IA-Gov post-mortem: One mistake and two missed opportunities

Nate Williams is a labor attorney and served in the Iowa House from 2009 through 2012. -promoted by desmoinesdem

I am not sure whether to think of this as “three mistakes Fred Hubbell’s campaign made” or “one mistake the Hubbell campaign made and two missed opportunities.”

Either way, there are three things I wish the Hubbell campaign would have done very differently.

After Governor Kim Reynolds ran a television commercial warning voters Hubbell will raise taxes, Hubbell’s response ad was a mistake.

You will note Fred Hubbell is a Democrat, while Kim Reynolds is a Republican. You will note Republicans have claimed their Democratic opponent will raise peoples’ taxes in every election since… a very long time ago. So again, in 2018, Kim Reynolds stated Fred Hubbell will raise peoples’ taxes. Fred Hubbell responded with an ad saying, “I am not going to raise taxes on the middle class.”

The Reynolds response to Hubbell’s response practically wrote itself. They simply showed video of Hubbell on Iowa Public Television’s “Iowa Press” program saying, “we’re going to have to peel back all those tax cuts… I’m talking about all the tax cuts.”

There are a thousand sports metaphors to describe how easy and decisive the Reynolds response was to a weak Hubbell claim.

The tax issue is largely baked into the electorate. Voters are not dumb. They know that Republicans typically want lower taxes and fewer government services. They know Democrats are for comparatively higher taxes and more government services. The final pre-election Des Moines Register poll by Selzer & Co showed that by a 45 percent to 42 percent margin, Iowans favor higher taxes and more government services over lower taxes and fewer government services.

I can only assume Hubbell’s polling was not significantly different on this question. This was an electorate with which Democrats should have been able to do business. As an issue, taxes should have been, at worst, a wash.

Unfortunately, after Hubbell responded claiming he would not raise taxes, followed by Reynolds copying and pasting video of Hubbell stating the opposite, the issue was no longer taxes. The issue became honesty.

Previously, Fred Hubbell could credibly claim to be a non-politician, businessman and philanthropist who felt compelled to step forward and run for Governor because he was frightened by the direction in which Iowa was headed. This ad changed that. This Reynolds ad allowed people to conclude, “I guess Hubbell is just another politician who will say whatever it is he thinks I want to hear.”

After taxes, the Hubbell campaign either made a mistake or missed an opportunity on health care. Republicans gift-wrapped an opportunity for us. Kim Reynolds signed into law legislation which allows the Iowa Farm Bureau and Wellmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield to sell an insurance product which denies care for policy holders’ pre-existing conditions. In other words, pre-existing conditions need not only be a federal issue Democrats could use to pound Republican members of Congress, we could credibly run the same type of campaign against Kim Reynolds. We did not.

Others clearly had polling showing the issue denying people health care for pre-existing conditions is awfully important to voters. In a commercial block during the KCRG 10:00 news one week before the election, there were three different commercials hitting U.S. Representative Rod Blum for denying people health care based on pre-existing conditions. One was paid for by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, one was paid for by the Plumbers and Pipefitters labor union, and one was paid for by Abby Finkenauer’s campaign. All three said Rod Blum voted precisely ten times to deny care based on pre-existing conditions.

Now, it is not as if the Hubbell campaign had nothing to say on health care. They ran powerful, heart-wrenching ads rightly criticizing Reynolds for the mess of Medicaid privatization. I also think I understand the campaign’s plan. The Hubbell campaign wanted to focus on Medicaid, mental health and education funding.

I think the problem is how they looked at their own issues. One could have thought, “the two issues we want to attack Reynolds on are health care and education. Within health care, we want to talk about Medicaid, mental health and pre-existing conditions.” Instead, the Hubbell campaign seems to have stuck to the three issues they identified. A campaign needs message discipline, and sometimes this may lead to some rigidity. I believe we could have achieved the same ends by focusing on health care more generally or by making pre-existing conditions one of the three issues.

Again, I want to give the Hubbell campaign credit for its focus on Medicaid. Hubbell got more mileage out of Medicaid as an issue than I would have ever thought possible. All families with one or more members receiving services through Medicaid and, honestly, anybody who works in health care in this state are directly and negatively impacted by the actions of Branstad-Reynolds.

When you add up all those voters, though, it is still less than the entire electorate. All Iowa voters have not been directly impacted by Medicaid privatization. On the other hand, virtually all Iowa voters have some pre-existing condition or can easily imagine having some pre-existing condition. The denial of health care for pre-existing conditions was the most impactful health care issue because it will impact virtually everyone. Finkenauer capitalized on that reality for her Congressional race, but Hubbell did not.

