IA-03: How vulnerable is Cindy Axne?

Ninth in a series interpreting the results of Iowa’s 2020 state and federal elections.

U.S. Representative Cindy Axne was among 32 House members added to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s “Frontline” program, Stephanie Akin was first to report for Roll Call on March 1.

Putting Axne on the list of potentially vulnerable House incumbents is a no-brainer. Iowa’s third Congressional district was one of only seven in the country that voted for both President Donald Trump and a Democratic candidate for U.S. House. Speaking to members of the Iowa Democratic Party’s State Central Committee in December, Axne noted that she is the only House Democrat to win two elections by less than a 2 percent margin in a district Trump carried. She’s also the only current member of her caucus to win twice with less than a 50 percent vote share.

Iowa won’t adopt a new political map for at least another six months, and Axne has not confirmed whether she will seek re-election. (She is sometimes mentioned as a possible candidate for governor.) Nevertheless, the 2020 results in IA-03 inform some educated guesses about Axne’s prospects in a third Congressional campaign.


Axne won her first Congressional race in 2018 with 49.3 percent of the vote to 47.1 percent for incumbent Representative David Young, 2.0 percent for Libertarian Bryan Jack Holder, and 1.5 percent split among three other candidates. At the end of this post I’ve enclosed county-level results for Axne and Young in that race.

Only three candidates qualified for the IA-03 ballot in 2020, in part due to a new state law that moved the filing deadline for third-party candidates from August to mid-March. Turnout was way up, of course, from 360,604 ballots cast in the 2018 race to 460,813 total votes in IA-03 last November. However, the breakdown of voter preferences was remarkably similar. Axne defeated Young for a second time by a 48.9 percent to 47.5 percent margin, with 3.4 percent for the Libertarian Holder.

Axne had slightly underperformed the Democratic candidate for governor in 2018. In her re-election bid, she held her own, matching Joe Biden’s district-wide vote share and receiving only about 5,000 fewer votes than the Democratic presidential nominee. In contrast, Young failed to match Trump’s vote share and underperformed the top of the GOP ticket by nearly 12,000 votes.

Axne finished a bit behind the top of the Democratic ticket in Polk and Dallas counties, presumably because of “never Trump” Republicans in the suburbs of Des Moines. But she received more votes than Biden in most of the other IA-03 counties. That’s a testament to her commitment to showing up; prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, she held events in every county in the district nearly every month. Axne likes to mention during public appearances that she was rated the most accessible freshman member of Congress, thanks to the 57 town halls she held during 2019. She also appears regularly on several radio stations that reach a large rural listening audience, and makes herself available to small-town newspapers.


Also worth noting: Axne increased her vote share in some of the district’s far southwest counties like Fremont, where she spent a lot of time working to secure resources following the Missouri River flooding in spring 2019.

Click on any county on this interactive map to bring up vote totals and percentages for Axne, Young, Biden, and Trump.

County Name

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

Axne above 50%


Young between 50% and 60%


Young between 60% and 70%


Young above70%

This table shows the same data, with counties listed in descending order by number of votes cast in the Congressional race.

Congressional and presidential voting in IA-03 counties
County Axne votes Young votes Biden votes Trump votes
Polk 141,567 (56.1%) 102,320 (40.5%) 146,250 (56.5%) 106,800 (41.3%)
Dallas 25,367 (46.2%) 27,907 (50.8%) 26,879 (48.0%) 27,987 (50.0%)
Pottawattamie 18,424 (41.1%) 24,256 (54.1%) 18,575 (40.6%) 26,247 (57.4%)
Warren 12,698 (41.8%) 16,473 (54.2%) 12,574 (40.5%) 17,782 (57.3%)
Madison 3,264 (33.9%) 5,995 (62.3%) 3,134 (31.9%) 6,507 (66.2%)
Mills 2,617 (32.5%) 5,163 (64.1%) 2,508 (30.3%) 5,585 (67.6%)
Page 2,288 (31.0%) 4,889 (66.3%) 2,086 (27.7%) 5,319 (70.7%)
Cass 2,210 (31.4%) 4,626 (65.8%) 2,201 (30.3%) 4,969 (68.3%)
Guthrie 2,095 (33.5%) 3,890 (62.1%) 1,985 (31.2%) 4,272 (67.1%)
Union 2,201 (36.4%) 3,589 (59.4%) 2,061 (33.3%) 4,010 (64.8%)
Montgomery 1,636 (31.4%) 3,428 (65.8%) 1,583 (29.7%) 3,659 (68.7%)
Adair 1,263 (31.1%) 2,655 (65.4%) 1,198 (28.7%) 2,917 (69.8%)
Fremont 1,297 (34.5%) 2,340 (62.3%) 1,080 (28.0%) 2,711 (70.3%)
Taylor 821 (25.9%) 2,261 (71.3%) 746 (23.0%) 2,463 (75.8%)
Ringgold 823 (30.8%) 1,789 (66.9%) 709 (26.1%) 1,968 (72.5%)
Adams 634 (29.7%) 1,416 (66.4%) 590 (27.3%) 1,530 (70.8%)
District-wide 219,205 (48.9%) 212,997 (47.5%) 224,159 (48.9%) 224,726 (49.0%)

One might ask, who cares what happened in last year’s race, when we have no idea how IA-03 will be configured for 2022 and beyond?

