House race in Iowa will test whether the suburbs have turned from Trump

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Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa.
Bill Clark | CQ-Roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

In a year when Democrats have high hopes of expanding their House majority, the task starts with defending the ground they gained in flipping the chamber in 2018.

A rematch in swing-state Iowa will offer clues about whether forces that drove the party’s success two years ago will hold up on Nov. 3.

Democratic Rep. Cindy Axne, 55, aims to win a second term in Iowa’s 3rd District in the southwestern portion of the state. She faces Republican David Young, the former two-term congressman whom she narrowly beat in 2018.

In the district and in many others around the country, highly educated suburban voters — and White women in particular — showed signs of moving away from President Donald Trump and the GOP and toward Democrats who pledged to forge an independent path in Washington. With Trump at the top of the ticket again, 2020 will start to test whether the midterm results point to a longer-term trend.

“Much of the story of 2018 (and 2020) is a story of suburbanites, particularly white suburban women with a college education who cite community security, health care and education as important policy concerns,” Rachel Paine Caufield, a professor of political science at Drake University in Des Moines, wrote in an email to CNBC. Des Moines, the Iowa capital, sits in the northeast corner of the 3rd District.

She added that suburban voters are generally more likely to disapprove of the president’s immigration policies and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, along with Trump’s overall “tone and tenor.” Republicans such as Young have tried to regain seats they lost in the Trump era by pledging to recapture the strong pre-pandemic economy and bolster small businesses.

The geographically diverse 3rd District includes young city dwellers and rural farming communities to whom Axne and Young have tried to appeal, forcing them to walk an at times tricky political line. But for political observers looking in Iowa for signs of how the rest of the country could vote, the suburbs to the north and west of Des Moines may hold the most clues.

The electoral intrigue in Iowa this year goes well beyond the southwest corner of the state. Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer also aims to defend a northeast Iowa seat she flipped in 2018. The state’s other two House elections — contests to replace retiring Democratic Rep. Dave Loebsack and succeed racist Republican pariah Rep. Steve King — also appear competitive based on recent polling.

Statewide, Iowa could play a major role in shaping the U.S. policy path for the next two years. Incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst is locked in a tight race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield as the GOP tries to hold its 53-47 majority in the chamber.

In the presidential election, polling averages show a neck-and-neck contest between President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden for the Hawkeye State’s six electoral votes.

While the 3rd District has drawn national interest, the money coming into the race suggests the contest may not be as competitive as some other House elections Republicans have targeted as they try to cut into Democrats’ 2018 gains. Axne has easily outraised and outspent Young, though she entered the final stretch of the campaign with about $810,000 in the bank, versus roughly $660,000 for her opponent. Outside groups have spent about $4.1 million in the race, significantly less than they have shelled out in 2020’s most expensive House races.

A changing district

Iowa Congressman David Young votes in his home precinct on November 6, 2018 in Van Meter, Iowa.
Steve Pope | Getty Images

Iowa’s 3rd District underwent a demographic shift over the last decade similar to that of many of the U.S. House seats that flipped to Democratic control in 2018. The area’s median household income topped $67,000 in 2019, a spike from about $52,000 in 2009, according to U.S. Census data.

Last year, 24.6% of the district’s residents older than 25 had bachelor’s degrees, up from 20.6% a decade earlier. In the same time period, the share of people over 25 in the 3rd District with a master’s degree climbed to 7.6% from 5.8%.

Paine Caufield said that as suburbs near Des Moines “have grown and developed, they have attracted more highly educated residents with higher median incomes.” One example is Ankeny, a community north of the capital city that also sits close to Iowa State University in Ames.

At the same time, the area has not become much more racially diverse, as some suburban districts that shifted toward Democrats in 2018 did. About 88% of the district’s residents were White in 2019, down from about 90% in 2009.

Polls show that Axne fares better among more highly educated voters. In a Monmouth survey released last week, she held a 52% to 43% lead over Young among registered voters. The disparity in voter preference by education was stark: She had a 20-percentage-point advantage among White voters with a college degree versus a 5-percentage-point lead among voters without one.

