Where things stand in Iowa's third Congressional district

Part of a series catching up on Iowa’s 2020 races for federal offices. Click here for the latest on IA-01 and here for IA-02.

Plenty of successful Iowa politicians have lost their first campaign as a challenger, then defeated the same incumbent two years later. (Tom Harkin and Berkley Bedell are two of the most famous examples.) Rematches occur in a different political context. The challenger has higher name recognition, and the prevailing national atmosphere may favor the party out of power.

In Iowa’s third Congressional district, another kind of rematch is taking shape. U.S. Representative Cindy Axne, who took down an incumbent on her first attempt, will face David Young, who won two U.S. House races before losing to Axne in a difficult year for Republicans nationally.

WHY THIS RACE LOOKS LIKE A TOSS-UP

The third is the most politically balanced of Iowa’s four Congressional districts. The latest official figures show its sixteen counties contain 171,200 active registered Democrats, 166,625 Republicans, and 177,662 no-party voters. Those numbers don’t include anyone who changed their registration on February 3 to participate in the Democratic caucuses. UPDATE: As of March 2, the totals for the district were 180,458 active registered Democrats, 165,291 Republicans, and 170,769 no-party voters.

National forecasters disagree on this race. The Cook Political Report and Inside Elections both rate IA-03 as a toss-up. Sabato’s Crystal Ball puts the seat in the “lean Democratic” column, in part because IA-03 contains more voters with a college degree than the two other Democratic-held U.S. House seats in Iowa.

The National Republican Congressional Committee views this district among their top tier of pickup opportunities. Young was in the first batch of challengers placed “on the radar” in August, and also in the first group bumped up to “contender” status this past week.

Optimistic local Republicans point out Axne won in 2018 with less than a majority of votes–49.3 percent to be precise, compared to 47.2 percent for Young. They believe President Donald Trump will bring out many conservatives who didn’t participate in the last election. Presidential year turnout always exceeds midterm levels, but for the record, Republican turnout was quite high in Iowa in 2018.

Young’s biggest obstacle is that Trump puts off many suburban voters. The swing to Trump in IA-03 was less pronounced than the vote shifts in eastern Iowa. The third district favored Barack Obama by 51.4 percent to 47.2 percent in 2012 (a much narrower margin than the eastern Iowa Congressional districts). Trump carried the same counties by 48.5 percent to 45.0 percent in 2016, roughly the same as his edge in IA-01 and IA-02.

Although the suburbs of Des Moines were long dominated by Republicans, the suburban precincts in Polk and Dallas County made the difference for Axne, and helped Democrats flip five state House seats in 2018. Democratic candidates also performed well in the 2017 and 2019 city council and school board races in the suburbs.

Here’s an interactive map of the 2018 Congressional election. Click on any county to bring up the vote totals and percentages for Axne and Young. Percentages don’t add up to 100 because four other candidates were on the ballot.

County Name

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

Axne above 50%

Young between 50% and 60%

Young above 60%

This post includes the same county-level numbers in table form, and this post has vote totals and percentages for the 2018 governor’s race in the IA-03 counties.

One anomaly makes it particularly difficult to guess how well Young will perform in November. Incompetent staff work in the Dallas County auditor’s office left 5,842 absentee ballots from the 2016 general election uncounted. That was nearly a third of the early vote in Iowa’s fastest-growing county. Young outperformed Trump district-wide by about 5 points in that election, but we don’t know how well he did compared to Trump among those Dallas County voters.

Republicans were disappointed by Young’s relatively small 2,500-vote advantage over Axne in Dallas County in 2018. He’ll probably need to do better to win this November.

MOST EXPENSIVE HOUSE RACE IN IOWA HISTORY?

The last campaign in IA-03 was extremely costly by Iowa standards. Axne raised and spent about $5 million during the election cycle, while Young spent about $2.8 million. In addition, independent expenditures totaled nearly $9 million.

Axne’s fundraising picked up substantially after she won the 2018 nomination, and she raised half of her total intake between July and October of that year. With the advantages of incumbency and no opponents in the Democratic primary, she has been able to amass a large bank balance already this cycle. Bleeding Heartland covered Axne’s financial disclosures from the first, second, and third quarters of 2019 here and here.

Her year-end report to the Federal Election Commission showed $635,560.05 in total receipts from October through December:

  • $476,668.01 in individual contributions (26 donors on the latest filing have maxed out with gifts totaling $5,600; the rest could give again)
  • $145,010.91 from political action committees (a mix of labor, industry, or progressive PACs, plus committees affiliated with other Democratic members of Congress)
  • $539.36 in-kind from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (fundraiser expenses)
  • $14,216.56 in transfers from other committees
  • Axne’s campaign reported $125,963.33 in spending during the fourth quarter, mostly on staff salaries, various forms of consulting, and printing or postage. At year-end, she had $1,706,026.99 cash on hand.

    Young is also raising plenty of money, thanks to support from prominent Iowa Republicans, connections made during his four years in Congress, and the NRCC’s blessing for his candidacy. He hasn’t kept pace with Axne in any quarter yet, though. His latest FEC report showed $342,492.25 in total receipts from October through December:

  • $271,163.00 from individuals (a dozen donors on this filing have maxed out)
  • $69,350.00 from a range of conservative, Republican-aligned, or corporate PACs
  • $1,979.25 from the candidate
  • I was surprised to see that Young’s campaign spent more than Axne’s during the last three months of 2019. Nothing on the list of expenditures totaling $147,352.75 was unusual; most of the money went toward various forms of consulting. Still, Young spent more than 40 percent of what he raised during the quarter. In contrast, Axne’s burn rate was just under 20 percent. His cash on hand at year-end was $750,679.03, less than half of the incumbent’s.