Finally, the Hubbell campaign did not have a specific message for rural Iowa, for the counties that are not growing. The Hubbell campaign is not alone in this. I have not seen any Democratic nominee for statewide office in Iowa offer a vision for rural Iowa since Tom Vilsack. Conversely, I have heard Democratic leaders respond to a reporter’s question about a message for rural voters by saying, “well, I think rural voters want what every Iowan wants… good schools, jobs, etc.” That is not good enough.

Iowa Democrats need to recognize that the anxieties of rural Iowa are, in fact, different. Johnston is not worried about losing its local school, hospital or medical clinic. Many small towns and counties do. Simple, critical local institutions like the school and the hospital are at risk and need preserving.

You may rightly criticize me for wanting the Hubbell campaign to do everything I ask and muddle its message. Here is the thing, though: the Hubbell issue “Medicaid privatization” is specifically threatening rural hospitals and clinics. The Hubbell issue “education funding” is hurting small school districts the most. There is a powerful case to be made against Kim Reynolds specifically tailored to small-town voters. This need not change what Polk County voters see on their television. It could have been folded in within and under the overall campaign message through mail, digital, rural radio, cable buys, etc.

Democrats can win statewide if they do not get crushed in rural Iowa. To not get crushed in rural Iowa, a Democrat needs to demonstrate some understanding that the struggles of West Union are different from those in West Des Moines.

To convince voters in small towns you are a Democrat who gives a damn about them, it requires allocation of campaign time and money in the media budget. Providing a vision for rural Iowa that offers hope for the future of small towns would be wonderful, but I would settle for at least demonstrating an appreciation of the anxieties that exist in the 85 counties which are not growing.

Top image: Screen shot from a Hubbell campaign commercial responding to Kim Reynolds’ attack on taxes.

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  • Likability

    If I had not been a delegate to the State convention, I would have never met Mr. Hubbell. I shook his hand one time and we just stared at each other. He certainly didn’t come to my area. I met Rob Sand 3 to 4 times, he knows my first name. I was not a huge donor that he should have known! He is plain likable, not charmingly likable but he talked to everyone, he is down to earth, made his case as to why the people of Iowa should vote for him instead of his opponent. Mr. Sand is a true prosecutor, he had his facts ready and his opinions based on his faith and reasonableness. He put the work in as many other candidates did, he got out and simply talked to people. I did not see Mr. Hubbell do the same, at most I saw his running mate a lot more! I agree with all the points made in the article and for one commercial to be that effective is ridiculous. It wasn’t even a high quality, informative commercial, it simply played off the fact that a rich, priveleged white man with no real political experience was running for the highest seat in Iowa. Reynolds, with the multiple problems from the budget crisis to the privatization crisis(which my friend Tucker’s commercial was probably the most effective). I hope this is a lesson learned!

    • Hubbell came to your area

      multiple times. Maybe the events weren’t conveniently scheduled or well-publicized, but he definitely made more than one trip there.

      Rob Sand did run a great campaign, no question about that.

  • Would have been hard for Hubbell

    to campaign against the bad bill on fake Farm Bureau/Wellmark health insurance policies, since Rita Hart and a lot of other Democratic lawmakers voted for that bill.

    Otherwise, I agree with your analysis.

    • you'd think they'd learn

      not to capitulate on values

      • many of them knew it was a bad bill

        They were afraid of possible Republican attack ads saying “Rita Hart voted against making low-cost insurance available to hard-working Iowa farmers.”

  • yes!

    those small rural hospitals have saved members of their family, and those schools have always educated their youth. i didn’t even see more than a few commercials (don’t watch TV much) and i was bored with the same missing-the-mark target shooting.

  • Old Question: for what do Democrats stand?

    I heard several primary voters say they went with Hubbell because of his money and his name. I heard many general election voters say they voted against Reynolds. I did not hear anybody say they were for Hubbell. I would add another missed opportunity. With the Younkers issue, my reaction was this was 30 years ago; I want to know what will happen in the next 30 years. Instead, I had the impression Hubbell did not have a strong vision for Iowa’s future. The Medicaid issue, which was emphasized the by the Iowa Democrats’ weekly mailings, did not engage me. As with all healthcare and health insurance matters, it is much more than a more-money, more-management debate. There was no substance to the debates/advertisements on that issue..

  • Per Paragraph 17 above, I'd like to know more...

    …about what Vilsack’s vision was for rural Iowa. I wasn’t paying attention to that issue at the time he ran because I knew I’d vote for him over Lightfoot.

    I’m afraid what I do remember Vilsack talking about was growing various kinds of genetically-engineered pharma-corn (varieties of corn that could be used to produce medicine) as one option to improve the economy in rural Iowa, And that did not sound sensible or safe to anyone I knew who knew that corn is wind-pollinated and corn pollen can easily travel for miles.

    I hope and assume Vilsack had much better ideas — would they still be valid and useful to candidates today? I’m guessing that “continue to turn rural Iowa into a gigantic pig-poop factory” was not one of them.