Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa.
Bill Clark | CQ Appeal, Inc. | Getty Images
In a year when Democrats have high hopes of expanding their house majority, the task begins by defending the soil they gained by flipping the chamber in 2018.
A rematch in swing state Iowa will provide clues as to whether the forces that drove the party's success two years ago will remain on November 3rd.
Democratic MP Cindy Axne, 55, is seeking a second term in the 3rd District of Iowa, southwestern part of the state. She meets Republican David Young, the former two-term congressman who she narrowly beat in 2018.
In the district and many other countries in the country, highly educated suburban voters – and white women in particular – showed signs of turning from President Donald Trump and the GOP to Democrats who had pledged to pursue an independent path in Washington. With Trump back on top of the ticket, 2020 will begin testing whether the medium-term results point to a longer-term trend.
"Much of the 2018 (and 2020) story is about suburbanites, especially college-educated suburban white women, who make safety, health, and community education top political concerns," said Rachel Paine Caufield, professor of political science at the Drake University at Des Moines, wrote in an email to CNBC. Des Moines, the capital of Iowa, is in the northeast corner of the 3rd District.
She added that local voters in general were more likely to condemn the president's immigration policies and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, along with Trump's general "tone and tenor". Republicans like Young have tried to regain seats they lost in the Trump era by pledging to regain the strong pre-pandemic economy and empowering small businesses.
The geographically diverse 3rd District includes young urban dwellers and rural farming communities that Axne and Young have sought to appeal to, forcing them to take a sometimes difficult political line. But for political watchers looking to Iowa for signs of how the rest of the country might vote, the suburbs north and west of Des Moines might hold the most clues.
Electoral intrigue in Iowa this year extends well beyond the southwest corner of the state. Democratic MP Abby Finkenauer also wants to defend a seat in northeast Iowa, which she moved in 2018. The state's other two general elections – competitions designed to replace retired Democratic MP Dave Loebsack and replace racist Republican pariah MP Steve King – also appear to be competitive in polling.
Across the state, Iowa could play an important role in shaping the US political path for the next two years. Incumbent Republican Senator Joni Ernst is in a tight race with Democrat Theresa Greenfield as the GOP tries to keep its 53-47 majority in the chamber.
In the presidential election, poll averages show that President Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden compete for six Hawkeye State votes.
While the 3rd District has generated national interest, the money pouring into the race suggests that the competition may not be as competitive as some of the other house elections that Republicans are targeting when trying to win the Democrats for 2018 to restrict. Axne slightly outperformed and outperformed Young despite entering the final phase of the campaign with about $ 810,000 in the bank, versus about $ 660,000 for her opponent. Outside groups spent around $ 4.1 million on the race, significantly less than the most expensive house races of 2020.
A changing district
Iowa Congressman David Young will vote in his home district in Van Meter, Iowa on November 6, 2018.
Steve Pope | Getty Images
Iowa's 3rd District has seen demographic change over the past decade, similar to that of many seats in the U.S. House of Representatives that were under Democratic control in 2018. The median household income for the region was over $ 67,000 in 2019, up from about $ 52,000 in 2009, according to US census data.
Last year, 24.6% of the district's residents over the age of 25 had a bachelor's degree, up from 20.6% a decade ago. During the same period, the proportion of people over the age of 25 in the 3rd district with a master's degree rose from 5.8% to 7.6%.
Paine Caufield said the suburbs near Des Moines "have grown and developed, attracting better educated residents with higher median incomes." One example is Ankeny, a parish north of the capital that's also near Iowa State University in Ames.
At the same time, the area hasn't gotten much racially diverse, like some suburban boroughs did, which shifted towards Democrats in 2018. About 88% of the district's residents were white in 2019, compared to about 90% in 2009.
Polls show that Axne does better among more educated voters. In a Monmouth poll released last week, she had a 52% to 43% lead over Young in registered voters. The differences in voter preference for education were large: it had a 20 percent point advantage among white voters with a university degree versus a 5 percent point advantage among voters without one.