    Maybe the disparity won’t matter, since outside groups will spend millions against both candidates.

    I haven’t forgotten about the other declared GOP candidate, Bill Schafer. His latest FEC filing showed only $1,987.20 in contributions during the fourth quarter and $680.78 in the bank as of December 31. He will pose no threat to Young in the June primary.

    THE BERNIE SANDERS FACTOR

    At this writing, Bernie Sanders appears well-positioned to win the Democratic nomination. While the top of the ticket can affect all down-ballot races, his candidacy could be particularly impactful in IA-03.

    The third district is much more urban and suburban than the other three Congressional districts. While Sanders narrowly won Polk County (by far the largest in IA-03) and did well in many Des Moines precincts, he was barely viable or not viable in many suburban areas. Sanders also won Pottawattamie County, but he trailed other candidates in some Council Bluffs precincts he had carried in 2016.

    Pete Buttigieg won nine of the sixteen counties in this Congressional district, including Dallas, Warren, and Madison, all growing areas near the Des Moines metro. (The New York Times interactive maps are the most user-friendly resource for Iowa caucus results by county or by precinct.)

    Mike DeBonis and Michael Scherer reported for the Washington Post on February 22,

    Top campaign strategists from both parties view Sanders’s success as a potentially tectonic event, which could narrow the party’s already slim hopes of retaking the Senate majority and fuel GOP dreams of reclaiming the House, which it lost amid a Democratic romp in 2018.

    Their article didn’t quote anyone from Iowa, but Axne’s concern about Sanders was apparent from her decision to endorse Joe Biden in late January. I didn’t expect her to publicly back any presidential candidate before the caucuses. Sanders had been leading or in second place in most opinion polls during the final weeks of the Iowa campaign.

    After Axne spoke at a rally for Biden in Ankeny on January 25, I asked her when she decided to endorse. She told me it was a recent decision.

    I really was going to not be a part of this race, but I felt compelled to get in to ensure that we had somebody at the top of the ticket that I thought could win, number one, and could bring more opportunity to folks down-ballot […]. I think [Biden’s] the ticket to make that happen.

    And I felt we were at a point where maybe I’d be able to have a little bit of influence on making sure that someone who can not just win this election, but help other Democrats get elected is at the top of the ticket.

    Regardless of who becomes the presidential nominee, Republicans will portray Democratic candidates as “socialists.” But I believe the charge will get more traction with self-described democratic socialist Sanders as the party’s standard-bearer. Young must be hoping for that outcome.

    Axne is on record opposing single-payer health care–she favors improving the Affordable Care Act with a public option–and she disagrees with some other Sanders positions, like abolishing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Nevertheless, Republicans will spend millions tying her to Sanders and his surrogates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

    If Sanders becomes the nominee, I expect Axne to spend considerable resources distancing herself from him, so as not to drive away the suburban voters who elected her in 2018. But she will have to walk a fine line, because speaking against Sanders will anger his most passionate supporters. Axne can’t afford to have thousands of them leave the IA-03 ballot line blank.

    Trump may turn out to be a bigger drag than Sanders on his party’s down-ballot candidates in the suburbs. But the way the presidential campaign is developing is another reason to consider IA-03 a toss-up race, not one leaning to Democrats.

    UPDATE: Bryan Jack Holder confirmed on February 23 he will file as the Libertarian candidate in this race. As the Libertarian nominee in 2018, he received 2.0 percent of the vote.

    SECOND UPDATE: Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, argued in a February 24 commentary for the New York Times that Sanders might not hurt Democrats in U.S. House races as much as many assume.

    The political scientist Robert Erikson has found that in post-World War II presidential elections, some voters may split their tickets against the party they believe will win the White House as a way to put a check on the likely winner, as opposed to waiting for the midterm two years later, when the president’s party customarily struggles. The public, along with analysts and betting markets, all saw Mrs. Clinton as a favorite in 2016. “Plausibly, many who thought Hillary Clinton would win voted Republican for Congress to block, thus accounting for the Democrats’ surprisingly feeble performance at the congressional level in 2016,” Mr. Erikson wrote in the lead-up to the 2018 election.

    Analysts generally do not see either party as strongly favored to win the presidency this fall, but the public seems to differ. A recent Monmouth University poll showed that two-thirds of American voters think the president definitely or probably will win. A Sanders nomination might make the public even likelier to view Mr. Trump as a favorite; Democrats, already pessimistic, are starting to hear skepticism from their own leaders about Mr. Sanders’s chances. Oddsmakers have also recently made Mr. Trump a more significant favorite.

    A consequence of Mr. Trump’s chronically low approval ratings is that even if Americans ultimately decide he’s the lesser of two evils this fall, there may be some voters who back him only tepidly or anticipate his victory and don’t want his party to have total control of the government.

    If that dynamic develops in IA-03, Axne would benefit.

    LATER UPDATE: Mark Elworth, Jr. told Bleeding Heartland on February 24 that he plans to run for office in Nebraska, not Iowa, this year. Elworth ran as a third-party candidate in IA-03 last cycle with “Legal Medical Now” next to his name on the ballot. He received 0.6 percent of the vote.

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