The poll also showed a bigger lead for Axne among women, 12 percentage points, than among men, 8 percentage points. The GOP’s recent struggles to win over suburban women have led Trump to make explicit pleas to the voting bloc, including a series of thinly veiled attempts to stoke White fears of people of color moving into their communities.

“Suburban women, will you please like me?” Trump asked at a rally in Pennsylvania earlier this month.

The policy debate

As Paine Caufield explained, Trump’s health-care goals and his demeanor have contributed to those voters turning away from him. It’s no coincidence that health policy is once again a major focus in the race between Axne and Young. The issue shaped the 3rd District race and many others Democrats won in 2018.

“Health care is a big issue, with the ACA front and center,” said Barbara Trish, a professor of political science at Grinnell College in Iowa. Locally, the vulnerability of rural hospitals to closure has also played a role, she added.

As in their first matchup, Axne has targeted Young for his 2017 vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a debate earlier this month, the congresswoman said her opponent “voted to take away coverage for people with preexisting conditions” — an attack Democrats have used across the country as they play to the popular Obamacare provision.

In a statement to CNBC, Young pointed to an amendment to the GOP-passed bill that he supported in an effort to stop states from letting protections for people with medical conditions lapse. He added, “I and all Iowans want to ensure those with pre-existing conditions are protected and not discriminated against.”

Young also argued a public health-care option — which Axne and many national Democrats support — would start a “slow drip to a complete government takeover of health care.” Democrats who back the policy — which is popular in public opinion polls — say it will give people not covered by private insurance more options, especially in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under the ACA.

Iowa, which did expand the federal-state insurance program for low-income Americans, had one of the lowest uninsured rates in the country last year, at 4.7%.

Meanwhile, Iowa continues to struggle to contain its Covid-19 outbreak as the country reaches record levels of infections. Iowa most recently reported 1,143 new daily cases, a 7.5% increase from a week before, according to the Covid Tracking Project.

The lack of new federal coronavirus relief money has played a role in Iowa congressional races. Though the state’s September unemployment rate of 4.7% was the fifth lowest in the nation, Iowa, like the rest of the country, has seen businesses struggling to survive and residents scrambling to cover bills during the pandemic.

In the latest candidate debate, Young said “Iowa needs help.” He also argued Democrats are “not serious about getting a deal” and have sought “outrageous numbers” for relief money. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has backed a $2.2 trillion proposal.

Axne, who has portrayed herself as an independent voice, has highlighted her efforts to push Democratic leaders to pass less-expensive, more-targeted aid that could also earn support from the GOP-held Senate. She opposed Democrats’ latest bill earlier this month. She said in a statement after her vote that “the only thing that will deliver the help my constituents need is a bill that will actually become law.”

In a statement to CNBC, Axne identified curbing the pandemic and its accompanying economic damage as her top priority.

“We cannot hope to return to any sense of normalcy until we defeat this virus — and that means a national strategy on testing, contact tracing, and protective steps like masks,” she said. “This pandemic has also been an important reminder that we need to continue to work on expanding access to affordable, quality health care, ensuring Iowa families and communities have more opportunities to succeed, and holding our government accountable to its citizens.”

In his statement to CNBC, Young also cited “rebuilding the economy in a safe manner” and developing therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 as two of his priorities. He pointed to “keeping taxes low, keeping regulations in check” and “opening new markets for our farmers and manufacturers” as other priorities.

Agriculture, of course, always plays a role in Iowa. During her time in Congress, Axne has opposed the Trump administration’s trade war with China, which damaged many Iowa farmers. She also pushed for swift ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — the Trump administration’s revisions to the North American Free Trade Agreement — which helped to stabilize key markets for the state’s agriculture industry.

In a district where political moderation appears to play well with the electorate, both candidates have tied their opponent to national political leaders. Young’s ability in particular to push a message of economic recovery, while creating distance from the most unpopular pieces of Trump’s first term, could determine whether he wins back his seat in Washington.

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