The Axne/Young results are still useful as a reference, because no matter how IA-03 is drawn, Polk County will be its population center.


Republicans have sometimes complained that Axne “only” won one of the district’s sixteen counties. They rarely acknowledge that more than half the district’s residents live in that county, which contains Des Moines and most of its suburbs. About 56 percent of ballots cast in last year’s IA-03 race came from Polk County.

Iowa’s constitution stipulates that “no county shall be divided in forming a congressional district.” Final 2020 census numbers won’t be available until the fall, but Polk County had about 490,000 residents in 2019. Each Iowa Congressional district will probably have roughly 790,000 residents. So on any new map, Polk County will contain the majority of Axne’s constituents.

As Evan Burger discussed in more depth here, state requirements on contiguity and compactness further limit how IA-03 could be shaped. The worst-case scenario for Democrats would be a toss-up district combining Polk County with many deep red rural counties to the south or southwest. Axne would be no worse off than she was in 2020. The Polk County Democrats and several neighborhood groups have extremely well-developed volunteer networks, which will be heavily engaged in supporting her re-election. Furthermore, Trump won’t be on the ballot to bring out low-propensity GOP-leaning voters in 2022.

In some configurations, IA-03 could become much more solid territory for Democrats. For instance, the next map might put Story County (containing the Ames area) in the same district as Polk, instead of the Republican-leaning Pottawattamie County (Council Bluffs area). Story was one of the six Iowa counties that voted for both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in the last presidential election. If that happens, House Democrats can probably stop worrying about Axne’s race.

One factor unrelated to redistricting could cut against the Democrat, though.


To the endless frustration of Iowa Republicans, third-party candidates received more votes than the difference between Axne and Young in two straight elections. The GOP trifecta took one step toward solving that problem in 2019, enacting a law that required all candidates for state and federal offices to submit their nominating papers by the mid-March filing deadline. For many election cycles, independent or minor party candidates in Iowa had been able to file until sometime in late August.

As a result, IA-03 went from having six candidates on the ballot in 2018 to Axne, Young, and Libertarian Holder in 2020. Even so, Holder received more than twice as many votes in November as the margin between the Democratic and Republican nominees.

Last week, Republican lawmakers approved a wide-ranging new election bill, which Governor Kim Reynolds is expected to sign on March 4. Its most publicized provisions make early voting more difficult in many ways. But Senate File 413 also puts a bull’s eye on third-party or independent candidates seeking federal or statewide offices.

Holder needed to collect 375 signatures on nominating petitions to qualify for the 2020 general election ballot in IA-03. The new law will require U.S. House candidates not nominated in Democratic or Republican primaries to collect at least 1,726 signatures, including at least 47 signatures from each of at least one half of the Congressional district’s counties. That’s a tall order, especially since candidates will not be able to start collecting signatures until after Iowa’s new map is finalized–probably not before October.

Holder told Bleeding Heartland this week that he is considering litigation to challenge the higher bar for nominating petitions, in the event that Reynolds signs the election bill. But it’s extremely unlikely any lawsuit would be resolved before the filing deadline next March. If he can’t reduce the signature threshold, Holder plans to run for the Iowa House rather than the U.S. House in 2022.

Asked whether Libertarians plan to field another candidate in the redrawn IA-03, state party chair Mike Conner Jr. told Bleeding Heartland that the party has been urging Reynolds to veto Senate File 413, which it considers unconstitutional. That said, “We have also looked at recruitment and candidate/volunteer training to help us overcome this outrageous hurdle while a potential lawsuit goes through our courts.” Conner added that Libertarians “continue to fight for the voter choice and voting access for all of Iowa’s citizens.”

Any comments related to the third Congressional district are welcome in this thread.

Appendix: County-level results from the 2018 race between Cindy Axne and David Young

County Name

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

Axne above 50%


Young between 50% and 60%


Young above 60%

Table showing county-level IA-03 results in 2018. The counties are listed in descending order by number of votes cast in the Congressional race.

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% 175,642 49.3%

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  • Missouri River

    I’m very glad Cindy Axne won, and I hope she’ll keep winning. However, I also hope the time will come, though I probably won’t live to see it, when a Congressional candidate will be able to support much more enlightened policies for Missouri River and flood plain management and still have a good chance of winning that district.

    Years ago, a several-times-flooded small town in Wisconsin called Soldier’s Grove decided it was time to move out of the Kickapoo River flood plain, and the feds helped them do it. That’s called “everybody being smart.” When the biggest flood in the town’s recorded history swept through the former town site years later, the town was no longer there to destroy. That’s called “the result of everybody being smart.”