IA-03: Zach Nunn's out, Cindy Axne out-raised David Young

I didn’t see this coming: former U.S. Representative David Young has in effect cleared the Republican field in Iowa’s third Congressional district.

But current U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, who defeated Young last November, is positioning herself well for the rematch.


State Senator Zach Nunn sounded set on running for Congress when he announced his “listening tour” around the IA-03 counties in May. While Nunn was on a military deployment out of state in June, his wife told Bleeding Heartland they would make a “final decision as a family sometime next month.”

Nunn ended the speculation on July 15. In a confusingly-worded statement (enclosed in full at the end of this post), he said he would “defer on a potential congressional bid.” Typically “defer” means putting off a final decision, but Nunn quickly confirmed on Twitter that he is supporting Young’s candidacy.

Earlier this year, various Republican sources indicated the party was looking for new blood in IA-03. But Young outmaneuvered Nunn by making his candidacy official first, quickly nailing down an endorsement from U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley, and securing a campaign contribution from former Governor Terry Branstad.

Bill Schafer is also running for Congress here, but he will not be a factor in the GOP primary. His first Federal Election Commission quarterly filing reported $5,731.23 in contributions, mostly from himself and relatives, and $4,342.01 cash on hand.

At least two Republicans who had been considering this race took themselves out of contention recently. State Senator Jake Chapman confirmed in June that he will seek re-election to the Iowa legislature, and Pleasant Hill Mayor Sara Kurovski announced this month that she will challenge Polk County Supervisor Steve Van Oort in the GOP primary.

State Representative Jon Jacobsen told Bleeding Heartland in June that he has been evaluating Axne’s record in Congress and intends to announce his plans before Labor Day. I anticipate he will seek another term in the Iowa House rather than compete against Young in the IA-03 primary.


Axne shattered fundraising records for Iowa Congressional challengers last year and is on track to raise plenty for her first re-election race. FEC filings show her campaign raised $387,635.92 during the first quarter of the year and $603,287.06 from April through June. Here’s the breakdown:

Individual contributions: $263,135.92 during 1Q, $378,296.00 during 2Q
PACs: $124,500 during 1Q, $166,700 during 2Q
Transfers from other committees: Nothing in 1Q, $57,658.79 in 2Q

The transfers mostly involved joint fundraisers with other Democratic office-holders.

The numerous PACs supporting Axne included labor unions, progressive groups, trade associations, and campaigns of fellow U.S. House Democrats (see here and here for the full lists). The Republican Party of Iowa demanded that Axne return a $2,000 contribution from U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar’s committee. The campaign told Bleeding Heartland on July 19 that there are no plans to return that donation.

Axne has raised more than twice as much this year from individuals as from PACs. By comparison, during Young’s first two quarters as a member of Congress in 2015, he raised more than $352,000 from PACs and only about $196,000 from individuals (see here and here).

In addition, only ten of Axne’s numerous individual donors have given the maximum $5,600 for the 2020 election cycle. Most of them could give again this year or next. Since IA-03 will be a top-targeted race for both parties, Axne has the potential to tap donors from around the country who are committed to keeping the House in Democratic hands. That dynamic helped her campaign raise a staggering $2.5 million during the third quarter of 2018 alone.

Young did well on the fundraising front in his first two months as a challenger. His campaign took in $359,700.06, including $298,064.42 from individuals and $54,750 from PACs (a mix of corporations, conservative groups, and committees affiliated with House Republicans). Only about fifteen of Young’s donors have maxed out with $5,600 gifts, so most could give again. Young’s $1,000 contribution from Branstad may have helped scare other Republicans out of this race.

Billionaire Dennis Albaugh of Ankeny, normally a reliable Republican donor, is hedging his bets with $2,800 donations to both Young and Axne this year.


Some central Iowa Republican sources believe that having President Donald Trump on the 2020 ballot will bring out low-propensity voters who lean conservative, sweeping Young back into office. Republican commentator Craig Robinson expressed a similar view during an Iowa Public Television appearance in May.

If you look at how David performed in 2016 and compared it to 2018 you see that there was about a 13 point drop off in the part of the district that he won in 2018. So there’s plenty of I think votes out there for him to get that could help him recapture this seat. Republicans don’t have a problem I think with who David Young is, the type of campaign he runs, it was just kind of the perfect storm that knocked him out and I think if there’s ever an opportunity to have, to give someone another shot at getting the seat back, I think this is a good one for David to take on.

Bleeding Heartland will consider that scenario more thoroughly in a forthcoming post. As you can see from the interactive map and table enclosed below, Axne defeated Young last year by running up the score in Polk County and keeping the GOP margin low in nearby Dallas County. Like many successful Democratic challengers around the country, she performed well in suburban precincts that had long favored Republicans. So I’m not convinced that Trump on the ballot will be an asset to Young.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates IA-03 “leans Democratic,” partly because of the high percentage of college-educated voters and partly because Fred Hubbell did well here in last year’s governor’s race.

