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House freshmen try to keep it local as presidential race steals the spotlight

Iowa Democratic Reps. Cindy Axne and Abby Finkenauer are taking similar approaches to their reelections

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, flips pork burgers at the Iowa State Fair. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, flips pork burgers at the Iowa State Fair. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

DES MOINES — Rep. Cindy Axne’s letter to Customs and Border Protection about African swine fever didn’t make national news. But it did prompt a “thank you” from a man with the Iowa Pork Association as Axne flipped pork burgers last week at the Iowa State Fair.

Attention to issues like that disease, which could threaten the country’s pork industry if it reached the U.S., is how first-term Democratic lawmakers like Axne are working to win reelection in 2020.

[Iowa culture shock: Moving to the Midwest to staff a presidential campaign]

Axne and fellow Iowa Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer are trying to stay laser-focused on local issues to prevail in districts President Donald Trump carried in 2016.  Two of the 43 Democrats who flipped GOP-held seats in 2018, the pair made history as the first women to represent Iowa in the House. But they aren’t fixtures on cable news or in national headlines.

“I’m never going to be the person who’s going to make a headline over a Twitter post,” Finkenauer said in an interview at the fair. “But I’m going to be the person passing the bills and actually listening to my constituents and going back to Washington and making sure their voices are heard.”

Breaking through

The challenge is making sure constituents hear about those bills and that advocacy, a task made more difficult when nearly two dozen Democratic presidential candidates are crisscrossing the state trying to get voters to caucus for them in February.

While Axne and Finkenauer got a shout out from Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar at the Des Moines Register’s political soapbox during the state fair, few of the other presidential contenders even mentioned there were competitive congressional races.

But these are some of the seats that will determine which party controls the House in 2021. As a reminder of that, cardboard cutouts of the House members were featured at the Iowa Democratic Party’s booth at the fair, a frequent stop for presidential contenders.

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, talks with fairgoers at the Iowa Democratic Party booth. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, stands in front of a cutout picture of herself in the Iowa Democratic Party booth at the state fair. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Finkenauer won Iowa’s 1st District by 5 points in 2018, defeating GOP Rep. Rod Blum. Axne defeated GOP Rep. David Young by 2 points in the 3rd District. Along with electing Blum and Young, both districts also backed Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016. For 2020, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District race Tilts Democratic and the 3rd District race a Toss-Up.

Both Axne and Finkenauer are trying to prioritize local news coverage, particularly when they’re traversing their districts.

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Axne does regular interviews with local radio stations and visits each of the district’s 16 counties each month, as Young did. She has also had to help her constituents navigate disaster relief after floods struck in March. Axne recalled texting House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita Lowey late at night about language in a disaster relief bill that included money for those affected by the floods.

Finkenauer is hosting regular “conversations with your congresswoman” events and has tried to use her position as one of 18 freshmen who chairs a subcommittee — hers is part of the Small Business Committee and focuses on rural development and agriculture — to highlight Iowans at hearings.

Finkenauer and Axne are gearing up for competitive campaigns themselves by raking in campaign donations. Finkenauer’s campaign had $631,000 in cash on hand on June 30, while Axne has $841,000, outpacing their potential GOP opponents.

GOP state Rep. Ashley Hinson, who is taking on Finkenauer, had $300,000 in her campaign account as of June 30. Young, who launched a rematch against Axne, had $342,000.

As the presidential race heats up, the Democratic freshmen will have to continue to remind voters and donors that their 2020 House races matter.

“I always want to encourage everybody that the Democratic House majority is literally the one holding our democracy together at this point, and nobody should ever take that for granted,” Axne said in an interview at the fair.

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National party ties

As Axne and Finkenauer try to localize their races, Republicans are sure to tie them to the presidential race, particularly to such liberal proposals as “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal.”

Neither Finkenauer nor Axne co-sponsor the Medicare for All legislation in the House. In interviews, Axne criticized the Green New Deal as “not even policy” and Finkenauer noted she is not in any of the ideological caucuses.

But Republicans are working to link them to the proposals.


“The whole debate on health care is going to be driven top-down, right, probably from the presidential [race],” Young said as he sat next to the Turkey Association’s grill last week. Young was criticized in 2018 for his vote in favor of the GOP bill to repeal much of the 2010 health care law. He declined to say he regretted that vote.

Former GOP Rep. David Young talks to CQ Roll Call at the Iowa State Fair. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).
Former GOP Rep. David Young talks to CQ Roll Call at the Iowa State Fair. (Thomas McKinless/CQ Roll Call).

In her announcement video, Hinson showed images of Finkenauer along with such national Democratic figures as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Hinson said in an interview at the fair that Iowans want a lawmaker with a “common sense” approach.

The Trump factor

Republicans think the presidential race will ultimately help in districts like these, with Trump driving out his supporters. Both districts are a mix of suburban and rural areas and Trump won each by 3 points in 2016.

Trump’s presence on the ballot could also hurt Republicans in suburban areas, where they endured heavy losses in 2018. Those areas are home to voters such as Barry Boyer, a self-described “disaffected Republican” who left the party after Trump was elected.

“Thank you for what you’re doing!” Boyer shouted at Axne as she flipped pork burgers last week. Boyer, 57, is from Cedar Rapids, which is in Finkenauer’s district. 

A retired CEO of an electrical supply company, Boyer said he switched his party registration because Republicans failed to condemn the president’s rhetoric, particularly about people of color. He said Hinson was a “fine person” but he would be supporting Finkenauer in 2020.

Hinson acknowledged Republicans struggled in the suburbs in 2018 but argued she can win in those areas. She represents a state house district near Cedar Rapids, where she worked as a television journalist. Hillary Clinton won her state House district in 2016 by 1 point, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections.

“I think that suburban women have a great story to tell. I am one,” Hinson said. She added, “So I think when it comes down to it, I feel like I can tell their stories properly.”

Young said congressional Republicans bore the brunt of frustrations with Trump in 2018, but he suggested those voters would support Republicans running for Congress in 2020.

“Now, those frustrations are still there. They can take that out on the president,” Young said. 

Although dissatisfaction with the president contributed to their 2018 victories, criticizing Trump is a tightrope walk for Axne and Finkenauer, since Trump won both of their districts. Trump’s tariff and trade policies could give them an opening. Finkenauer, for example, said Trump “literally is betting the farms of my neighbors.”

Both parties see an opportunity to go on offense on trade. The GOP challengers knocked Axne and Finkenauer for not taking a position on the trade deal known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, a renegotiation of the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA. A congressional working group is in discussions with the White House on changes to the trade deal.

Both Young and Hinson said they dislike Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, which led to Chinese retaliation on soybeans and pork, which had been major Iowa exports. Some farmers are still supporting the president in hopes that the tariffs will bring China to the negotiating table.

Despite some pushback on the president’s tariff policy, Republicans are generally hesitant to criticize the president. Young did say he wished Trump would be, “more Iowan and less New York.”

Asked what that meant, Young gave what might be considered an “Iowa nice” answer: “People will figure that one out.”

Jason Dick contributed to this report.

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