public safety.

Hubbell disputes numbers Reynolds gave. Farmers have lost money due to trade war. We’re going to see a massive need for budget cuts next year. Your priorities are reflected in your budget.

Karlin Q is about trend of reduced state funding for public universities. Would Reynolds continue on the path of defunding? She’s excited the budget is balanced and the rainy day fund is full and we are investing our priorities. Refers to 10 percent across the board cuts [when Chet Culver was governor] and says Fred was part of that administration. She says more students are taking college-level courses in high school and that is helping to keep higher education costs down. Touts apprenticeships and other training. We’re going to continue to invest in priorities.

Hubbell response: If education is truly a priority, it should be reflected in state budget. But governor’s budget over last three years has reduced spending for public universities and community colleges. Future Ready Iowa is a nice idea but there’s no dollars there. He wants to cut wasteful tax credits

Reynolds interrupts to talk about across the board budget cuts when Democrats were in power [editor’s note: that was at the depth of the Great Recession, all state budgets were in bad shape]. Says Hubbell keeps talking about tax credits but he’s taken advantage of them for four decades.

Hubbell says she’s talking about history but we need to talk about today. We can fund our priorities today but we need to change our budget.

They play latest Reynolds ad, which touts signing a tax cut and criticizes Hubbell.

Hubbell responds: it’s not unusual, we’ve seen a lot of misleading ads from the governor, this is another one. He supports tax cuts for low income and middle-income Iowans. The tax cut that she’s so excited about will move almost all the money to wealthy and large companies. We can be more fair and give low-income and middle-income people a tax cut. As for his pay, he worked for public companies and his salary was set by the board of directors.

Q to Reynolds: Why don’t you celebrate economic success? Reynolds says we do celebrate wealth but this isn’t about that, this is about letting Iowans keep more of their money. If we hadn’t taken action this year, Iowans taxes would have gone up because of what happened in Washington (federal tax cut).

Now they play a Hubbell ad criticizing Medicaid privatization and showing Reynolds saying managed care is the right choice for Iowa. If Kim Reynolds doesn’t think there’s a problem, how can she fix it?

Reynolds says her priority was to be able to look families in the eye and say there would be a system into the future, when they were gone. She says that wasn’t the case under old Medicaid system. We made changes like 39 states have done. She says she has made changes, brought in new leadership since becoming governor. We’re putting the money into the system to make things work for Iowans. That was recommended by an independent actuary.

Hubbell mentions Tucker again. He’s a quadriplegic and was forced into a nursing home which is more expensive and lower quality care. We didn’t need to do that, and it’s happening all over the state. He’s running into families who had a similar experience and providers who were driven out of business. Per member cost of Medicaid is higher now than before privatization. She brought in the guy who ruined Kansas system. She is bringing in a company that had to pay fines for violations in other states.

Reynolds: he knows it’s not sustainable. I’m a mom and a grandmother and I’m not going to continue to hear those stories about providers not being paid. I put financial penalties into the contract negotiations. We passed oversight legislation last year.

Hubbell: I’m a father and grandfather too. All I hear from Governor Reynolds is that Medicaid privatization is working fine. But it is not working, it’s getting worse.

Reynolds barges in: she’s made multiple changes over the last year. Most Iowans are receiving care they need. It’s a complex system and the MCOs are helping them get an annual physical and helping them stay healthy.

Hubbell: It’s not sustainable when the numbers change every time and when people ask you to defend the numbers, there are no answers.

Reynolds: And you’re telling people what they want to hear with no details about how you would fund the system.

Hubbell: I didn’t say we need to go back to old system. I want to put the state back in control. She has put for-profit companies into control. She is giving them more money.

Reynolds says Hubbell did say he wants to go back to old system.