The survey also found that Axne had a bigger lead in women (12 percentage points) than in men (8 percentage points). The GOP's recent struggles to win over suburban women have led Trump to make explicit requests to the polling bloc, including a series of barely-veiled attempts to fuel white fears of colored people moving into their communities.
"Suburban women, will you like me please?" Trump asked at a rally in Pennsylvania earlier this month.
The political debate
As Paine Caufield explained, Trump's health goals and behavior helped make voters turn away from him. It is no coincidence that health policy is once again the focus in the race between Axne and Young. The theme shaped the race in the 3rd district and many other Democrats won in 2018.
"Health care is a big problem with the ACA Front and the ACA Center," said Barbara Trish, professor of political science at Grinnell College, Iowa. Locally, the vulnerability of rural hospitals to closure has also played a role, she added.
As in their first matchup, Axne targeted Young for its 2017 vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act. In a debate earlier this month, the congresswoman said her opponent "voted to cut coverage for people with pre-existing conditions" – an attack that Democrats across the country used to crack down on the popular Obamacare provision.
In a statement to CNBC, Young pointed to an amendment to the law passed by the GOP that he supported to prevent states from removing protections for people with illness. He added, "I and all Iowans want to make sure that those with pre-existing conditions are protected and not discriminated against."
Young also argued that a public health option – which Axne and many National Democrats support – would create a "slow drop in full government takeover of health care." Democrats who support the policy, which is popular in public opinion polls, say it offers more options to people who are not covered by private insurance, especially in states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid under the ACA .
Iowa, which has expanded its 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 hits record levels of infections. Iowa last reported 1,143 new daily cases, up 7.5% from a week earlier, according to the Covid Tracking Project.
The lack of new federal coronavirus aid has played a role in the Iowa Congressional races. Although the state's unemployment rate was the fifth lowest in the nation at 4.7% in September, like the rest of the country, Iowa businesses struggled to survive and residents struggled to keep bills during the pandemic.
In the recent candidate debate, Young said, "Iowa needs help." He also argued that Democrats "aren't serious about getting a deal" and have sought "outrageous numbers" for aid money. House spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi has backed a $ 2.2 trillion proposal.
Axne, who has portrayed herself as an independent voice, has highlighted her efforts to encourage Democratic leaders to provide cheaper, more targeted aid that could also be supported by the GOP Senate. She was against the Democrats' latest bill earlier this month. She said in a statement following her vote that "the only thing that will provide the help my constituents need is a bill that actually becomes law."
In a statement to CNBC, Axne identified containing the pandemic and the economic damage it caused as her top priority.
"We cannot hope to return to a sense of normalcy until we defeat this virus – and that means a national strategy for testing, contact tracing, and protective measures like masks," she said. "This pandemic also served as an important reminder that we must continue to work to expand access to affordable, quality health care, ensure families and communities in Iowa have a better chance of success, and hold our government accountable to its citizens . "
In his statement to CNBC, Young also cited "safely rebuilding the economy" and developing therapeutics and vaccines for Covid-19 as two of his priorities. He pointed out "keeping taxes down, keeping regulations in check" and "opening up new markets for our farmers and manufacturers" as other priorities.
Agriculture, of course, always plays a role in Iowa. During her tenure in Congress, Axne opposed the Trump administration's trade war with China that harmed many farmers in Iowa. It also urged swift ratification of the United States-Mexico-Canada accord – the Trump administration's revision of the North American Free Trade Agreement – which helped stabilize key markets for the state's agribusiness.
In a district where political moderation seems to play well with voters, both candidates have tied their opponents to national political leaders. In particular, Young's ability to spread a message of economic recovery while keeping distance from the most unpopular parts of Trump's first term could determine whether he wins his Washington seat back.
Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube.