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 this month 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.
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.”
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 shoutout 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.
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 in 2016, both districts backed Trump over Hillary Clinton. For 2020, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the 1st District race “Tilts Democratic” and the 3rd District race a “Toss-Up.”
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Axne and Finkenauer are trying to prioritize local news coverage, particularly when they’re traversing their districts.
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.
Finkenauer is hosting regular “conversations with your congresswoman” events and has tried to use her position as one of 18 freshmen who chair 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 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.
In her announcement video, Hinson showed images of Finkenauer along with such liberal national 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.
Republicans think the presidential race will ultimately help in districts like these, with Trump bringing 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.
Hinson acknowledged Republicans struggled in the suburbs in 2018 but argued she can win in those areas.
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, because Trump won both of their districts.