Iowa’s 3rd District race is one of the hottest in the country. Here’s how Axne and Young are trying to sway undecided central Iowa voters

Nick Coltrain
Des Moines Register

Iowa’s 2020 race in the 3rd Congressional District is a rematch between the candidates from 2018, but it’s not the same contest. 

Two years ago, Democratic challenger Cindy Axne was trying to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. David Young. She won that race, and now Young is the challenger working to unseat the incumbent.

This year, the presidential race between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is at the top of the ticket, and a competitive U.S. Senate race is underway, likely driving more people to turn out. 

And there’s the pandemic, which has killed more than 190,000 Americans, including 1,200 Iowans. That gives campaigning in the fall of 2020 a completely different feel than in the pre-pandemic fall of 2018.

Finally, there’s the race itself: Axne, a first-term incumbent, now has a record in Washington to run on — and Young and his allies are taking their shots.

The stage for the rematch: Close contest, lots of cash

Axne unseated Young by 7,709 votes — a 2 percentage-point margin in a favorable year for Democrats.

Two years before, a good year for Republicans, Young all but strolled to reelection, defeating his Democratic challenger by more than 53,000 votes, or a 13% margin. That year, 2016, was, like this one, a presidential election year, and so more voters — 34,000 more — cast ballots in the congressional race than voters did in 2018.

In her victory, Axne lost every county except for Polk County. But she made up the difference in populous Polk, winning it by more than 30,000 votes over Young. In 2016, Young also lost the county, but by fewer than 300 votes.

Axne also closed the gap in several of the districts’ other counties. Young won Dallas and Pottawattamie counties by more than 10,000 votes apiece in 2016; in 2018, he carried them by about 2,500 votes and 4,000 votes, respectively.

It's a swing district, according to nonpartisan political handicappers.

In an ad, Axne bolsters those analyses that the district is split between Democrats and Republicans by claiming: “I’ll work with anyone, regardless of party, to help Iowa families."

In an interview, Axne said: "This is going to be one of the toughest races in the country."

Young said he has worked to bolster his margins in the district's rural counties, while still trying to gain in Polk and Dallas counties. 

“It's all about getting the base out and getting the 'no party' and independent registrants on your side,” Young said in an interview. “That's what we're working on doing."

Since this is a presidential election year, Young argued that people who are eager to reelect Trump will boost Young's support in November. Axne similarly argues that Biden backers will be a boon to her campaign.

According to the most recent campaign finance reports, which date back to June 30, Axne had more than $3.1 million cash on hand; Young had $1.35 million in the bank.

Axne’s early fundraising advantage has allowed her to book over $1.38 million in advertising on broadcast, cable and satellite TV stations in October alone, according to the ad tracking firm Advertising Analytics. Young, by comparison, has about $611,000 in advertising booked in that period.

The campaigns aren’t the only ones trying to sway voters in the district.

By mid-September, outside political action committees had reported spending more than $1.1 million in the race — almost exclusively to oppose one of the candidates. According to Federal Elections Commission data, nearly $650,000 has been spent so far to oppose Axne’s re-election effort, versus about $455,000 spent in an effort to keep Young from returning to Congress.

Campaigning in the time of COVID

Young, like other Republican candidates, is still conducting in-person campaigning, coronavirus notwithstanding. He and supporters are knocking on doors and talking to supporters, but doing so with face masks and at a distance.

More:Campaigning in COVID: How Trump, Biden are taking different paths to win over Iowa voters

"We're taking our case to the people, wherever we can find them,” Young said. “The Democrats aren't doing that for whatever reason. They have a strategy of kind of bunkering down and just using technology, but we're made for relationships, we're made for interaction.”

And, he joked, sometimes folks who are homebound by the pandemic are just eager to chat with someone new.

"You always wonder sometimes if they're really interested in engaging on the political issues or just want to see somebody, but either way they're hearing our message,” Young said.

Axne is conducting more virtual events and hosted Iowa Democratic caucus winner Pete Buttigieg at a virtual rally on Tuesday.

About 220 people tuned in for the speeches, according to Zoom, and at least half stayed on during a presentation on how to phone-bank for Axne.

Axne said in an interview that her campaign has made 170,000 phone calls, and sent more than 100,000 text messages to win support. They’re not door knocking, however. 

“We’re just having to do things differently,” Axne said in an interview. “But I think the Steak Fry last week showed we can make adjustments and keep people safe and healthy and still share our message.”

More:Car horns replace drum lines at socially distant, drive-in Polk County Steak Fry

She’s said she is hinging her re-election campaign on “kitchen table issues” of health care and the economy, ranging from the broad topics of wages and jobs to Iowa-centric issues, like the Renewable Fuel Standard. 

Axne also points to bills that have passed in the Democrat-controlled U.S. House but languish in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, including one she has sponsored to lower cost on medication produced with federally funded research.

“Guess what's happened? Nothing has moved out of the Senate,” Axne said. “We are sitting on hundreds of bills that could have saved people thousands of dollars, heartaches for families, and possibly people's lives.”

Young likewise points to the stalemate in Congress, specifically over economic relief for a country reeling from the pandemic.

The House passed a bill in May to provide another round of relief. Senate leaders wanted a lower price tag for relief and adjourned in August without reaching a conclusion. Axne sent a letter in early September to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi advocating for a narrower relief bill since the initial package wasn’t gaining traction.

Young points to the lack of resulting action as proof Axne doesn’t have Pelosi’s ear, as she claims to have. He said he would have more power, including a seat on the powerful U.S. House Appropriations Committee, if voters return him to Congress. 

Nick Coltrain is a politics and data reporter for the Register. Reach him at or at 515-284-8361. Your subscription makes work like this possible. Subscribe today at