Obradovich asks about Trump: Does Hubbell have a secret plan to end ethanol production? (laughter) What are his plans for renewables? Hubbell talks about his work on the Power Fund and how he helped secure investment. He’s a big supporter of E15 and he’s said that many times. This president hasn’t been willing to do it. We should have had E15 in place years ago. It may be next year

Reynolds response: The previous administration set biofuels back by ages, we couldn’t get them to honor the statutory. When he was head of the Power Fund a state report said he had no strategy. He has bankrolled groups like the Sierra Club that don’t support biofuels.

Obradovich: You spent most of the year trying to get the president to honor his commitment.

Reynolds: And he did it. It’s done. We have been talking about this for a long time.

Hubbell: I’ve tried to be clear: I want to be the governor for all Iowans, and I don’t care who is in DC. I would be supporting E15. It could have been happening a long time ago. It’s convenient now for political purposes. We need a governor who will stand up for Iowans.

Karlin moves on to ask Hubbell about Planned Parenthood: Would he work to change Iowa’s abortion restrictions, including on late-term abortions? [This is a reference to the 2017 law banning almost all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy.] Hubbell says he has served on Planned Parenthood’s board but also served on the board of a Catholic hospital. He and Charlotte have also supported Broadlawns hospital, including their mental health services. He’s willing to stand up for all Iowans to have access to health care. Criticizes Reynolds administration for making it harder for people to gain access to quality health care. He wants to put real money behind health care.

Q to Reynolds: if courts uphold heartbeat bill, Iowa will have the most restrictive abortion law in the country. But some want to go further to define life as beginning at conception. Do you share the goal of personhood advocates? Reynolds says there are strong and passionate feelings on both sides of the issue. I am pro-life and proud to be pro-life and stand up for the unborn. She will do all she can to defend life. She thinks Fred’s position is extreme, putting taxpayer dollars to an organization that supports late-term abortion and abortion on demand. He even opposed bill that would ban selling fetal parts. [I don’t think that is true. The fetal parts bill was amended to ban almost all abortions after a heartbeat can be detected; that’s the law Hubbell opposes]

Hubbell response: My policy is we need to support people. Look at DHS. The social workers have been cut so much that people have died in foster care. People have died because of Medicaid service cuts.

Hubbell gets to ask Reynolds a question. We all know Medicaid privatization is a disaster, but you just gave $100 million to the MCOs to buttress their bottom line. Will she pledge to stop accepting campaign contributions from MCOs?

Reynolds: I wasn’t the only one taking contributions. The money we put into the system was recommended by an independent actuary based on two years of services. I’m basing my decisions on what an independent actuary said. I’m transparent about my campaign contributions. Why don’t you show people your taxes?

Reynolds Q to Hubbell: she has asked Trump to release his tax returns [I don’t recall her pushing the president on this] and Senate Democrats have introduced a bill that would require the president to release five years of tax returns. Does Hubbell support Trump releasing five years of tax returns? Hubbell says he’s running for governor of Iowa. They can decide what to do in DC, he’s concerned with Iowa.

Hubbell says they released info on total income and sources of income and taxes paid and charitable contributions. Notes that when Bob Ray was running for governor, he released the same information Hubbell did.

Reynolds says 60 percent of Iowans want him to release tax returns. I don’t know what you’re embarrassed about. You only released information from when you knew you were running for governor. [referring to the fact that Hubbell only released summary pages from his 2017 tax return]

Hubbell says she is questioning his motives in running for governor. It’s never been about the money for him. He’s offered to not take a salary. He wants to be governor of all Iowans.

Q to Reynolds on sexual harassment and assault: Not a partisan issue, we have a zero tolerance policy and it starts at the top. It starts with changing the culture and she lets girls sit in her office chair so they know they will be heard. She has strong women as agency leaders and judgeships. People need to know they will be heard and action will be taken.

Same Q to Hubbell: Every person in our state deserves to be treated with respect and dignity. Elected officials must be held to highest standard. We should put in place a whistleblower process. Corporations have that. State government should have that too. Not just talk about it but give people an opportunity to have their grievance addressed.

Q about state budget to Hubbell: State had to cut budget mid-year but also has a growing economy and surplus. Is Iowa’s budget in good shape? He learned in his private sector jobs that headline numbers don’t tell the whole story. Governor was shocked by big surplus, when just a few months ago they took money away from education, judiciary, other things. Businesses need predictability and sustainability. We need to have predictable revenue.

Follow-up: Is the budget in bad shape? Hubbell says look at Medicaid, numbers are always changing, she just put $100 million more into the system. Obradovich asks for short answer. Hubbell says budget is in trouble.

Reynolds now rattling off good economic numbers: incomes rising, that’s why better budget. Reynolds claims falsely there was a $900 million deficit in 2011 and criticizes “crazy bonding scheme” [a reference to the infrastructure bonding called I-JOBS]. Says that will cost Iowa $55 million a year that we could have spent on other things. The budget is balanced, reserves are full, we have a $127 million surplus and we can have a different conversation next year.

Hubbell notes that in 2013, state government had a $900 million surplus, but it’s all gone. They have had to make mid-year budget cuts two years in a row. Hubbell says Iowa has high under-employment. Think about the people. 40 percent of working Iowans can’t pay for food, shelter and clothing because wages are low.

Reynolds claims that Hubbell wants to raise taxes on hard-working Iowans and opposed health care plan that would lower premiums. [A reference to the law allowing Wellmark/Farm Bureau to sell “not insurance,” unregulated health care plans that can exclude people with pre-existing conditions] She says Future Ready Iowa is helping connect people with available jobs. We’re working every single day.

Hubbell says Future Ready Iowa is only funded at 5 percent, it’s 95 percent unfunded.

Reynolds says it will be funded in the future. You are promising everyone money, money, money. Claims Hubbell can’t say how he would balance the budget and the only way he could do that is to raise taxes.

Hubbell says he has managed and balanced complex budgets for over 30 years. He can deliver budgets and priorities. We can balance our budgets but we are throwing money away on tax credits for big businesses instead of investing in people.

Q cites United Way’s “ALICE” report showing 37 percent of working households in Iowa have trouble meeting basic needs. How do you plan to put more struggling Iowans on a path to financial stability? Hubbell mentions his work on 2009 panel that recommended savings by reducing tax credits. Why do we continue to do those? This governor has not only continued them, but they have gotten bigger over time. We don’t need to give tax credits to Apple and Microsoft for data centers. They are coming here because of cheap renewable energy. We could invest in education and health care and income opportunities. Let’s restore collective bargaining rights [to public sector workers] and raise the minimum wage.

Reynolds says Iowa is heading in the right direction and Fred wants to take Iowa backwards. Falsely claims he wants to repeal right to work [he has never said that] and bring back project labor agreements. We need to look at barriers. We need to address the cliff that keeps people down. Mentions women losing child care assistance if they make higher salaries. We need to provide the support system.

Hubbell agrees the cliff is the problem. Iowa’s cliff kicks in at 145 percent of federal poverty level. We should raise that to 180 percent, which is the average for other states. Let’s restore voting right to 110,000 felons and give them the opportunity to be productive members of the system.

Q about stand your ground: Hubbell says he is a big supporter of public safety. This governor has cut public safety spending each of the last two years. He’s been influenced by law enforcement. We need to fund it and he wants to make sure that includes gun safety. It’s not about gun rights or gun control, it’s about safety. Gun owners have given him some ideas about how to make it more safe but allow people to keep their guns. Would he roll back any of the laws? He mentions that we took away rights of law enforcement to decide whether someone should get a permit. Let’s let law enforcement do their job. [referring to the “shall issue” law passed in 2010 by a Democratic-controlled legislature and signed by Culver]

Would Reynolds support further expansion of gun rights? She doesn’t comment on bills until she sees them in final form but she is a strong supporter of right to bear arms. She would be happy to take a look at it.