I am inclined to agree with the Cook Political Report’s toss-up rating for now. Suburban voters may not continue to trend Democratic, and we don’t know yet which party will benefit more from extremely high expected turnout next November. On paper, IA-03 is about as evenly divided as a district could be, with 170,018 active registered Democrats, 169,837 Republicans, and 174,565 no party voters, according to the latest official numbers. Both Young and Axne will have extensive Congressional voting records that provide fodder for positive and negative ads. That’s why some Republicans privately felt the party would do well to nominate a new candidate with less baggage.

The National Republican Congressional Committee released partial results from an internal poll showing a named candidate (Young) leading Axne by 48 percent to 42 percent. I’m always skeptical about internal polls that don’t let you see the question wording or question order. This survey appears to have asked leading questions, such as whether “Congress should focus more on policies that preserve individual freedoms for everyone, rather than on socialist programs that could bankrupt the country.” Though Republicans will no doubt try to depict Axne as a socialist, those attacks are unlikely to be credible.

Final note: Republicans eliminated the straight-ticket option on Iowa ballots in 2017. Although that change had no obvious impact on last year’s down-ballot races, it could reduce numbers for Young or Axne, depending on whether Iowans who vote only in presidential years take the time to fill in the oval next to candidates for Congress.

UPDATE: Bryan Jack Holder told Bleeding Heartland on July 19 that he intends to run for Congress next year, either as a Libertarian or as a third-party candidate. As the Libertarian nominee in IA-03 the last two cycles, Holder gained 3.9 percent of the vote in 2016 and 2.0 percent in 2018.

Appendix 1: County-level results from the 2018 election in IA-03

Click on any county to bring up the vote totals and percentages for Axne and Young across the third district.

County Name

D Canidate 1 61% 30390
R Canidate 2 39% 10390

Axne above 50%

Young between 50% and 60%

Young above 60%

Here are the same results in a table.

How David Young and Cindy Axne performed in IA-03 counties
County Young votes Young vote share Axne votes Axne vote share
Polk 82,404 40.1% 115,877 56.4%
Dallas 21,089 51.5% 18,593 45.4%
Pottawattamie 18,181 53.8% 14,044 41.6%
Warren 12,778 53.1% 10,363 43.1%
Madison 4,749 62.4% 2,589 34.0%
Mills 3,941 62.5% 2,146 34.0%
Cass 3,829 66.3% 1,777 30.8%
Page 3,776 67.1% 1,741 30.9%
Guthrie 3,159 63.3% 1,622 32.5%
Union 2,930 60.3% 1,717 35.4%
Montgomery 2,631 66.5% 1,209 30.6%
Adair 2,205 64.9% 1,067 31.4%
Fremont 1,933 64.1% 990 32.8%
Taylor 1,683 69.3% 673 27.7%
Ringgold 1,493 65.7% 716 31.5%
Adams 1,152 66.6% 518 29.9%
District-wide 167,933 47.1% 175,519 49.3%

Appendix 2: Zach Nunn’s July 15 news release


State Senator Zach Nunn (R-Bondurant) will join an international election monitoring team for Ukraine’s snap Parliamentary elections this week, opting to defer on a potential congressional bid in Iowa’s 3rd District.

Sen. Nunn, who serves as Iowa’s International Relations Committee Chairman, will join the US State Department in partnership with Ukraine’s Central Election Commission. The team will help ensure “free and fair elections” in the wake of Russian-backed separatists that have occupied nearly a third of the country.

“I am humbled by the responsibility to help protect democracy in this key geopolitical region. This is about ensuring democracy in a place that once experienced first-hand authoritarian Soviet control and hostile puppet governments.” Nunn said.

Nunn, a former White House director of cybersecurity and current squadron commander within his military unit, will join a small group of international election monitors in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine.

Nunn’s departure follows his decision not to launch a bid for Iowa’s 3rd Congressional District. Sen. Nunn won re-election in 2018 as a Republican in a historically Democrat district, beating the current congresswoman by double-digits in several key Polk County precincts.

Nunn said, “For the past few weeks, we’ve met hundreds of Iowans on a 16-county ‘Listening Tour’ across southwest Iowa. We received overwhelmingly positive support from everyday Iowans. Going forward, we’re still deeply committed to serving, working for Iowans, and helping improve communities.”

Sen. Nunn thanked the scores of supporters who encouraged him to run. “Congress can be fixed. Doing it will require more of the Iowa model of home-grown solutions — and less of the D.C. mandates and extremism.”

“Growing our nation’s success and forging a path forward starts with winning back Iowa’s 3rd District. I support leaders like US Senator Grassley when they seek to focus on winning the 3rd district — and that is most achievable when we’re working together.”

Upon returning from Ukraine, Nunn will continue to serve as a squadron commander with the U.S. Air Force and will continue his term in the Iowa Senate through 2020.

Maintenance Notice - As of November 14, 2023 we are still seeing issues with replying to comments...Thanks for your patience, this will be restored.