Coming off a six-way Democratic primary in which none of the candidates went negative, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller predicted it will be hard for either side to sling mud in the contest between Gov. Kim Reynolds and Fred Hubbell.
It was “incredibly noteworthy” not one negative ad appeared in the race for his party’s nomination for governor, the nine-term Democrat said.
“That’s extremely unusual and very healthy,” said Miller, 73, who is running for a tenth term.
He expects campaigns will try to go negative, “but I don’t think that negative ads are going to carry the day.”
“Against Fred, the whole idea that he’s rich and you should vote against him, I don’t think is going to work,” Miller said. “Fred has had an accomplished life, he’s running a strong, relative positive campaign.
“Gov. Reynolds is a very likable person so it’s going to be hard to be, I think, effectively negative against either one of them,” he said.
It may not be as hard as Miller thinks, experts said.
Donna Hoffman, chairwoman of the political science department at the University of Northern Iowa, said intraparty campaigns are different from general election battles, so it’s unlikely the good behavior will continue.
Dennis Goldford, Drake University political science professor, said the campaigns may choose to keep the contest positive, but campaigns operate at more than one level — with candidates and independent and outside groups.
“It’s the independents that generally go negative,” he said. “I would expect that the latter, if not also the former, to be the case this time around.”
Even if the candidates choose to run positive campaigns, “that’s not generally going to be true of others who want to influence the election outcome,” Hoffman said. And voters don’t always distinguish the difference.
Hoffman’s colleague in the UNI political science department, Chris Larimer, anticipates a “very negative campaign” as both sides attempt to associate their opponent with negative personalities and issues.
Democrats, Larimer said, will seek to link Reynolds to President Donald Trump and issues unpopular with their base, such as restrictions on abortion and collective bargaining and management of Medicaid and the state budget.
Republicans will focus on Hubbell “being out of touch with everyday Iowans,” Larimer said. “Even if such comparisons are simply comparisons, the intent is negative and the negativity is likely to escalate quickly."
Goldford cited Republican Party of Iowa Chairman Jeff Kaufmann’s references to “Sir Frederick” as an example.
From the other direction, the Iowa Democratic Party has attacked Reynolds’ “extreme record and policy agenda” that, according to Hubbell’s campaign chairwoman, former Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson, has taken the state “backwards.”
Steffen Schmidt, Iowa State University political science professor, said it was noteworthy that Democrats didn’t go negative against each other. But he doesn’t expect the high road to continue “because the general election is between true adversaries.”
“The minute any campaign goes south (as they already are), the whole season goes negative and into the mud,” he wrote in an email.
Although Michelle Obama’s “when they go low, we go high” description of Democratic campaigning sounds good, it’s unrealistic, Schmidt said.
“In politics, when you are attacked, you counterattack in less than 12 hours every time, or you lose,” he said. “The reason it is critically important to push back immediately against your opponent is because in the era of fake news, people will believe what is being thrown at you unless you strike back.”
He predicted Iowa’s four U.S. House races and the governor’s race in Iowa “will be the most expensive and intense in history with sharp, ‘comparative’ themes — ‘my adversary is a corrupt, incompetent, fool who will or has destroyed the state.’"
“The negative ads have already been scripted and even produced and are locked and loaded, ready to be fired,” Schmidt said.
To some degree, Goldford and Schmidt blame Trump for the tone.
“The Trump approach has begun to legitimize nasty, ad hominem attacks,” Goldford said.
“After all,” Schmidt added, “Trump proved that brutal attacks work in the GOP primary and against Hillary Clinton.”