What about guns in schools? It’s a local decision and we need to take a holistic view, including mental health and school safety.

Hubbell isn’t for teachers being armed. [Editor’s note: this is how I interpreted Hubbell’s comments in real time. A reader objects that he did not directly say he was against arming teachers.] Says we passed a law allowing day care providers to keep loaded weapons in homes unlocked. [Editor’s note: he was referring to DHS proposed rules that Reynolds staffers blocked.] He’s against that when people are watching other people’s kids in their home.

Reynolds asked what she disagrees with in her own party. She can’t think of anything. We’ve had great communication. But she’s not afraid to disagree, even with the president. She didn’t agree with pulling out of NAFTA, she wanted to modernize that. She appreciates what he has done for the economy.

Who in your party do you disagree with? Hubbell says he wants to be governor of all Iowans. He gives examples of people he agrees with. He joined Mercy Hospital board of directors while serving on the Planned Parenthood board. Let’s work together. He will work with anyone who wants to get results for Iowans.

Reynolds is very proud of passing everything she talked about in her condition of the state address. Unanimous passage of mental health bill. Future Ready Iowa initiative and teenage suicide prevention passed unanimously. She knows how to bring people together.

Lightning round (one-word answers):

What is one issue you won’t compromise on? Reynolds pauses for a long time, finally says “life.” Hubbell says “sound fiscal management.”

Term limits for governors? Hubbell says yes, Reynolds no.

Will you commit to weekly news conferences? Both say yes.

Death penalty: Hubbell says we already have a life sentence, life without parole. Reynolds says no.

Legalize recreational marijuana: Hubbell and Reynolds both say no.

Restricting fireworks again? Both say it’s a local issue.

If Iowa legalizes sports betting, should the revenues go to the general fund or somewhere else? Hubbell says dedicated use for revenue, not for general fund. Reynolds says it needs to be dedicated to a source, could be more than one.

Closing statement: Reynolds thanks KCCI and DMR. I’ve been blessed to travel Iowa and the world to talk about great things happening. Eight years ago, people were struggling and the budget was a mess, schools cut by a governor Fred served with. We can’t afford to go backwards, that’s where Fred wants to take us. Facts are undeniable. We’ve been recognized as best state, second lowest unemployment. budget balanced, Iowa is working and we’re just getting started. I humbly ask for your vote on November 6 to keep Iowa moving.

Hubbell: Fifth-generation Iowan and has been listening to a lot of conversations. She promises more of the same and I promise change. I want to share a story. 40 years ago my wife and I had a life-changing experience. Recounts time terrorists hijacked a plane, his wife spent six days on board and he spent thirteen days. Those last seven days he thought about things he would do if he got a second chance. Since that time he has worked very hard to support quality of life and trying to make Iowa better. He wakes up and thinks of that experience every day. He’s motivated to make Iowa better. He’s very concerned about the direction of our state. Governor Reynolds and I have different ideas and we need change. I ask for your vote.

Top image: Cropped from a photo posted by Claire Celsi.

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  • Reynolds Dodge

    I realize I have an arguably unhealthy obsession with campaign finance , but I LOVED Fred’s question to Kim. It was a shining moment in an otherwise “blah” performance from both candidates.

  • This should not happen

    “The governor repeatedly barged in demanding a rebuttal when the moderators had intended to move on to the next question. This isn’t the first rodeo for either Steve Karlin of KCCI or Kathie Obradovich of the Des Moines Register, but they didn’t have a game plan for dealing with this tactic.”

    There are many journalists in Iowa. Surely good moderators could be found, or else moderators in need of better training could be given that training. Not letting either of the debating candidates grab control is a basic of the job.

    And this isn’t the first time. I remember one TV candidate debate during another Iowa election cycle wherein the moderating was so bad that I quit watching. I know good moderating is harder than it looks, but surely the needed skill set can be found in this state.